From Business to Pleasure: Transforming Manhattan's Art Deco Office Towers
By Mary Beth Betts
Long ago, advocates for historic preservation learned that one effective way to keep old buildings standing was adaptive reuse: to find new uses for them. Approximately forty years ago, this approach was tried with Manhattan commercial buildings that had outlived their original purpose, but could find new life through conversion to multi-family residences. Early examples in New York included Liberty Tower on Liberty Street in lower Manhattan and the former U.S. Archive Building on Christopher Street, but they remained rare in New York until the 1990s, when older commercial buildings were losing tenants at the same time that the city’s housing shortage was growing more severe.
Today, some of the most extraordinary and successful examples of adaptive reuse involve major skyscrapers, and in particular Art Deco office towers. They include the conversion of six significant Art Deco––or in the case of the American Radiator Building at 40 West 40th Street, proto-Art Deco––buildings: Panhellenic Tower at 3 Mitchell Place; the Cities Service building at 70 Pine Street; and a trio of buildings designed by Ralph Walker: the Walker Tower at 212 West 18th Street, the Barclay-Vesey Building at 100 Barclay Street, and the Irving Trust Company Building at One Wall Street.
American Radiator Building, 40 West 40th Street, was designed by architect Raymond Hood and built 1923-24, and designated a New York City Landmark in 1974.
Panhellenic Tower, 3 Mitchell Place, was designed by architect John Mead Howells and built 1927–28, and designated a New York City Landmark in 1998.
Cities Service Building, 70 Pine Street, was designed by architects Clinton & Russell, Holton & George and built 1930-31, and designated a New York City Landmark in 2011.
Conversions Begin Downtown
The 1990s boom in residential conversions started in Lower Manhattan. In response to an abundance of vacant downtown office space following the 1987 stock market crash, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s administration created a plan for revitalization through zoning changes and tax incentives. Developers found the floor plates––the total area of a given floor––of 1920s office buildings too small for contemporary offices with their open plans and technological needs, but just right for residential use. Former Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) Director of Research Marjorie Pearson said that Chairwoman Jennifer Raab “saw an opportunity to capitalize on the program and move forward with designation of early twentieth century office buildings.” Lower Manhattan conversions of older office towers offered the best of the old and new.
According to a study by the Alliance for Downtown New York, Everything Old is New Again: Conversion of Historic Properties in Lower Manhattan, “Combined with Class A space in new construction, the district’s rich collection of historic, Landmarked buildings is an influential selling point.” Tax incentives like the 421-g real estate tax abatement program initially spurred conversion, but even when those credits expired in 2006, residential conversion continued.
Designated New York City Landmarks in more traditional styles such as the neo-Gothic Manhattan Company Building at 40 Wall Street were among the first to benefit from the program. Even without the incentives, however, developers saw the advantages of repurposed buildings, particularly those with Art Deco features. While several such buildings are designated New York City Landmarks, making their demolition almost impossible, developers often promote Landmark status as an added value. Developer Adam Rose says the Cities Service Building’s designated status “was the least problematic” issue.
The Attractions of Residential Conversion
Examined as a whole, the conversions reveal some physical and associational values shared by 1920s office towers. In general, conversions can be seen to provide the best of old and new, combining contemporary interiors with historic exteriors and sometimes lobbies. In the words of a condominium owner at Barclay-Vesey, “This brick building is nearly 100 years old, but it’s got all the modern amenities I want, plus high ceilings, big windows, and lots of character.” James Nevius in the New York Post wrote: “These older buildings often feature covetable amenities from high ceilings (often 13 feet) to open floor plans that are far more expensive to build—and ultimately to buy—than with new construction. These structures also offer unrivaled period details such as gilded lobbies, ornamented façades, and ultra-thick, nearly soundproof windows.”
