On Tuesday, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission heard almost two hours of testimony in favor of landmarking 550 Madison Avenue, the iconic Philip Johnson-designed building, which previously served as the headquarters for AT&T and Sony.
Part of the Postmodern icon is already lost: The Landmarks Commission previously declined to consider landmarking the lobby of the building because of changes made during a 1990s renovation, and as a result the current owners went ahead and demolished the lobby. The Commission did, however, agree to calendar the exterior of the building, which led to the hearing yesterday.
Preservationists and architecture critics have been up in arms over a proposed revamp of the building, designed by Snøhetta, since it was first announced in October last year. At the outset of the hearing, one of the building’s co-developers said that the development team had set that aside. Instead, they’ll now wait for recommendations from the LPC before finalizing a new design for the building.
“As we soon as we confirm the limitations within which we will be required to work by the landmarks designation, we will be able to complete our new designs and engage with the public and the Landmarks Commission—a process we are eager to begin,” said Seth Pinsky, an executive vice president at RXR Realty. RXR joined the development team earlier this year as one of the lead developers and minority owners of the building.
In the hours that followed Pinsky’s testimony, dozens spoke in favor of landmarking the 37-story granite-clad tower. One, architecture critic Paul Goldberger, cited his original New York Times review of the building, calling it “the most provocative and daring skyscraper to be proposed for New York since the Chrysler Building.”
Most who spoke in favor of landmarking also said the new developers should be given some freedom to transform the structure into a 21st century office building. Most took issue with the annex of the building, and the enclosed portion of the base; Snøhetta had proposed to open up this space for public use, much like Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s original design, and many at Tuesday’s meeting concurred.
Vishaan Chakrabarti, from the Practice for Architecture and Urbanism, said the building should be designated in a way that allows for some degree of change. For instance, the building was built for a single tenant—AT&T—in 1984, and can only accommodate about 800 people. A restructuring of the building could allow up to 3,000 people to utilize the space. Chakrabarti also pointed out that the public benefits of the buildings—namely the open space at the base—had never fully been realized, and this proposed transformation, in the aftermath of the Midtown East rezoning, presented an opportunity to change that.
“550 Madison can be an example of revitalizing Midtown responsibly with substantial new public benefits,” noted Chakrabarti.
Developers Olayan America and Chelsfield America’s (and now RXR Realty) original proposal called for replacing the building’s stone base with a glass curtain wall. The redesign of the lobby was expected to add a new public garden, which would have been slightly larger than the Museum of Modern Art’s sculpture garden. With the developers’s decision to shelve those plans for the moment, it remains to be seen what a new design could look like. Some critics wondered why the developers hadn’t considered the historical significance of the building in the first place, prior to demolition work on the lobby.
“It would have been better if the owners went into the process of redevelopment with a clear understanding of the building’s historic qualities, outside and inside,” Curbed’s architecture critic, Alexandra Lange, said. “I am saddened that the lobby, an important postmodern and originally public space, has been demolished. Let’s hope round two of design demonstrates an understanding of the building’s strengths and idiosyncrasies, rather than cutting it open and adding materials that nod at the contemporary and are out of place at AT&T.”