Tall and slender, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney was nothing like the squat, unpolished granite museum built in her name on Madison Avenue. She was spry, light-footed and “improvisational,” according to the art critic Forbes Watson, her friend and contemporary. He once complimented Whitney’s “genius for transforming an idea into an act before the idea could be dropped.”
The museum’s idea in the 1960s was to plant a flag on Madison at 75th Street and then expand down the block. The act was Marcel Breuer’s granite zig, completed in 1966 with knock-out panels on the south elevation to simplify expansion into the adjacent lots. The Whitney proceeded to buy up the six brownstones next door (943-933 Madison Avenue) and, later, two townhouses around the corner on 74th Street. Even when the museum’s offices moved into the townhouses, opening up the fifth floor to galleries, the Breuer building had only walls enough to display less than 1 percent of the museum’s permanent collection.
For the past 30 years, the quiet row of townhouses next door, now resting behind a black net to protect pedestrians from unstable brownstone, has been the stage of one failed starchitect-conceived expansion after another, all set to the chorus of medieval Upper East Side chest-thumping. Last month, the museum sold the family of townhouses for $95 million to Daniel Straus, a part-time real estate investor with money from the assisted-living business in New Jersey. Revenues between Mr. Straus’ companies broke $3.5 billion in 2008, according to an interview he gave at N.Y.U. Law School upon endowing the school’s Straus Institute for the Advanced Studies of Law & Justice in the name of his parents.
On Madison Avenue, the museum tried and failed, and now Mr. Straus will attempt to redevelop the brownstones for residential and commercial use–likely a tower. Developer Aby Rosen battled for more than two years to get approval for a tower on top of the limestone Parke-Bernet Galleries at Madison and 76th Street, just two blocks north of Mr. Straus’ brownstones. Expressing outrage at a community board hearing that ended in a vote to reject the plans, one resident described Mr. Rosen’s tower as “a glass dagger plunged into the heart of the Upper East Side.”
HATING THE TOWNHOUSES around the Whitney has become a hallmark for the museum’s architects. Breuer notoriously commented to Newsweek in 1966 that they “aren’t any good.” When a city Landmarks commissioner suggested to Renzo Piano–the third architect to attempt a workable expansion on the block–that he build an entrance through one townhouse instead of demolishing it, the Genoese architect said he would first drown himself in the river. “It is the opposite of the idea of creating a welcoming entrance,” he said.
If the museum’s problem is space, the architects’ problem has been working around the brownstones. In 1981, the city established the Upper East Side Historic District, crippling the museum’s options for expansion along the block. All of the Whitney’s townhouses were deemed “contributing buildings” and awarded protection within the district, except for 943 Madison Avenue–the plainest of the sisters, a stripped, “no-style” house set flush against Breuer’s building. The house may be demolished as long as it’s replaced, but none of the other brownstones can be knocked down without Landmarks’ permission.
While the district was in its infancy in the early 1980s, Princeton architect Michael Graves planned to demolish the brownstones and add a second Breuer-size building down the block with a recessed penthouse structure perched over both. Neighborhood activists stymied the plan. Breuer’s widow, and no fewer than 700 Upper East Side residents, wrote to the chair of the museum’s board to say how disappointed they were with the plans.
On the Whitney’s second attempt to expand across the brownstones, Rem Koolhaas accepted the houses’ right to remain but dominated them with his design: a gigantic fist of a building punching diagonally into the sky over the Breuer. It was “The Whitney, Fuck Yeah,” with a Dutch accent. The $200 million expansion became too expensive and aggressive for the museum after 9/11.
Then came Renzo Piano. Renowned for his ability to put his clients at ease, he planned to demolish the lone no-style brownstone and build a tower behind her sisters on the same scale as the Breuer. The two buildings, squatting side by side over Madison, would connect through glass bridges in the sky. After some revisions, Mr. Piano’s plan got past the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, but then a lot became available beneath the High Line. Mr. Piano will design the new building there.
THE FUTURE IS less than certain for the brownstones, dirty from the ashes of 30 years of torched blueprints and huddled in the shadow of what has been called “New York’s most bellicose work of architecture”–”Breuer’s Brutalist bunker!”
Mr. Straus, the new owner, has opted for privacy. “He just bought the place,” said Kathy Cudahy, a lobbyist and spokesperson Mr. Straus hired to shepherd the purchase through the early stages of development. “I don’t know what he’s going to build there. He doesn’t know yet. He’s exploring all options and, you know, meeting with the architects, but they don’t have any solid proposals.”
The largest of the houses, a red-brick mansion on 74th Street that connects from behind to the Breuer, will likely be renovated as a single-family home. The mansion was designed by Grosvenor Atterbury, the architect behind Forest Hills Gardens in Queens, where Mr. Straus’ wife grew up. What makes sense for the rest of the brownstones at the price Mr. Straus paid, according to one broker who deals townhouses on the Upper East Side, is to build a 100,000-square-foot tower in back.
