It is one of those classic urban tales you are forever reading in The New York Times . A huge corporation abandons its longtime headquarters for a shiny new skyscraper in a more fashionable locale. It then horrifies community groups and historic preservationists by selling its beloved old building to a developer who tears it down and constructs a steel and glass banality in its place.
But in this unfolding corporate relocation drama, the offending company may be The Times itself.
As The Times explores an ambitious plan to construct a new headquarters across from the Port Authority Bus Terminal at Eighth Avenue and 40th Street, real estate executives and preservationists are wondering the same thing: What will happen to the venerable daily’s 88-year-old home on West 43rd Street, that daunting journalistic mill into which thousands of employees stream each day like so many factory workers intent on cramming “all the news that’s fit to print” into tomorrow’s editions?
People familiar with development in Times Square say the newspaper would like to unload its headquarters if it can wring enough tax breaks and other financial incentives from Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Gov. George Pataki to make a new tower possible. And they say the New York Times Company could make more money by selling the property as a site for yet another Times Square skyscraper than by trying to find a sensitive buyer interested in converting the building into a hotel or offbeat corporate suites. Thanks to some skillful negotiating by the powerful company, there’s nothing barring The Times from doing so. Over the years, it has opposed efforts to landmark the building, which Adolph Simon Ochs commissioned to resemble the castle of Chambord in France. Without the designation, the building could simply be demolished, despite its obvious place in the city’s history and culture. City officials have gone along with the company’s wishes.
Not surprisingly, then, real estate deal makers are eyeing the Times Building with great interest. “It clearly would be an attractive site [for a new building], locationally and otherwise,” said Bruce Mosler, an executive vice president at Cushman & Wakefield Inc. and one of Manhattan’s busiest commercial brokers.
Yet it is hard to imagine Times Square without the Times headquarters. Completed in 1912, it was there that the Sulzberger-Ochs clan transformed the newspaper from an ordinary broadsheet into the international newspaper of record with a stable of Pulitzer Prize winners. Nancy Nielsen, vice president of corporate communications for The Times , declined to discuss the newspaper company’s plans for the building. “That’s so far down the road,” she said. “Even if we were to make a decision to move, it would be three or four years down the road. That’s even if we make the decision to move. So this really falls under the headline of speculation.”
But that’s not enough to stop people from worrying about the fate of the Times Building. “Architecturally, it is a handsome sort of late French Gothic design, nice use of material, nice use of terra cotta, very prominent tower,” said Andrew S. Dolkart, an architectural historian and Columbia University professor. “So I certainly think it meets the criteria for landmarking. And even if it isn’t landmarked, it deserves to be preserved. It’s also the home of The New York Times . I think the historic significance is one of the most important things about the building.”
Peg Breen, president of New York Landmarks Conservancy, agreed wholeheartedly. “What’s more New York than The New York Times in terms of historic significance and culture significance?” she said. “And it’s a lovely Beaux-Arts building.”
The fate of the Times Building could become a pressing issue because of the architectural desecration in the early 1960′s of the fabled Times Tower, the newspaper’s first headquarters in Times Square. Think of the Times Tower as Penn Station and the current Times Building as Grand Central Terminal.
The Times moved from Park Row to a tower at the intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue in 1905. (The city’s Board of Aldermen, precursor to today’s City Council, promptly renamed the intersection Times Square.) The tower was inspired by Giotto’s campanile in Florence, and the company quickly established a tradition of lowering an illuminated globe from the tower on New Year’s Eve.
Six years after moving to Times Square, the paper announced it was so pressed for space that it would relocate to its current headquarters on West 43rd Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues. Then, in 1961, the Sulzbergers sold the Times Tower.
Much to the dismay of architecture lovers, subsequent owners entombed its once-grand facade with nondescript white slabs of stone. Today, the building known as 1 Times Square is perhaps best described as the world’s most famous billboard, home of the Jumbotron and a Warner Brothers store. While the historic structure still looms over the square, it bears little resemblance to Ochs’ epochal Florentine tower. “Look what happened to the other Times Building,” Mr. Dolkart sighed. “So it would be nice to preserve the second New York Times Building [in Times Square].”
The current Times Building is generally considered to be less architecturally distinctive then its predecessor. Nevertheless, the two buildings are siblings. Completed in 1912, the current Times Building was conceived as an annex to the tower in the center of the square. Indeed, the paper itself declared, “no one will be able to doubt after the most cursory glance that the Times Building and its annex are related and though separated … they house branches of the same institution.”