Spectacular views: In websites and articles developers promoted the extraordinary views at the Panhellenic, Walker, and Irving Trust buildings. The setbacks mandated for commercial buildings by the city’s 1916 zoning law make terraces possible for a larger number of apartments than in traditional apartment buildings. Because 1920s buildings relied on daylight for illumination––as well as windows that actually opened––the resulting spaces enjoy sunlight and fresh air, as well as high ceilings. Barbara Ballinger writing in Multifamily Executive Magazine noted: “Today’s residential buyers crave views, light, and outdoor space.”
Construction quality: The presence of art works and the type of materials used, inside and outside, are also desirable. According to DXA, the firm that converted the Barclay-Vesey building, “You don’t really see the same sort of grandiose spaces you’d find in pre-war structures in contemporary developments. In addition, the construction methods used in pre-war buildings are often much better quality.”
Multiple floor plans: Even the diminishing dimensions of floor plates caused by the upper-story setbacks––initially viewed as a drawback––are now seen as an advantage, providing for a greater variety of floor plans and apartment layouts. According to the website 6sqft, sponsored by the Barclay-Vesey ownership, “The varying floor plates, which was a challenge at the start, gave us the opportunity to create a variety of sizes and programs within the apartment types. This enables us to cater to different buyers, young professionals, and to large families.” The large floor plates of the lower stories provide space for desirable amenities for recreation, storage, restaurants, and social clubs.
Historic cachet: The association with New York City history and the panache of Art Deco buildings, longtime icons of the Manhattan skyline, have great appeal. Michelle Higgins reported in The New York Times that “a historic pedigree is viewed as a way to stand out in Manhattan’s increasingly crowded luxury development market.” She quoted Jonathan J. Miller, the president of the appraisal firm Miller Samuel, as saying, “It’s that first impression that really sets the tone for the rest of the building. The idea is for a lobby to really blow away the people coming in.”
Economics: Finally, Elise Knutsen writing in the New York Observer about the Walker Tower hints at another benefit, that of cost: “If you’re looking for a new pad and want the pre-war façade without the pre-war maintenance fees, this might be a good place to start.” In other words, Art Deco office towers can provide a luxurious façade without the expense associated with purpose-built pre-war apartment buildings.
An Early Example: The American Radiator Building
An important precedent for these conversions is the American Radiator building, 40 West 40th Street, designed by Raymond Hood and built in 1923-24 as an office building. The striking black and gold building straddles the line between the neo-Gothic style of the earlier 1920s and the Art Deco design that Hood would develop later at the Daily News, McGraw Hill, and Rockefeller Center buildings. Its design is also a precedent for the use of massing and color by architects Ralph Walker, Ely Jacques Kahn, and Joseph Urban. The four architects, in fact, were close colleagues and had regularly scheduled lunches together. The LPC designated the Radiator building a New York City Landmark in 1974. The designation was controversial at the time, according to Pearson: “ . . . the Commission’s action, was not without controversy in part because of the building’s dramatic design, and designation was opposed by the American Standard Company, the owners of the building.”
The initial history of this early designation of a tall office building––only the Flatiron Building, 175 Fifth Avenue, and the Liberty Tower, 55 Liberty Street, both designated in 1966, are earlier—reveals some of the problems encountered in converting office buildings. By 1994, according to Christopher Gray’s “Streetscapes” column in The New York Times, the Radiator building had been vacant for four years. Gray noted that its typically small floor areas would be more profitable for residential use, and that the owner, Clio Biz, was actively pursuing this. In late 1997 Philip Pilevsky and Brian McNally bought the structure and converted it into The Bryant Park Hotel, which opened three years later. The hotel thrives today, suggesting that designation has both preserved a significant building and encouraged creative approaches to adapting historic properties.
The Panhellenic Tower
The Panhellenic Tower (later the Beekman Tower Hotel) at 3 Mitchell Place near East 51st Street and First Avenue was designed by John Mead Howells and built in 1927-28 to provide affordable housing for young working women. Designated by LPC in 1998, the building underwent an extensive exterior restoration completed in 2011. In January 2013 the building was purchased for $82 million, renovated for another $24.2 million, and repositioned as “luxury residential and corporate housing units, and 3,500 square feet of ground-floor community and retail space.” The building’s website touts its status as a 1920s Art Deco skyscraper, its neighborhood, its views, and its architect: “The Beekman Tower is an historical Landmark that rises prominently over the East River in one of Manhattan’s most exclusive neighborhoods.”
