Times Building sold: Ghosts, dirt thrown in gratis

Was anything timeless inside the New York Times Building? Not the gray metal desks. Times veterans of a certain age remember those gray metal desks, rows of them, with manual typewriters clattering atop them-the fabled, bygone city room. But Times veterans of another age remember the wood ones, with the brass spittoons around them. The gray metal ones were the new stuff.

And the new stuff becomes the old, and it all goes the same place: the beloved brass spittoons and green eye shades along with the poker games and publisher’s mistresses, along even with the hideous orange rug of the late 70’s-in capital letters, the Hideous Orange Rug, despised symbol of an era of its own. “It was a quite awful burnt orange,” said columnist Joyce Purnick.

Not even The Times itself can avoid the passage into Times Building lore. On Monday, the New York Times Company announced that it had found a buyer for 229 East 43rd Street, which it has occupied in some form for 91 years. A partnership led by Tishman Speyer Properties is set to buy the building for $175 million, with a plan to convert it to a mix of retail and deluxe offices. By year’s end, The Times will be a mere tenant in its former domain, renting the space back from the new owner until sometime in 2007, when the newspaper’s planned futuristic Eighth Avenue headquarters is supposed to be ready.

The landlord on 43rd Street will be a $300 million investment fund headed by Tishman Speyer, in partnership with the New York City Employees’ Retirement System and the Teachers’ Retirement System. Each of the three parties contributed $100 million to the partnership, but Tishman has control over its real-estate acquisitions. Rob Speyer, senior managing director of Tishman Speyer, said he swooped on the Times Building because of its “great bones”: multiple floors of high ceilings, huge windows and relatively large floor plates.

After The Times vacates, Mr. Speyer said his company will commence a “top-to-bottom renovation,” turning the interior into class-A office space with new HVAC and electrical systems, a new lobby and a new elevator.

“It has the advantage of its majestic façade as well as the history of The Times , and we’re going to leverage that in our repositioning of the building,” Mr. Speyer said.

Emptying out the Times Building-to say nothing of leveraging its past-is less a job for investors and contractors than for some sort of psycho-archeologist, partnered with an industrial historian. It is not even one building, exactly, but four separate pieces by four different architects. The first part was built in 1913, and an addition followed in each succeeding decade: 1924, 1931 and 1947.

There is something inherently involuted about the place. “It’s a funny building, you know, because you can’t see it,” said Andrew Rosenthal, deputy editoral-page editor and son of former executive editor Abe Rosenthal. It is so engulfed by its surroundings, Mr. Rosenthal said, that it was an event when the Hilton Times Square opened its Above Restaurant nearby. The restaurant, Mr. Rosenthal said, is “the only place, except the roof of the Port Authority, that you can actually see the New York Times Building.”

Mr. Rosenthal himself is all too familiar with what the place looks like. His father, he recalled, installed a painting of the Times Building in the vestibule outside the family apartment, by the elevator doors, where he had to look at it coming and going every day. The elder Mr. Rosenthal’s taste in decoration used to frighten the clerks who dropped off freshly printed newspapers on the doorstep, his son said.

“But it was sentiment, not megalomania,” Mr. Rosenthal said. His father, he said, was “completely in love with the newspaper.”

Other Times employees’ relationships with the building and its various evolutions are a mixture of love and hate-to say nothing of fear, nostalgia, gossipiness and pride.

“The reality is, it was never a wonderful place to work,” said Paul Goldberger, the former Times architecture critic now with The New Yorker . It combined, he said, “the worst qualities of a factory and an office …. It felt tired, worn out, somewhat dirty.”

Mr. Rosenthal described the building’s various partial renovations, up until its full overhaul in 1997, as “progressively more and more oppressive, until everybody couldn’t stand it anymore.”

But everyone’s tastes, and memories, are a bit different. Columnist Maureen Dowd remembers the oppressiveness fondly. “Fear can be a very useful thing in a newspaper,” Ms. Dowd said. Since the 1997 renovation broke up the open newsroom dominated by editors’ eyes, Ms. Dowd said, “I get completely lost whenever I go there now. I always want to leave bread crumbs.”

Everyone has his or her own lost Times . Notably, there’s The Times of Arthur Gelb, the retired managing editor, who embarked on the paperback tour for his memoir, City Room , the day after the sale was announced. In Mr. Gelb’s account of being a copy boy in the wooden-desk era, a pair of bookies kept a desk in the office. One editor would drink his way through a night’s work, lining up empties on his desk and sometimes falling out of his chair drunk. Mr. Gelb and his fellows would spy on chorus girls in their theater dressing room across an alley.

But the dressing room-and the theater-were demolished for the sake of the paper’s 1947 expansion. As the paper grew, the raffishness waned; for Ms. Dowd’s generation, Mr. Gelb’s revelations were an astonishment. Ms. Dowd said she had assumed ” The Times was always stuffy and stuffier in the old days.” By the time she got to the professionalizing paper, she said, “They didn’t even drink on Election Night.”

