Ornamental Journey: Search for a View

If you live, as I do, in a modest two-bedroom apartment with a wife, two growing children, a dog and a guinea pig, the view from your window starts to take on heightened importance. It’s certainly not the equivalent of a spare bedroom, or even a cozy alcove, but it creates the illusion of additional space.

For that reason, I’m sensitive-almost proprietary-about the view from my window. Anything that happens outside-and unfortunately, living on the Upper East Side, not much does-poses a potential aesthetic risk or benefit, albeit oblique, to my standard of living.

So when the Empire, a 32-story, 350-foot luxury condo, started going up several blocks south of me in 1999, I was curious, apprehensive and cautiously optimistic at the same time. I can see the Trump Palace from my window, more than a half-mile downtown, and the nondescript but truly huge building at 200 East 65th Street even farther away. And while I wouldn’t want to live in either one (and they wouldn’t have me, given my bank balance), those skyscrapers contribute subtly to my view, lending it a little drama-especially at night, when they’re illuminated.

So my hopes for the Empire were high, even though the Cottages, a row of quaint apartments sharing an interior garden that had become a cause célèbre among local residents and the city’s preservation establishment, had to be razed to build it.

All the pictures I saw of the Empire-on the scaffolding at the construction site and in The New York Times , where the developers, Davis & Partners, seemed to run an ad every week-featured a handsome red-brick Goliath with a gabled green roof punctuated by 10-foot-high ornamental spikes.

The building now appears complete, and it’s rather attractive from certain angles. But there are no spikes-or finials, as they’re officially called-and I’m disappointed. I was looking forward to the finials. I was excited about them. I could imagine the way the sun might strike them first thing in the morning from my bedroom window.

Even though I didn’t spend $1.6 million for one of the Empire’s typical two-bedroom units, simply by having it as part of my view shed (I believe that’s the term of art), I feel as if Davis & Partners had reneged on some sort of unspoken contract with me and has an obligation to make good.

So I recently decided to investigate what had become of the finials-whether they still might be happening; if not, why not; and whether there was some way I could persuade the developer to finish the job as promised.

I started by visiting the tower, located at 188 East 78th Street. The building’s concierge, a striking young black woman more than six feet tall and wearing tails, had no idea what I was talking about when I mentioned the finials. Neither did a porter. But they directed me to an office where a bunch of cigar-chomping construction types were conferring.

The gentleman whose name had been supplied as the project manager also seemed mystified-or played dumb-when I mentioned the finials. “I don’t remember the exact roof detail,” he stated vaguely, “but if they didn’t do it yet, they’re not doing it.”

I called an Empire tenant I knew socially to share my grief. It was the first time he’d heard that the building where he lived remained ornamentally incomplete. “But knowing it, of course, I’m outraged,” he said, and passed along a tip about the Wellington, a rental building at 82nd Street and First Avenue by the same developer. “There’s an unfinished piece of business there which is related,” he whispered. “There’s a concrete column with four bolts. There was to have been installed there a sculpture of a conifer. It was to be lit from beneath and very elegant.”

First the finials. Now a fake tree. I started to wonder whether I was onto something much bigger-like Watergate or the Bay of Pigs-but decided not to go there. There’s only so much one person can do to save the city he loves. I needed to stay focused on the finials. So I thanked my friend for the information, called Davis & Partners, and left a message that I had a few architectural questions relating to the Empire.

Steve Solomon, an associate with Howard Rubenstein, the developer’s P.R. firm, returned my call. And rather than give me the run-around or shift into damage control, as I was expecting, he promptly put me in touch with Lee Becker, an architect with Hartman-Cox, the white-shoe Washington, D.C., architectural firm that designed the Empire.

Mr. Becker didn’t make believe that he had no idea what I was talking about, that the finials never existed, that they were some sort of architectonic figment of my overworked imagination. “They were to be made of sheet metal and be attached to the pre-cast trim,” he told me forthrightly, though I couldn’t help notice that he was speaking in the past tense. “To be honest, in the end I think the people who were doing the construction on the project found, once they got the roof on, that it was difficult to get up there. Had they put them up in a different sequence, they might have gone up more readily.”

In a subsequent conversation, Mr. Becker revealed a dramatic exchange he’d had about the finials with Trevor Davis, the big kahuna at Davis & Partners. Mr. Becker related their conversation this way:

Mr. Davis: Where are the finials? They’re not there. Get them up there.

Mr. Becker: We can’t get up there.

Mr. Davis: Do we need the finials?

Mr. Becker: They’d be nice.

Mr. Becker said he was reasonably satisfied with the way the Empire turned out, finials or not, but that not everyone shared his opinion. “You know, there are people who really don’t like the building,” he confided, and shared with me a letter from one Dick Lopez, a neighborhood resident.

“I wish to congratulate you on your vast knowledge of architectural styles,” the letter started. “In the design of The Empire you’ve managed to use all of them. And to think that even the greatest of them-Wright, Le Corbusier, Saarinen, Mies van der Rohe-dared only use one at a time. Admiringly, Dick Lopez.”

I wondered whether I might have found a fellow curmudgeon in Mr. Lopez with whom to begin a citizens’ campaign to save-or rather, start-the finials. But when I get him on the phone, he made it clear that he considered the Empire a lost cause. The only thing that could improve the building’s appearance, I deduced from speaking with him, was a wrecking ball.

“It wouldn’t have surprised me if there were finials and balustrades and gewgaws and doodads, and if it looked like a wedding cake in someone’s nightmare,” he snorted. He added that he envies the Empire’s tenants: “The best thing about living in the building is, you don’t have to look at the building.”

A real-estate lawyer told me that while I was essentially powerless, a finial-loving Empire condo-owner who hadn’t moved in yet might be able to wriggle out of his or her contract by claiming the developer had misrepresented the building in its offering plan.

Unfortunately, I don’t have time to play Eric Brockovich to Davis & Partners’ PG&E. There’s a synagogue going up on my block, and I’m increasingly apprehensive about the quality of the stonework. Ornamental Journey: Search for a View