The latest news on New York architecture.

  • Frank Lloyd Wright wronged on Park Avenue

    A luxury auto showroom designed by the famous architect and said to be the inspiration for his Guggenheim Museum design has been demolished. Move came on heels of city moving to possibly landmark the space. By Matt Chaban @MC_NYC April 12, 2013 11:56 a.m.   Guggenheim Museum Frank Lloyd Wright's most celebrated New York work, the Guggenheim Museum. Photo: Buck Ennis For six decades, a luxury-car showroom with a distinctive swooping ramp stood at the corner of Park Avenue and 56th Street. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, it was the first of only three New York projects by the modernist master. In six days late last month, the dealership was destroyed. "The loss of a Frank Lloyd Wright, it's a national tragedy," said Simeon Bankoff, director of the Historic Districts Council. Like so many in New York, he had no idea the space was even gone. The end came suddenly and unexpectedly. On March 22, the Landmarks Preservation Commission called the owners of 430 Park Ave. to tell them the city was considering designating the Wright showroom—until January, the longtime home to Mercedes of Manhattan—as the city's 115th interior landmark. Three days later, the commission followed up with a letter. Both went unanswered. Instead, on March 28, the building's owners, Midwood Investment & Management and Oestreicher Properties, reached out to another city agency, the Department of Buildings, requesting a demolition permit for the Wright showroom. The permit was approved the same day, sealing the showroom's fate. By the following week, workers had arrived and removed every last trace of a space that some architectural historians say inspired Wright's most celebrated New York work, the Guggenheim Museum. The city has lost an architectural gem, albeit a small and seldom-noticed one. Almost no one saw it go. Even if they had, there is almost nothing that could have been done to stop it. And yet this quiet disappearance also raises the question of whether there was anything worth saving. "I'm surprised, but I'm not," said David Hoffman, an executive managing director at brokerage Cassidy Turley, who arranged Mercedes-Benz's last lease for the space, in 2001. "It was notable solely because it was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, but it wasn't the Guggenheim; it wasn't monumental." Ironically, it was the Landmarks Commission's good intentions, and a disconnect between it and the Department of Buildings, that doomed the dealership. In August, the commission received a request to consider landmarking the showroom from Docomomo Tri-State, a preservation group focused on modernist buildings, and the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy. The commission decided to wait until Mercedes vacated the space to proceed. Part of the reason was that an interior-landmark designation can be granted only to a public space, and there had been a long-running debate in the preservation community about whether the showroom was actually anything but private property. Also, the commission had little reason to believe Midwood and Oestreicher would take the action they did. The delay proved fatal, but the outcome was likely inevitable. The commission is loath to designate a landmark without the owner's support, because the landlord, not the city, is ultimately the steward of the space. In the case of the auto dealership, the steward simply had other plans. Representatives for both Midwood and Oestreicher declined requests for comment. "Regrettably, the showroom was dismantled before the formal public designation process could begin," a commission spokeswoman said. "It is disappointing that the owners in this case demonstrated a disregard for the process." That process, however, is famously cumbersome. The commission cannot "calendar" a property—the first step in the landmarking process, and the point at which the Department of Buildings is notified not to allow work to be done on the potential landmark—until Landmarks has done sufficient research, which typically involves outreach to the owner. In the interim, the landlord is free to request demolition permits, and there is almost nothing either city agency can do to stop them. The Wright showroom is just one of several such cases in recent years. Back when the Madison Square North Historic District was proposed in 2000, the owners of the former ASPCA headquarters at 50 Madison Ave. removed much of the building's Beaux Arts ornamentation, with the Department of Buildings' blessing. The owners had plans for a multistory addition to create a luxury apartment building, and they did not want their work to be subject to the commission's whims. The tactic worked, and the property was left out of the district. Taking a different tack, the Institute of International Education closed a conference center designed by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto in 2008, thus creating a private space exempt from landmarking. Motivations for doing such end runs around landmarking are clear. "I can't think of too many owners that would be grateful to receive a phone call from the Landmarks Commission when they're about to do work on a building, which could stop their ability to make that investment and increase the value of the building," said Stephen Spinola, president of the powerful Real Estate Board of New York. In the case of the Wright showroom, the architect who worked on the demolition permits corroborates the city's timeline of the destruction coming shortly after the commission had reached out to the landlords. Silviu Zahara, of architecture firm Belea Group, said he had received the job two weeks ago, but he also insists he had no idea the space was crafted by one of the nation's most revered designers. "The drawings I got were from an architect I'd never heard of," he said. "Actually, it wasn't a great-looking space." To be sure, this was one of Wright's lesser works. Mr. Bankoff of the Historic Districts Council said that when he mentioned it to certain in-the-know colleagues, they were shocked to learn there was a Wright hiding in plain sight on Park Avenue. Even the renowned architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable was lukewarm on the showroom. "The spiral ramp motif … which was to be so beautiful an element in the Guggenheim, is employed here, though far less effectively, in part because of the low ceiling and partly because the cramped, abrupt turning motion all too clearly recalls the ramps of multifloor parking garages," she wrote in a 1966 book. Frank Lloyd Wright's luxury-car showroom at 430 Park Ave. completely demolished. Photo: Matt Chaban Still, the showroom has its mourners. "It's outside our scope as an institution, so we don't know what to do about [the demolition], but it's pretty bad," said Richard Armstrong, director of the Guggenheim. Some question whether there was any Wright worth saving, since the space was renovated twice, first in the 1980s and again in 2001. The merits of the space would have been considered at the Landmarks Commission. "That's a debate we should have had, and could have had, but now we can't" because of the demolition, said Vin Cipolla, president of the Municipal Art Society. "That's what the landmarking process is for." Margery Perlmutter, a member of the Landmarks Commission, was shocked to learn about the loss of the showroom. "All it takes is a savvy landlord and a smart tenant to do something special with that space," she said. "How many boutiques can claim to be inside a Frank Lloyd Wright? None that I know of, unless you count the Guggenheim gift shop." Just how much of an asset the space's pedigree could have been to a retailer will now never be known. But Faith Hope Consolo, a retail broker at Douglas Elliman and a self-professed fan of Wright, has her doubts. "It means nothing to a new retailer; they couldn't care less," she said. Instead, she estimates that having a blank slate to work with could add hundreds of dollars per square foot to the value of the lease, especially given the location, a block off busy 57th Street. "Of course, under the law the landlords had the right to do this," Ms. Consolo said. "I just wish they'd had the same respect for Frank Lloyd Wright as they did for their own rights."

