Gutted

Exclusive: Demolition begins on AT&T Building lobby

East News Newsletter Preservation
Demolition begins on AT&T Building lobby. The AT&T Building at 550 Madison Avenue, New York.(Alex Fradkin)

Though it’s up for landmarking, parts of the AT&T Building are being torn down this minute.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) has approved demolition of the lobby at Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s postmodern tower at 550 Madison Avenue. Though the 1984 tower is up for landmark consideration, the designation would only protect the facade, not the interior.

Department of Buildings (DOB) records show demo plans received LPC staff approval on December 15 and permits were issued that same day.

The move to sledgehammer the soaring granite-clad entrance comes even as project partners publicly support landmarking. David Laurie, Managing Director at Chelsfield America, issued a statement in support of 550 Madison’s landmarking shortly after the LPC calendared the property. At that hearing, LPC commissioners debated whether to calendar the interior, too, but ultimately decided against it, as the commissioners claimed that renovations throughout the years—most notably Gwathmey Siegel Kaufman’s 1993 revamp—had diminished the lobby and the atrium’s integrity.

A letter from the LPC to preservation advocate Thomas Collins explains the department’s reasoning on the lobby.

“In our evaluation the lobby does not hold the same level of broad significance,” said LPC Director of Research Kate Lemos McHale. “[With] the removal of ‘Golden Boy‘ as a focal point, alterations within the lobby itself, and its diminished relationship to the overall design of the base, we have determined that it does not rise to the level of an interior landmark.”

McHale’s letter also stated that compared to the building’s genre-defining top and base, the interiors received less attention from critics and the media, and the attention they did receive was often tepid at best.

In reply, Collins, who filed the initial paperwork to landmark the AT&T Building, noted that the statue, Evelyn Beatrice Longman’s Spirit of Communication, used to top AT&T’s old headquarters before it was moved to the 550 Madison lobby. Even the best interiors, he explained, generally score less ink than easier-to-see exteriors. Collins also pointed out that other, older designated interiors were much altered from their original state—the Empire State Building’s lobby, for example, was landmarked with a drop ceiling.

On a walk by the building about a week ago, Collins saw workers had papered over the lobby and erected scaffolding inside.

“It’s not clear why they’re rushing forward at this stage. I believe they are primarily gutting the lobby for aesthetic and marketing purposes,” he said.

The move to landmark the 37-story Midtown Manhattan tower (now known as the Sony Building) responds to a Snøhetta-designed plan to replace parts of the now-vacant building’s monumental granite facade with a curving glass curtain wall—the Madison Avenue–facing facade was deemed “uninviting” in a press release. Among other changes, the New York– and Oslo-based firm’s plan would reveal the tower’s steel structure, and double the size of the public space around the building.

Snøhetta’s redesign of the Madison Avenue facade of Philip Johnson’s AT&T Building. (DBOX/Courtesy Snøhetta)

Olayan America, the investment division of multinational The Olayan Group, and developer Chelsfield are behind the $300 million redesign. A representative for the development team promised a statement on the lobby work close to deadline (see update, below).

Here’s what the 550 Madison team had to say about the lobby demolition:

“All work being performed is in accordance with appropriate permits and approvals, and is being reviewed by the NYC Landmark Preservation Commission, which is not considering the interiors as part of the designation process. We support the designation of the building and are currently preparing a carefully revised design that respects 550 Madison’s importance, and we look forward to continued discussions with interested parties, including the LPC, to make that happen. We are committed to creating a rejuvenated 550 Madison that retains its important presence, works for modern office tenants, and dramatically improves public spaces and amenities available to the larger East Midtown community.”

Unsurprisingly, the surprise demolition didn’t please preservationists.

“The LPC made this decision behind closed doors—they knew they were going to rip out the interior,” said Liz Waytkus, executive director of Docomomo US. “I feel like it’s a bait-and-switch.”

This would not be the first substantial change to the structure. In 1993, electronics giant Sony commissioned Gwathmey Siegel Kaufman to convert the loggias on either side of the main entrance into retail, and enclose the open arcade at the building’s rear. Johnson served as a consultant on the project.

The 550 Madison team promised extensive community outreach on the project, but aside from the Landmarks hearing, no public community meetings have been scheduled so far. When prompted, a spokesperson for the developers did not volunteer specifics on the forthcoming community outreach efforts.

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