The Hearst Magazine Building, the stunted Art Deco skyscraper that for 72 years has squatted at the corner of 57th Street and Eighth Avenue, is finally going to be completed by one of architecture’s foremost modernists.
Executives at the Hearst Corporation, which has its corporate headquarters in the six-story building at 959 Eighth Avenue, have hired Lord Norman Foster, a member of the steel-and-glass vanguard and the 1999 recipient of architecture’s highest honor, the Pritzker Prize, to design a tower to be built above their heads, fulfilling the plans originally laid by William Randolph Hearst and abandoned during the Great Depression.
The company has hired Jerry Speyer’s Tishman Speyer Properties to build the tower.
“We’ve engaged Foster and Partners to explore development of the building,” said Hearst spokeswoman Debra Shriver. “We’re not at the design phase as of yet.”
The idea, said Ms. Shriver, is for the company to consolidate the offices of its 17 magazines-titles like Good Housekeeping , Cosmopolitan , Esquire and Talk -now scattered across the city in more than a half-dozen different buildings. Hearst is following the lead of media companies like Condé Nast magazines, which built a tower at 4 Times Square two years ago; The New York Times , which is planning a new building on 41st Street at Eighth Avenue; and, on a larger scale, AOL Time Warner, which is building a headquarters at Columbus Circle.
“[Hearst] is picking an excellent architect, and there’s exciting potential,” said Roger Duffy, an architect with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. “Looking at Foster’s work, it’s going to be mostly glass and very modern-but exceptional.”
The intended look and contours of the addition remain shrouded in secrecy. Mr. Speyer did not return phone calls, and a spokeswoman for Lord Foster said that he was traveling and unavailable for comment. But judging from the building’s current zoning allotment, the tower could be anywhere from 25 to 45 floors, depending on the square footage per floor-and by negotiating with the city or buying air rights from neighboring properties, the company could build even higher.
Any alterations to the existing limestone structure-which was designed by Joseph Urban, built in 1928 and landmarked in 1988-would have to pass muster with the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, with which Hearst has had preliminary conversations. But there, too, the company has hired some high-powered help. They’ve retained Sandy Lindenbaum, the attorney and omnipresent real estate operator, to make their case as they negotiate the thicket of zoning and preservation issues involved. Mr. Lindenbaum declined comment, citing client confidentiality.
“There is a great affection for the building,” said Ms. Shriver. “We want to preserve the building, but at the same time we urgently require space.”
Lord Foster, 65, has ample experience designing around historic buildings. His much-acclaimed addition to the Reichstag in Berlin, featuring a latticed glass dome, has become a symbol of the new unified Germany. For a newly unveiled renovation of the British Museum, he designed a glass-covered courtyard that architecture critic Paul Goldberger, writing in The New Yorker , called “stunningly beautiful.”
At home in Britain, he is best known for building the snaky (and shaky) Millennium Bridge across the Thames River, which was shut down after its opening weekend last June due to structural problems, and for being one of the modernists Prince Charles targeted in his famous 1987 speech declaring that architects had done more damage to London than the Luftwaffe.
Still, his selection will likely be cheered by Manhattan’s aficionados of modern architecture. For years, they’ve bellyached about the lack of imaginative design in the city. But over the past few months, there’s been a veritable Pritzker outbreak: In late November, the city approved a plan for a Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum on the East River downtown; in October, Renzo Piano (in conjunction with the Manhattan firm Fox & Fowle) won a competition to do the new Times building. Both Lord Foster and Mr. Gehry were among The Times’ four finalists.
In a column explaining The Times ‘ choice of architects, Herbert Muschamp, a member of the paper’s selection committee, wrote of the glass-pyramid-inspired design submitted by Lord Foster: “I prize few qualities higher than rational thought, but I don’t fully trust its architectural expression.” Faint praise indeed-but the spurned designer may yet win some measure of revenge. The Hearst Building is just 15 blocks north of the intended Times site, and the inevitable comparisons between the two buildings have already begun. “My guess is Hearst wanted to outdo The Times ,” one prominent local architect said.
The Hearst Magazine Building began as a product of William Randolph Hearst’s boundless acquisitiveness. Through the 1920′s, Hearst had heard rumblings of a bridge from Manhattan to New Jersey, to be built at 59th Street. Looking to make a real estate killing, he snapped up land all around Columbus Circle. When the George Washington Bridge was located 120 blocks north instead, Hearst came up with an ambitious plan to redevelop the land as an entertainment complex. Hearst bought and renovated the Cosmopolitan Theater, on 58th Street, as a showcase for his mistress, Marion Davies, and commissioned a magnificent 20-story skyscraper called the International Magazine Building for the western stretch of Eighth Avenue between 56th and 57th streets. He hired Joseph Urban, the Viennese architect who designed the New School for Social Research on West 12th Street, the Mar-a-Lago mansion in Palm Beach, and the sets for many of Davies’ plays and silent films.