In 1923, the current headquarters was more than doubled in size and topped with a grand tower that remains its most distinctive feature. According to The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind ‘The New York Times’ , by Susan Tifft and Alex Jones, Ochs also commissioned a splendid new mahogany-paneled office for himself: “To reach Adolph’s enormous desk, which stood before a green marble fireplace, visitors had to cross nearly 30 feet of carpeted floor and walls dense with signed photographs of presidents, prime ministers and other notables.”
In the years to come, Ochs’ heirs remodeled the building to announce their ascensions within the company. After World War II, for example, Arthur Hays Sulzberger overcame the objections of some of his relatives and presided over another major expansion of the building. Among the highlights were a redesign of the lobby and the addition of bedrooms on the 14th floor so that top executives could sleep over in the event of an emergency.
Whatever their glorious dreams, the Sulzbergers grappled for years with such worthy competitors as the Herald Tribune , whose legendary writers like war correspondent Homer Bigart, world affairs columnist Walter Lippmann, music critic Virgil Thomson, New Journalism progenitor Tom Wolfe and a young columnist named Jimmy Breslin could sometimes make The Times seem exasperatingly dull and colorless.
But by 1985, The Times had vanquished its broadsheet competitors and reigned supreme as the world’s most influential newspaper. So it seemed like the perfect time for the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate the company’s headquarters as a historic building.
The American Institute of Architects was supportive. So was Margaret Moore of the Committee to Save the City Inc. Anthony Tung, who sat on the Landmarks Preservation Commission at the time, concurred. “Everybody understood it should be landmarked,” he told The Observer in a recent interview. “At the very least, it meets all the criteria of the landmarks law, but particularly because of the historical aspect, because The New York Times is such a significant cultural and social entity in the history of the city.”
However, The Times opposed the effort. In documents filed with the landmarks commission, the newspaper’s lawyers argued the building had been changed numerous times and would probably need to be remodeled again. More to the point, they concluded that the newspaper’s home was no architectural gem. “Although the Annex was designed to continue the architectural statement of the Times Tower, it never achieved the same regard,” they wrote. One can only imagine what Ochs would have said.
In the end, the landmarking effort failed. “When an institution of such political and economic importance objects to the designation of their property, it is virtually impossible for a landmarks commission to force a designation upon them,” said Mr. Tung, now a board member at Cooper Union and author of a forthcoming book about historic preservation. “It’s very rare when an administration will take that on.”
Indeed, in 1991, the commission wrote to The Times , saying it has decided not to “recalendar” the building, although it did not rule out landmarking it in the future.
In other words, the Edward Koch and David Dinkins administrations didn’t want to anger The Times . Then again, they didn’t have to worry about The Times abandoning its longtime headquarters. Things may be different for their successor, Rudolph Giuliani, now that The Times apparently wants to move and the preservation community is beginning to worry about its old building. But as Mr. Giuliani prepares to run for the U.S. Senate, he may be in even less of a mood to tangle with the venerable paper. “This administration has been focusing its efforts and initiatives in other parts of the city,” said Terri Rosen Deutsch, chief of staff of the landmarks commission.
Instead, people in the development world expect both Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Pataki to shower The Times with financial incentives for a new tower. According to real estate executives, however, The Times may still have to pony up an estimated $100 million to cover the cost of condemning the porn shops, delis and other existing buildings on Eighth Avenue between 40th and 41st streets to clear the way for its new headquarters. That means more pressure to sell its old home to the highest bidder no matter what his or her plans. The building, moreover, is not in the best shape after decades of round-the-clock use.
Then there is the question of how The Times would cover the story if it gets into a battle with preservationists over the building’s future. The paper recently stepped up its real estate coverage. But when Times reporter (and former Observer staff writer) Charles V. Bagli broke the news of the paper’s relocation plans in October, citing unnamed sources, his employers were in a difficult position. The Times didn’t want to discuss its moving plans publicly. So its executives gave Mr. Bagli what amounted to a no-comment.
Yet The Times still printed the story. That was generally interpreted as confirming the assertions of Mr. Bagli’s sources. So why the hush-hush?
Things will only get more difficult if there is another attempt to landmark the building and the paper resists. The story could quickly evolve into the old urban morality play of the greedy property owner vilified by people who cherish historic buildings and community groups who are trying to hold the wrecking crews at bay.
Does that sound familiar?