Penhellenic architectural ornamentation detail.
Penhellenic architectural ornamentation detail.
The Penhellenic Tower.
The Trend Moves to Larger Skyscrapers: The Cities Service Building
From these comparatively slighter Art Deco towers with their smaller floor plates, the residential conversion boom has moved to taller and more massive Art Deco towers. The Cities Service building, 70 Pine Street, designed by architects Clinton & Russell, Holton & George and built 1930-31, was designated by LPC in 2011. The 952-feet, 66-story building, an icon of the Manhattan skyline, was at the time of its completion the tallest structure in lower Manhattan and the third tallest structure in the world. The Commission designated both the exterior and the public lobby spaces, but not the spectacular glass-enclosed observatory, ineligible at the time because it was not customarily accessible to the public.
Rose Associates purchased the building in 2012 to convert it to residential use. According to Curbed New York, the plan, completed in 2016, was for residential apartments, extensive amenities, an extended-stay hotel, retail, and a yet-to-be-realized restaurant. The StreetEasy Blog wrote that there are 611 residential units, with 150 having private outdoor space, and 400 different floor plans. The building’s website highlights its merger of old and new: “Soaring 66 stories in the sky, 70 Pine rises above Lower Manhattan reclaiming its place as a historic fixture of the Manhattan skyline. Re-imagined for residential living, every space has been thoughtfully designed to embody the style, technology, and convenience of modern living while capturing the vibrant spirit of classic New York.” The Alliance for Downtown praised the building: “New York City’s most iconic Art Deco building still stands out as a slender and alluring fixture on the Lower Manhattan skyline. An enclosed glass observatory on the 66th floor offers sensational views. The lobby was Landmarked in 2011, and indeed, few buildings from this era boast such a spacious, ornate, and well-preserved public space.”
The Cities Service Building was at the time of its completion the tallest structure in lower Manhattan and the third tallest structure in the world.
The exterior and the public lobby spaces of Cities Service Building were designated a New York City Landmark in 2011.
The Penhellenic Tower.
The Walker Buildings
The last three conversions are all the of a single architectural firm: McKenzie, Voorhees & Gmelin, later as Voorhees, Gmelin & Walker, and its chief designer Ralph Walker. Walker is famed in American architectural history for the Barclay-Vesey Building, considered the first and prototypical Art Deco skyscraper, and his career has enjoyed renewed interest thanks to Kathryn E. Holliday’s exhibition and monograph on his work, sponsored by the developers of the Walker Tower. As described in a Daily News article, “The surge of interest of work by Walker, who died in 1973, has not been accidental. The development team behind Walker Tower, which began selling in 2012, worked with branding expert Richard Pandiscio and spent months delving into Walker’s story in a bid to educate prospective buyers on the importance of the architect’s work and the quality of his buildings, even going so far as to commission a book on the subject.” What made Walker buildings special? “For one thing, they’re great examples of New York City’s Art Deco history, with impressive lines and details. They’re also some of the city’s sturdiest structures. Walker was the architect of choice for the New York Telephone Co., and many of his buildings were used for storing heavy telephone equipment, meaning they had to support a great deal of weight.”
The first Walker building converted to residential use was Walker Tower at 212 West 18th Street. Built in 1929 for the New York Telephone Company, it was purchased in 2009 for a residential conversion, completed in 2012, though Verizon, the successor to New York Telephone, kept the first eight floors. The conversion includes a four-story addition, rooftop garden, and a change in fenestration, possible because Walker Tower is the only building in the group not a Landmark. The architect of the conversion, Nancy Ruddy of Cetra Ruddy Architecture, praised the building’s “great bones,” high quality materials, and lack of significant alterations, adding, “The ground floor still had its beautiful metalwork, and on the outside Verizon hadn’t made significant changes.”