  • Gas Station on Houston to Go

    The gas station on the corner of Houston and Lafayette streets is one step closer to being demolished, a step that would remove one of the last vestiges of SoHo's grittier past. The city's Landmarks Preservation Commission has unanimously approved a plan to demolish three buildings—a BP BP.LN -0.82%PLC gas station, the bar Puck Fair, and a former mechanic shop—and replace them with a seven-story office building with a retail component.

    Andrew Hinderaker for The Wall Street JournalThe BP gas station at the corner of Houston and Lafayette streets, which will be redeveloped by the real-estate development firm LargaVista.
    The commission, which designated the site as part of the SoHo Cast Iron Historic District Extension in 2010 because of its prominent location, says it approved the demolition of the buildings because "they are atypical of the structures found elsewhere in the district," said a landmarks spokeswoman of the Tuesday vote. The neighborhood, once home to venues like Mars Bar, antique shops and an outdoor flea market, has gotten a makeover in recent decades as it has attracted a number of retail chains and office tenants ranging from technology companies to designers. Ten years ago, the area offered "all no-name stores," said Faith Hope Consolo, chairman of the retail group at Douglas Elliman Real Estate. Today, she calls it "the denim corridor,"—a reference to jean retailers that have moved in like G-Star Raw and Supreme.
    dboxA rendering of the proposed development.
    The gas station, which was a Gaseteria before it was a BP location, has been owned by Marcello Porcelli's family since 1976. Mr. Porcelli, president of real-estate development firm LargaVista, decided he wanted to redevelop the site when BP's lease was up at 300 Lafayette St. The project, designed by CookFox Architects LLP, will contain 30,000 square feet of retail space and 40,000 square feet of office space. Mr. Porcelli—whose portfolio is represented by CBRE Group Inc.'s CBG -0.82%tri-state region head Mary Ann Tighe and Vice President Tom Duke—expects the project to be certified under the city's land-use approval process, which usually takes several months, According to CBRE, the average asking rent for office space in SoHo and NoHo was $79.44 a square foot in the first quarter, up from $49.78 in the year-earlier period. "It's got the exposure of Times Square and yet it's in a neighborhood like SoHo that's so exciting and dynamic," Mr. Porcelli said. Mr. Duke says he expects that the building would have some of the highest rents south of midtown for office and retail. "This is a trophy of LargaVista's portfolio," he says. But not everyone is a fan of his proposal. "We are an icon, I believe, in the neighborhood," said Fernando Dallorso, a manager at Puck Fair, one of the buildings that would be torn down. "I think it would be a loss, but nothing we can do about it." Mr. Dallorso says that the bar is currently in a lease, but he wouldn't discuss its terms. On Wednesday afternoon, the proposal to replace the gas station drew mixed reviews. The corner, which is surrounded by chains ranging from Adidas to Brooklyn Industries, was filled with shoppers and tourists with cameras strapped to their necks. How Zan, a 38-year-old architect who works across the street from the gas station, said good riddance. "It's creating too much traffic," said the Jersey City resident. "People in line, the cabdrivers, they think this is theirs. They occupy this place." But Miranda Santiago, a 31-year-old veterinarian who has lived in SoHo for two years, disagrees. "It's a bummer to see it go," she said. As for the grit and graffiti that SoHo was known for decades ago? "I almost feel like that's not even associated with SoHo anymore," she said.