Philip Johnson Is Mad: Of All Tall Towers, Why Pick on Mine?

Philip Johnson, the dean of American architecture, will turn 95 on July 8. A few days later, to honor his long and illustrious career–and to raise money for the city’s first museum of architecture–his colleagues will gather at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum to celebrate his work: Frank Gehry, Robert A.M. Stern, Richard Meier and Michael Graves are all expected. But Mr. Johnson may be in no mood to celebrate. The architect has designed his first major development in the city since the 1986 Lipstick Building at 53rd Street and Third Avenue–only to be told that it probably will never be built.

On June 1, in a preliminary move, the Board of Standards and Appeals–a five-member panel appointed by the Mayor with the power to grant exceptions to the city zoning guidelines–rejected an appeal by the Vendome Group, Mr. Johnson’s partners, to build a 26-story luxury condo at 328 Spring Street, an address zoned for manufacturing with a 12-story height cap. The developers will get another chance to make their case, but Pasquale Pacifico, executive director of the B.S.A., says it will likely not make any difference. “Have you seen how tall that is?” Mr. Pasquale said. “There’s no way.”

“[Our building] disagrees with the present ruling, but the present ruling doesn’t make any sense!” said Mr. Johnson of the height limit in the neighborhood. “It’s New York, and New York is tall buildings!”

Mr. Johnson’s design, which would house 50 apartments on Spring Street near Hudson Street, was inspired partly by a semi-figurative sculpture by John Chamberlain, partly by the neighborhood streetscapes. The Cubist-looking tower is constructed of a series of overlapping trapezoidal brick-clad facets whose colors mimic those of nearby buildings. The windows–small and arranged in a severe grid–resemble those of countless West Village townhouses. “I call it ‘the victory of double-hung windows,'” said Mr. Johnson. “You don’t use double-hung windows anymore, but we use them again here because that was the way building was done in that period. It’s not a period I particularly like, but that piqued my interest.” New York Times architectural critic Herbert Muschamp has called Mr. Johnson’s design a “habitable sculpture” and a “symbolic gateway to the downtown state of mind.”

“I think [architecture in New York] is getting more interesting,” said Mr. Johnson, referring to the recent trend in city building of hiring noted architects like the ones who will be lauding him at the Guggenheim, all of whom have received commissions on residential projects in the city in the past year or two. Until recently, he added, “the architects haven’t been interested in the builders, and the builders haven’t been interested in architects. This present developer I have is passionate about architecture. It was rather fascinating, since it’s the first time anyone came to me [saying], ‘I want a work of architecture.’ They always say, ‘How can I get a cheaper building than the person next door?’ Like Mr. Trump.” (Mr. Johnson’s only other recent foray into residential buildings in New York was figuring out how Donald Trump could give the Gulf & Western building a facelift; Mr. Johnson suggested a new black-glass sheath.)

But now that Mr. Johnson has been given the opportunity to create something with architectural merit, he finds himself in a political minefield, thanks to developers like Mr. Trump who have recently managed to exploit zoning rules and erect extraordinarily high buildings. In an April 26 letter to B.S.A. chairman James Chin, City Planning Commissioner Joseph Rose urged the Board to exercise caution in granting variances that would “alter the essential character” of the Hudson Square neighborhood where Mr. Johnson’s building is planned, “which has experienced considerable economic growth and investment in recent years.

“The commission believes that future land use changes in this area must be addressed as part of a comprehensive plan,” the letter continues, rather than being decided by the B.S.A. on a case-by-case basis. The planning commissioner and the local community board believe that the Giuliani-stacked B.S.A. has been granting too many variances. The letter referred to a report on the area that City Planning is working on with the Municipal Arts Society, to be released later this summer or early fall–around the time Mr. Johnson and the Vendome Group are likely to come before the B.S.A. next.