The building’s website touts its Walker pedigree, modern amenities, private terraces, high ceilings, and spectacular views: “Built before neighborhood height limits were enacted, Walker Tower rises high above its surroundings and features stunning and protected 360-degree Manhattan views.” Elise Knutsen, in her Observer article, praised the building’s “lavish entryways, ornate detailing, and sweeping interior spaces that are unheard of in today’s construction practices.” The conversion was so successful that the same team purchased another Walker telephone company building at 425 West 50th Street, creating Stella Tower, named for Walker’s wife.
The ground floor entrance of Walker Tower boasts the impressive lines, details, and high quality materials original to the building.
The decorative elements of the Walker Tower lobby are a classic representation of the Deco era.
Walker Tower at 212 West 18th Street, built in 1929, and designed by famed designer Ralph Walker of Voorhees, Gmelin & Walker.
The Barclay-Vesey Building
Walker’s most famous building, the Barclay-Vesey Building, was built in 1923-27 for the New York Telephone Company. This was Walker’s first major design and the building is credited with being the first New York City Art Deco style skyscraper. Thanks to Walker’s skillful handling of the setbacks required by the 1916 zoning code, the result was dramatic massing combined with complex nontraditional ornament. This established the model for the massing and decoration of subsequent Art Deco buildings. The building’s exterior and interior were designated as Landmarks in 1991.
In 2013 a developer purchased the top twenty-one floors of the building to convert those stories to residential use while Verizon continues to occupy the lower stories. Initially the lower stories’ massive floor plates might seem difficult to convert to residential use, but in the Post Nevius writes about both Barclay-Vesey and One Wall: “Similarly, the large floor plates on lower stories and deep basements give buildings like 1 Wall and 100 Barclay ample room for amenities—in the latter, 40,000 square feet, including two pools.” The building’s website praises the features of the Landmarked lobby: “Today, the original touches have been restored to new grandeur. They can be found in the vibrant overhead murals depicting the history of human communications that line the vaulted Grand Lobby ceilings, and in the intricate and ornate cast bonze detailing that surrounds the elevators.”
One Wall Street
Walker designed One Wall Street as the corporate headquarters for the Irving Trust Company. It was constructed in 1929-31 at the intersection of Broadway and Wall Street, which was considered to be the “most expensive real estate in New York.” Designated a New York City Landmark in 2001, it was subsequently acquired by Macklowe Properties in 2014 for residential conversion. The faceted limestone-clad building has spectacular interior spaces including an observation lounge with large windows featuring panoramic views of the city and the original banking hall, known as the Red Room after Hildreth Meière’s red mosaic-encrusted walls and ceiling. The website for the building spells out its desirable features: “The building itself has many features including exceptional panoramic views, ideal floor plates for multiple uses, excellent ceiling heights, the ‘Red Room,’ multiple entrances and access to multiple transportation hubs.”
The conversion of Art Deco office towers into residential buildings continues to be a success. While critics once voiced concerns that this was a passing trend, the opportunity to own an apartment with a distinctive, historical façade, perhaps a fabulous lobby, high ceilings, great views and light, combined with modern construction and au courant amenities, strikes many buyers as too good to pass up.
About the Author:
Mary Beth Betts is an architectural historian at the Public Design Commission and The Skyscraper Museum. She was the curator of exhibitions on the architecture of New York City Hall and McKim, Mead & White and has published essays on the New York City waterfront, the architecture of Cass Gilbert and New York City Hall.
Photos: Lynn Farrell
Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 3, Issue 1, Spring 2018. View a digital version of the full journal here.
One Wall Street, constructed in 1929-31 at the intersection of Broadway and Wall Street, was designated a New York City Landmark in 2001.
The Red Banking Room of One Wall Street dazzles with its red mosaic-encrusted walls and ceiling. Photo: Hildreth Meière, hildrethmeiere.org