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October 16, 2007
by Bill Millard

Event: “But Do the Venerable Landmark Building and the rash New Addition REALLY Talk to Each Other?
Location: Grand Hyatt, 10.04.07
Speakers: Shelly S. Friedman, Esq. — Partner, Friedman & Gotbaum; Roger Philip Lang — Director, Community Programs and Services, New York Landmarks Conservancy; Richard M. Olcott, FAIA — Partner, Polshek Partnership Architects, and former commissioner, NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission
Moderator: David Paul Helpern, FAIA, LEED AP — Founding Principal, Helpern Architects
Organizers: AIA New York State

Marcel Breuer Tower

Rendering of 1968 design by Marcel Breuer for office tower atop Grand Central Terminal.

Paul Spencer Byard. The Architecture of Additions Design and Regulations, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998. Courtesy ASLA.

The late Herbert Muschamp called them “parabuildings.” Landmarks Conservancy spokesman Roger Lang refers to them as “buildovers.” Whatever one calls them, contemporary grafts on older buildings can be functional as well as profitable, but often visually jarring. And you can count on at least a few preservationists to protest them — even the ones, like Foster + Partners’ recent expansion atop Joseph Urban’s Hearst Building, that creates an intergenerational “dialogue” and realizes the original architect’s documented aim to add a tower.

Recalling a few approved proposals and many others that were rejected or withdrawn, Richard Olcott, FAIA, partner at Polshek Partnership Architects, recalled his father’s quip that “this city is going to be great when it’s finished.” Clearly it never will be, but its evolution, Olcott observed, includes a history of “rather mixed results” when developers try to expand landmarked buildings. Although most of the proposed such projects are shot down, incentives — monetizing air rights, or letting cultural institutions expand — make it worth trying. “The beauty of the landmarks law,” Olcott said, “is that it is intentionally so open-ended.”

The panel presented the Landmarks Preservation Commission revision-approval process through a gamelike approach: a hypothetical expansion of the Manufacturers Hanover Trust Bank Building at 43rd Street and Fifth Avenue (now a Chase branch), a five-story Modernist milestone by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, completed in 1954 and landmarked in 1997. Moderator David Helpern, FAIA, LEED AP, walked the audience through the steps they would take in response to three different proposed plans, from a near-cloning of SOM’s box through an explosion of oblique angles. The panelists explored the question: is it possible to put a new tower into the space above the building without degrading other important values, including aesthetics, history, the local context, and the interests of neighbors?

Attorney Shelly Friedman, Esq., drawing on experience with the tactics and “diagnostics” involved in land-use law, offered recommendations for architects and developers seeking such approval. Forming a team of knowledgeable professionals is the top priority; owners should be flexible about adapting plans. Knowing the specific reasons why a building is landmarked allows for appropriate adjustments. Project viability and financial returns are not the only criteria in these decisions, Friedman observed, and a realistic chance of success often means a willingness to cut losses.

Precedents are commonly cited in these negotiations, Lang noted, though they do not have a formal role. Each site or proposal is unique — as Foster + Partners’ experience at 980 Madison Avenue shows, an idea that works in Midtown’s business district doesn’t automatically work on the residential Upper East Side. In practice, however, both proponents and opponents frame their arguments in reference to prior examples.

The discussion distinguished between preservation as a practical activity, where particular people negotiate real-world decisions, and preservationism as an ideology. No final verdict on the three plans was forthcoming, but the debate rendered closure unnecessary.

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