Is the Oldest Upper East Side Building on Fifth Avenue Worth Saving?

Not 1870's best work.
Not 1870’s best work.

For the oldest building on Fifth Avenue between 59th and 110th streets, No. 815 isn’t much to look at. The original Italianate design, erected in 1870-71, was disfigured when Verna Scott Cushman hired architects Murgatroyd & Ogden to “upgrade” the structure in 1923, and it’s never been quite the same since. An Upper East Side historic district designation report written in 1981 describes the present style as “none.”

The front stoop was removed and the brownstone facing on the floors above the parlor level were removed. And even the bottom two floors didn’t emerge unscathed—an earlier photo shows a pediment above the front door which seems to have been removed.

All of this, plus the $32 million price tag, suggests that Brazilian developer JHSF Participações expects to be able to raze the structure, despite its inclusion in the Upper East Side Historic District.

The neighbors, however, are having none of it. The Real Deal reports that a letter was sent to residents in neighboring buildings—812 and 817 Fifth Avenue—describing the proposed design by TP Greer Architects as “contemporary” and “incompatible” with the historic neighborhood.

Timothy Greer countered that the design would be “sensitive to and consistent with the established architectural character and scale of Fifth Avenue.” A rendering has not been made available to the public.

Of course, the two neighboring buildings also have lot line windows that would be blocked were 815 Fifth Avenue to rise above its current profile, so it would be naïve to take their protestations about the planned building’s style at face value.

The Observer spoke with Rod Winterrowd, whose interior design firm is located on the first floor of 815 Fifth Avenue, about the building. While he agreed that the building’s present exterior is “lackluster,” he held out hope—however fleeting, given the hefty price that the developer paid for the property—that it would be “returned to rights.”

Mr. Winterrowd also told The Observer about some of the property’s interior features. “There are two fireplaces, very grand, elaborate plaster moldings, and this incredible mirrored mahogany door,” around ten feet tall, that he had restored. “It was drywalled, and when they were doing construction, I felt this breeze. So I got a hammer and this door was there, in terrible disrepair.”

“What I would do,” Mr. Winterrowd said, “is say it needs to be returned to rights. Or at least, there should be some recognition, historically, of what it was before the 1920s.”

As for any new building, Mr. Winterrowd agreed that a contemporary building might be inappropriate. “I do hope,” he said, “that they have something that’s at least classical and relates to the neighborhood.”

“Unless,” he hedged, “you bring in some incredible architect, like the way the glass pyramid is next to the Louvre.”

TP Greer Architects sure has their work cut out for them. Is the Oldest Upper East Side Building on Fifth Avenue Worth Saving?