But probity hardly arrived all at once. Another tale from Mr. Gelb, this one not in the book: In the third-floor morgue, there was “a little hideaway office,” reputed to have been built in the 1930’s so a managing editor could tryst with a Met singer there. Decades later, Mr. Gelb said, Abe Rosenthal, as managing editor, went to the morgue looking for a quiet place to write. “He opened the door,” Mr. Gelb said. “There were two reporters there making out. The reporter, whose name I won’t tell you, said, ‘Oh, Abe, is there anything I could do for you?'”

“So sex was not bad at The Times ,” Mr. Gelb said.

Gay Talese, a young star reporter for Gelb in the 50’s, echoed Mr. Gelb’s memory of a sex-soaked headquarters. The building, he said, “personalized for me the hypocrisy and the virtue of the city. The virtue in the sense that, each day, The Times would distribute throughout the city, and the nation, a kind of attitude about standards. They would be an advocate for standards, for political standards, for foreign-policy standards, and within the building, none of this was going on. Within the building, everyone was smoking, while virtue was advocated in the sheets of the Gray Lady. The building was rampant with sexuality.”

The double standard extended to the decorating sensibilities. When the orange carpet came in and the metal desks went out, Mr. Goldberger said he wrote a piece for another publication-“some magazine that doesn’t exist anymore”-condemning the new décor, which Mr. Goldberger remembered as “a sea of fake-wood Formica.”

“It looked a sort of middle-level insurance office,” Mr. Goldberger said. “It lost all of the energy and power of the old newsroom.”

To Mr. Goldberger, who championed good taste and high standards in his own writings, his paper’s décor was cause for dismay. “I used to say that my influence began at the front of the building and expanded outwards, but never inwards,” he said.

In some sense, it was testimony to a perfect firewall between the writers and the ownership. But over the years, The Times began to listen to its own pronouncements, chipping away at the orange and brown-till finally, with the 1997 renovation, it emerged as an institution bent on high sensibilities inside and out.

The place is “quite nice-looking now,” Mr. Rosenthal said.

Some minor events on the road to tastefulness assumed a life of their own. Sometime around the ascendancy of Max Frankel as executive editor, the long wall along 44th Street, where the editors sat, was repainted blue-a nice blue, Mr. Goldberger said, “medium, slightly grayish blue.” In response to the decorating move, the staff came to call the top editors the “blue wall,” a piece of Times culture that lasted as long as the paint did. But not longer.

Other details did last. During the Vietnam era, standards editor Al Siegal recalled, a graffito appeared inside the elevator that top editor Clifton Daniel would ride to the composing room each night: “Mr. Daniel, please end the war.” The Times painted over the message, Mr. Siegal said, and it reappeared shortly. “It appeared and disappeared 20 times,” Mr. Siegal said, “and then finally The Times stopped painting over it.”

Despite all such legends, the newsroom was not the true defining feature of the Times Building. That distinction belonged to the printing plant, which departed for a separate facility in Queens in 1997. “The newsroom was the newsroom,” Mr. Rosenthal said. “It was where my father worked, and later where I worked.”

In its prime, Mr. Goldberger said, the Times Building “was a vertically integrated manufacturing facility, basically. Rolls of paper came in one end and newspapers came out the other and everything was done there.”

It was the press plant that made the magic possible-that allowed a reporter to pull a story out of a typewriter and follow it, floor to floor, till it was on hot pages with wet ink an hour later.

When the copy desk pasted stories together by hand, Mr. Siegal said, it used paste taken from the barrels in the basement-the same paste that held the ends of newsprint rolls together. The smell of the building, he said, was the smell of manufacturing: a mix of molten lead and toasted papier-mâché.

The smells lingered for a while after the printers moved to Queens, Mr. Siegal said, and then faded. Now, the platform-agnostic information-delivery system that is The Times is headed to a clean, professional future on Eighth Avenue. It no longer needs industrial-strength floors to support the machinery, any more than it needs burlesque girls or all-night poker games.

According to Times vice president of real estate David Thurm, the new Times building-a lattice-encased Renzo Piano tower that will rise to 1,142 feet at its mast-topped tip-will have an interior designed to reflect the company’s “Rules of the Road” (e.g., “Treat each other with honesty, respect and civility”). The Gensler architectural firm is putting private offices toward the core of the building, so that workers in the open floor plan get the benefit of the windows, somewhat collapsing the hierarchy normally inscribed in office floor plans. Ceilings are extra-high, Mr. Thurm said, “for a much nicer and friendlier work environment.”

And the building will be headed toward its own separate future. In early 2001, while in discussions with the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission about protected landmark status for the building, The Times sought and gained permission to convert the first- and basement-floor truck loading docks into retail-ready space, suitable for big-box stores such as Home Depot or Target. The two floors, both of which have 20-foot ceilings, total some 100,000 square feet.

“Very few places in Manhattan are zoned for big-box,” said Mr. Speyer, the new owner, “and there are none in the middle of the Times Square area. We’re expecting there to be great demand for it.”