N.Y. Life Could Get $600 M. For Big Manhattan House

The New York Life Insurance Company plans to sell Manhattan House, the storied Upper East Side luxury apartment complex that the company has owned for half a century.

The Fortune 100 insurance giant is putting the massive property on the market with exclusive broker CB Richard Ellis, according to a company statement obtained by The Observer.

Located at 200 East 66th Street, Manhattan House covers an entire city block between Second and Third avenues; it includes 583 rental apartments, several retail stores and an underground parking facility.

After developing the building and owning it for more than 50 years, New York Life apparently realized its potential value on today’s still hot real-estate market (bubble-burst talk notwithstanding).

“New York Life Insurance Company has indicated that the combination of favorable capital market conditions and strong investor demand for quality well located assets led to its decision to market the property for sale at this time,” the company’s statement reads.

New York Sun columnist Michael Stoler brought up the possibility of a sale in a column about favorable conditions citywide for condo conversions of large residential complexes.

Mr. Stoler wrote that the modernist building could potentially bring in $600 million. That’s roughly $1 million per apartment.

But now New York Life is making the news official, and has selected executive vice presidents and partners Darcy Stacom and William Shanahan of CB Richard Ellis to market the property.

Mr. Shanahan declined to comment on the listing or to give any indication of how much the property might be sold for.

Built in 1950 by the architectural firms Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and Mayer & Whittlesey, Manhattan House heralded the burgeoning modernist style that has been hotly debated among architecture critics (and countless New Yorkers) for decades. Regardless of the theoretical squabbling, the postwar building’s impact on residential housing is rarely debated.

“This is the closest Manhattan offers, conceptually, to the ‘blocks’ of Le Corbusier,” according to the AIA Guide to New York City.

In 1952, the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects chose Manhattan House for its “outstanding apartment building” award. The Bauhaus-styled balconies protruding from the 19-story structure are signature features; there is also an International Style lobby that made it distinct from the surrounding apartment buildings.

Also, in order to steer clear of the more conventional inner courtyard, the architects used an H-plan in their design that allowed far more light and cross-ventilation.

However, there was one obvious characteristic of Manhattan House that caused it to immediately stand out from the dingy neighboring tenements.

“It was the first ‘white-brick’ building in New York City,” said Seri Worden, executive director of Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts. (Although described in architectural circles as “white,” the self-cleaning exterior was closer to a light gray.)

“You can imagine it was quite shocking to see this huge white building built amongst all these tenements with the [Third Avenue] el rolling by,” she continued.

Indeed, for the first five years of its existence, Manhattan House residents still had to contend with the elevated subway line, which was finally demolished in 1955.

Also, from the late 19th century until New York Life developed the property, the block was home to the Third Avenue Railway System car barns.

In addition to owning Manhattan House, the company started buying several surrounding buildings that served as a protective barrier, intentionally kept at a lesser height in order to preserve the apartment’s views. New York Life also once owned the legendary Beekman Theater, which will be screening its final film on June 30 before being razed.

However, beginning in 1960-and continuing for the next 36 years-New York Life started selling all of its surrounding properties, both to real-estate developers and institutions such as Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

The first parcel sold was an apartment building at 250 East 65th Street; however, there was an unusual contract stipulation. There was a height limit of 137 feet imposed on the building’s new owner for “as long as Manhattan House exists,” according to architectural historian Christopher Gray’s New York Times profile. (Manhattan House is 178 feet high.)

Now, with New York Life possibly departing from its role as the building’s long-time steward, what could happen to Manhattan House if it’s sold?

Considering that there is still a constrained supply of available apartments to purchase, coupled with buyer demand, condo conversion seems like a highly plausible idea.

Tenants Must Approve

However, conversion cannot occur immediately after the closing. Unless the new owner opts for eviction proceedings-an unlikely scenario-they will have to put a conversion proposal to a vote and receive 15 percent support from the building’s tenants. There exists the balancing act between the sponsor and a building’s current residents (some of whom may have been living there for many years). Typically, a strong tenant association can get better “insider” prices for units if converted; the developer will make the majority of its profit from outside buyers.

Although far less than a conversion, New York Life has made some renovations in the past few decades, including replacing the original windows in the 1980′s. But overall, the building’s appearance hasn’t changed drastically.

At this point, the Landmarks Preservation Commission doesn’t formally protect Manhattan House; however, it’s doubtful whether a new owner could do much to the building’s renowned exterior.

Regardless, preservationists like those in Ms. Worden’s organization-who tried unsuccessfully to protect the Beekman Theater from the bulldozer-will surely be watching the outcome of this sale.

“Modern architecture is not just about the Upper East Side,” said Ms. Worden. “It’s about the whole city.”