Only six stories of the skyscraper made it off the blueprints. The result is Urban’s unfinished architectural thought: a limestone pedestal, with six classical columns stretching a full floor above the building’s truncated top. “A charmingly literal interpretation of the aspirations of the Hearst empire in theater and communications,” author Eric P. Nash called it in his book, Manhattan Skyscrapers . Sculpted allegorical figures flank the columns: a bare-chested athlete, a laborer with his sledgehammer, a musician carrying a lyre. Architectural echoes of the building can be seen in the base of the Empire State Building, Mr. Nash writes.
There were plans to complete the tower later, but when the Depression came and Hearst fell on hard times, the blueprints were set aside. The International Magazine Building became the Hearst Magazine Building, and eventually Hearst lost control of his empire.
Every so often, the Hearst Corporation talked about reviving the plans-most recently in the early 1980′s, before the building was landmarked-but nothing ever came of it. Today, occupants of the building include Hearst Magazines president Cathleen Black and other top company executives, Good Housekeeping magazine and the Good Housekeeping Institute, a veritable Mayo Clinic of home economics. The walls along the upper floors are lined with paintings by famous modern artists; most Hearst employees see the inside of the place only for rare conference-room-type meetings.
Condé Nast’s success in Times Square has not been lost on Hearst executives. With the price of Manhattan real estate surging, and with AOL Time Warner’s Columbus Centre finally about to fulfill Hearst’s dream of making Columbus Circle an entertainment-industry magnet, the tower began to make sense. Last April, the company disclosed its intention to “construct a world-class headquarters building” in a short article in The New York Times .
Aside from allowing Hearst to keep up with the Newhouses and the Sulzbergers, the new tower would presumably save money in rent and allow the sale of other buildings owned by Hearst, if the company chooses. Hearst owns buildings at 224 West 57th Street, where O , Cosmopolitan and Country Living are located, and 250 West 55th Street, which Esquire calls home. Harper’s Bazaar and other magazines rent space at 1700 Broadway, Marie Claire has a lease at 1790 Broadway, and SmartMoney.com is unhappily ensconced in the way-west Starrett-Lehigh Building on 26th Street, between 11th and 12th avenues.
Yet Hearst employees say they’ve heard little about the tower beyond what they’ve read in the newspapers. Members of local Community Board 4 said they’re still waiting to hear from Hearst executives about the company’s plans, too. Hearst hasn’t filed a formal application with the Landmarks Preservation Commission either, according to the commission’s chief of staff, Terry Rosen Deutsch, though they have had informal discussions about the project with the commission’s staff. Hearst has also made initial overtures to the City Planning Commission and the Municipal Arts Society.
The land is zoned for a 600,000-square-foot building, though the current building is just 153,000 square feet. Even without air rights and zoning bonuses, that leaves Lord Foster a lot of room to work with-enough to build 45 stories if the floors are exceptionally skinny, as Landmarks Preservation Commission guidelines seem to require.
Ms. Shriver, the Hearst spokeswoman, said that whatever Lord Foster designs, it will fit contextually with Urban’s original vision. “It’s very much a part of our heritage,” she said of the landmark building.
Pleasing everyone will be a tough assignment. “This is what strikes me as one of the toughest architectural problems to come along in a long time,” said Kent Barwick, president of the Municipal Arts Society. And the problems aren’t just political: In addition to the inevitable zoning and landmarking issues that must be solved, real estate executives familiar with the project said, the plans call for carrying out the renovation project while employees continue to work in the building.
“Honestly, I think most seasoned real estate people will tell you it’s not what you’d call an economically efficient concept,” said one executive.
Architects, meanwhile, are waiting expectantly to see what Lord Foster will do. “I can’t think of a prototype in the United States for what’s being discussed for the Hearst Building,” said Mr. Duffy, who often works on renovations of landmarked buildings. In Europe, by contrast, historic buildings are considered less untouchable: Lord Foster refigured the Reichstag, and I.M. Pei added a glass pyramid to the Louvre. Mr. Duffy hopes the Hearst project will open up opportunities for similarly ambitious additions in New York. “It’s exciting because it could establish a precedent for the future,” he said.
Yet Mr. Barwick sounded a note of caution, saying it was important to preserve the spirit of the original Hearst Building, the only Joseph Urban–designed structure left in midtown.
“It’s such a distinctive building,” he said, “such a wild extravaganza of a building.”
-Additional reporting by Gabriel Snyder
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