“There must be some sort of understanding here that Landmarks will give at least what they gave the Whitney in terms of permission,” said the broker. “For him to actually pay $95 million and to have no idea what landmarks will let him do would be kind of foolhardy.”
“I bet somehow the lawyers had it all papered up so that he knows he’s not gonna get a worse deal than that,” the broker added.
Mr. Straus secured Richard Metsky, who is also overseeing the renovation of the Art Deco lobby at the Empire State Building, as his project architect. Mr. Metsky’s colleague at Beyer Blinder Belle, Fred Bland, was appointed by the mayor to the Landmarks Commission in 2008, and will have to recuse himself from Mr. Straus’ hearing.
“If he wants to rehabilitate them within the scale that’s there now, he’ll have no problem,” said Andrew Dolkart, a professor of historic preservation at Columbia’s architecture school. He knows the brownstones well through research for his last book, The Rowhouse Reborn. “If he is going to propose to build a significant large building behind them, then there’s gonna be a lot of outcry in opposition. And the neighborhood’s very organized, so.”
Facing Mr. Piano’s plans in 2005, the neighborhood mustered by the hundreds into groups like Coalition of Concerned Whitney Neighbors and Defenders of the Historic Upper East Side. “The previous plans, we felt, were totally inappropriate, so we hope that a new proposal will take into account the historic character of the Upper East Side Historic District,” said Tara Kelly, executive director of Friends of the Upper East Side Historic District, another activist group.
Ms. Kelly told The Observer that she has already heard murmurs that Mr. Straus would like to demolish the no-style brownstone. Ms. Kelly said that Valerie Campbell, a land-use lawyer at Kramer Levin hired by Mr. Straus, called her as soon as news of the sale was published. “I think they have a friendly intention toward working with us at this point,” she said.
Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, wondered if the Landmarks Commission’s prior approval for a tower on the site would grease the wheels for Mr. Straus’ supposed plans. “That plan was”–Mr. Bankoff sighed into the phone–”a disturbing plan in that it proposed to demolish a building and not replace it with anything.
“I found the rationale behind it to be basically specious, but the fact of the matter is, they did get approval,” he continued. “They got permission to do something I don’t think they should have been allowed to do, but it was based on the fact that it was the Whitney and part of a larger concept.” But, before the Landmarks Commission, there aren’t different rules for private investors and museums.
“We don’t regulate how a building is used; we regulate how a building is designed and how a building looks,” said Elisabeth de Bourbon, a Landmarks spokesperson. “There’s really just one standard,” Ms. de Bourbon continued, “and I know this sounds vague: appropriateness.”
She noted that the tower that was approved by the commission in 2005 created harmony with the Breuer building. Museum or condominium aside, a tower that connects one building to another with glass bridges may be more appropriate than a stand-alone residential tower, even of the same scale.
THE OBSERVER REACHED out to one of the museum’s curators, offering anonymity, to speak about the space inside the townhouses. “I’m afraid this isn’t really something that I can discuss, since I’m sure you realize it’s a rather sensitive topic at the museum,” the curator wrote in an email, directing us to the museum’s press officer. “I have no information to share other than to confirm that the buildings were sold,” the spokesman wrote in an email. O.K.!
Paul Liebowitz at CB Richard Ellis, the broker who managed the sale for the Whitney, declined to comment on the state of the property at the behest of the museum.
From the street, the townhouses appear desolate behind their net, a vista of dreariness, as Gertrude Whitney might say. Besides a Calypso St. Barths women’s store and the estate jewelry store Michael Ashton, whose storefront features Patek Phillipes from the ’30s and ’40s and a “James Bond” Rolex, the other commercial space along the row sits empty. The apartments upstairs look vacant and unkept. The Whitney went to State Supreme Court to evict the tenants in the late ’80s and lost.
But the buildings are special. There is only one other stand of six connecting Neo-Grec townhouses–a style that emerged in the late 19th century when archaeologists started to get their hands on the best artifacts from Herculaneum and Pompeii–on Madison Avenue. Designed by S.M. Styles in the 1870s, the brownstones recall a time when single-family homes were built speculatively to house the city’s growing middle class, a moment increasingly invisible in the East 70s.
Everyone expects Mr. Straus’ plans for the buildings to bubble up in January. In the meantime, the Whitney has raised $475 million of the $680 million it expects to spend on its new location downtown with the sale of the townhouses. The museum cannot afford to run two locations, and, after a conditional gift of $131 million from the Whitney’s chairman emeritus, Leonard Lauder, the Breuer cannot be sold for a period of time. Only the board knows how long. But in keeping with the spirit of Gertrude Whitney, groundbreaking in the meatpacking district is slated for May.
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