Mr. Johnson and the developers say they have already acceded to many of the community’s needs in developing the building. The design calls for apartments to occupy floors five through 26. The ground floor would include a restaurant, an art gallery and a 375-square-foot extension of the Ear Inn next door. Rip Hayman, who owns the landmarked Ear Inn, will transfer his air rights to the developer, and one source said Vendome is in talks with Cooper Union about a satellite architecture or sculpture gallery. A two-story garage would occupy the second and third floors. The fourth floor would include a patio and a health club.

In those respects it will be self-sufficient, unlike a building on Renwick Street, where the B.S.A. appears set to grant a variance for a 14-story building that will have 226 rental apartments. Last week the Board approved a variance for a residential development at the former Yellow Freight Company site, a manufacturing zone. The local community board and many downtown lawmakers spoke out against granting the variance, though height was not the issue.

Many locals agree that the Johnson design is desirable and has been considerate of the neighborhood, but they say the building is simply too tall–nine stories higher than even the towering 17-story Saatchi & Saatchi building three blocks away. The developers say to make any money, the building has to be tall. And Philip Johnson is not budging. “You have to have that much dimension to make an artistic statement,” he said. “I needed a tall tower to do what anyone wants to do, to make a tall work, like any sculpture …. A thing that’s four stories high would not make much of a display.”

Either way, Mr. Johnson and the Vendome Group plan to build this same building in as many as six other cities around the world, including Rome and Palm Beach, where tall buildings are perhaps not so much the norm. “Of course Rome is fine,” said Mr. Johnson. “But here it’s ‘Not in our backyard!'”

UPPER EAST SIDE

THE HOUSE THAT’S BEEN FOR SALE FOR A DECADE On the afternoon of June 13, a small army of construction workers was wreaking havoc in front of 603 Park Avenue, a 20-foot-wide Neo-Federal-style brick townhouse spanning half the block between 64th and 65th streets. They were hauling off concrete and maneuvering a crane perilously near the windows, which were covered with plastic. Police tape blocked the sidewalk from nosy well-heeled residents walking their dogs. And the neighbors have a right to be curious: The house has had a “For Sale” sign on it since 1989, give or take a few months.

Brokers are curious, too. Over a dozen firms have tried to sell the house over the last decade–several more than once. The townhouse was built in 1920 for sugar merchant Thomas Howell. Its sales saga started with the wife of the owner, developer Sherman Cohen. After Mr. Cohen negotiated to buy the 10,000-square-foot house, with more than 25 rooms and 100 feet of frontage on Park Avenue, from Margaretta (Happy) Rockefeller’s mother in 1989 for $12.5 million (the asking price was $20 million), his wife Gloria wouldn’t move in. He put the house back on the market; since then the price has ranged from $12.5 million to $17 million. In 1996, Mr. Cohen transferred the title to his son, Charles Cohen. But he also never moved in, and the house has remained for sale.

To get people inside, Sherman Cohen allowed it to be used as a decorators’ show house in 1988. More recently, brokers Michele Kleier of Gumley Haft Kleier and Patricia Burnham, who owns her own firm, have thrown lavish cocktail parties there. Ms. Burnham’s party last fall drew Dominick Dunne and Public Advocate Mark Green, but no buyers.

The house is unusual: It is one of the very few individual homes on Park Avenue and has plenty of windows, giving it a fishbowl effect. It is also only 100 feet deep. But the house is landmarked and zoned strictly as a private residence. “It’s not so easy to sell something on [Park] Avenue. It’s harder to sell something on a noisy street,” said Anne Snee, director of townhouse sales for the Corcoran Group, which listed the property in 1994.

In addition to these hurdles, brokers say Mr. Cohen wants more for the place than he paid. “We had several offers on the house, but he wanted his price,” said one, who reported having 637 inquiries about the house when she represented the property. Ms. Kleier, who had the listing for nine months, said she got four offers for the house, including one for $12.5 million that Mr. Cohen turned down. Ms. Burnham also got a $12.5 million offer for the house, which was also turned down.

“He bought it at the top of the market and the market crashed,” said Ms. Snee, referring to the real-estate boom of the late 80’s. “He’s not a pauper; he can afford to hold out.”

But apparently he’s sick of holding out. Brokers say that Mr. Cohen is fixing the place up to get the price he wants. One suggested that though the house is still on the market for $14 million, that figure could easily shoot up to $20 million after its facelift, which one of the workers at the site said would be finished by July.

Mr. Cohen, who helped found Cohen Brothers Realty Corporation in the mid-1950’s and owns an apartment at 778 Park Avenue as well as homes in Palm Beach, Fla., and Greenwich, Conn., would not comment. But the city’s buildings department had a record of an application from Mr. Cohen for a $25,000 “interior demolition.” That application was rejected on May 22. Instead, said a worker at the house, some walls have been knocked down, bathrooms ripped out and new plumbing added, but the staircase and floors have remained intact.

“A lot of people who did look at it would have bought it if it was renovated,” said one broker.

But Ms. Kleier isn’t so sure that, after the place is fixed up, Mr. Cohen will be able to let it go. “He always loved that house and always wanted to move in,” she said. “Maybe he’s renovating with the hope his wife will want to move in.”

CHELSEA

TELETUBBIES MOGUL SPENDS A FEW MILLION Kenn Viselman, the man who brought America TV for 2-year-olds in the trippy format of the Teletubbies , has just bought an apartment in Chelsea. On April 27, the multimillionaire– Teletubbies merchandise was the most successful preschool property in a decade–closed on a deal to pay $2.1385 million for a penthouse at 126 West 22nd Street, a new condo development in Chelsea. Mr. Viselman, chairman and chief executive of the Itsy Bitsy Entertainment Company, has been busy. After exporting the English preschool show, he made millions off the marketing of the brand. In 1999, his company won the theatrical, television and merchandising rights to Eloise, the character created by Kay Thompson. (Look for an animated TV series, a feature film and, of course, tons and tons of merchandise.) In 2000,Mr.Viselman’s company added first-run production to its roster and co-created Ni Ni’s Treehouse , an animated series starring a part-cat, part-dog, part-cow, part-pig creature whose drawings magically spring to life. Mr. Viselman’s new apartment won’t feature a talking vacuum cleaner, but he will have hardwood floors, open city views, 11-foot ceilings and central air conditioning.

CARNEGIE HILL

1088 Park Avenue

Three-bed, 4-1/2 bath, 3,000-square-foot co-op.

Asking: $3.4 million; selling: $3.25 million.

Maintenance: $2,400; 45 percent tax deductible.

Time on the market: eight months.

EMBARRASSMENT OF WINDOWS A couple with one child and more coming wanted to switch neighborhoods. They hooked up with Claire Ratusch, a vice president at Douglas Elliman, who got them into this posh co-op near 88th Street. Built in 1925, 1088 Park has a double-height entrance and a landscaped garden courtyard complete with fountains and an Italian loggia. All 84 apartments overlook the courtyard, and this one is a coveted corner apartment. “Normally on Park, two rooms face Park and the rest of it is inside, interior rooms,” said Ms. Ratusch of this apartment, where all but the master bedroom face the avenue. There’s also a wood-burning fireplace in the living room, a library, an eat-in kitchen, a maid’s room and a powder room.

GREENWICH VILLAGE

60 East Eighth Street

Two-bed, two-bath, 1,100-square-foot co-op.

Asking: $850,000. Selling: $837,500.

Charges: $1,424; 50 percent tax deductible.

Time on the market: eight months.

IT’S WALL STREET MEETS PEARL HARBOR If anyone needs further proof that the market has changed, look no further. Back in September, a screenwriter who thought she’d sold her apartment looked at this two-bedroom place: panoramic views of downtown, cherrywood kitchen cabinets, a Philippe Starck stainless-steel sink, nine-foot ceilings. Her full-price offer was accepted, but then the sale of her old apartment fell through and she fled. Eight months later, when she’d sold her apartment for real, the place was still available–no problem. Hello ! Of course, this time she lowered her offer by $25,000 and they split the difference. Rochelle Bass of Bellmarc Realty said it wasn’t only the change in the market that held things up here. “It has a small second bedroom that just didn’t work for families,” she said. “It was really right for this person.”