The Po-Mo Watchlist: NYC’s Endangered Postmodern Architecture

As preservation battles rage, will architecture from the 1970s and 1980s get its turn?

Of all New York’s Postmodern buildings, the Sony Tower is certainly the most identifiable. Purchased in 2013 for $1.1 billion, the property is facing a rehaul of sections of its floor space.

Courtesy David Shankbone/All original photography by Mark Wickens

Next year, the Landmarks Preservation Commission of New York City will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its founding. It was created to protect architecturally, historically, or culturally important buildings that New Yorkers want saved. Landmarking is a tricky and often controversial process, and buildings must be at least 30 years old before the Commission will consider designating them.

The problem is that in the past decade, the Commission has been slow to landmark buildings from the heyday of Postmodernism, the early 1970s to 1984 (the latest year that a structure is currently eligible for landmarking). Michael Gotkin, a landscape architect and preservation advocate, notes that the recent recladding of Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s iconic Takashimaya Building on Fifth Avenue was a wake-up call. “The demolition and redesign of a slew of Postmodern designs, including the South Street Seaport building, the Cherry Hill landscape in Central Park, and the threat to the Frick Collection’s wonderful entry pavilion and garden, demonstrate the urgency for the Landmarks Commission to designate and protect significant works from the 1970s and 1980s—itself an era of awareness about historic preservation,” says Gotkin, who cofounded the Modern Architecture Working Group, an organization that has successfully lobbied for preserving several postwar buildings in New York City. “To complicate matters, many Postmodern contributions to the cityscape are frequently additions to previously landmarked buildings. Presently, the Commission lacks a consistent methodology for dealing with the preservation of later modifications, including Postmodern additions, to historic buildings, landscapes, and districts.”

We have come up with our own watchlist of overlooked gems that will start the debate over Postmodern architecture and design’s contribution to Manhattan. Of course, it will be a challenge to draw attention to these structures, considering the many baby boomer architects who rebelled against Postmodernism in their youth, and might now be loath to protect buildings and landscapes from that era. Perhaps a younger, more open-minded generation will decide the fate of Postmodern design’s legacy. Docopomo, anyone? —Paul Makovsky

Sony Tower (1984)
Philip Johnson and John Burgee
550 Madison Avenue

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons

All manner of abuses were hurled at the Sony Tower, formerly the AT&T Building, after its completion in 1984. Yet, in the decades after, the 37-story high-rise would be reappraised by the public. Prescient for its time, the design’s historicist shtick has aged with surprising grace, its once-goofball Chippendale top having acquired the architectural gravitas of the city’s most cherished skyscrapers. “The AT&T Building, to me, is the most obvious contender for landmarking,” says Andrew S. Dolkart, director of the Historic Preservation Program at the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. “Whether one likes or appreciates Postmodernism or not, it’s a key work in the history of American design.” Dolkart notes the Tower’s “excellent” construction, particularly the handling of the exterior’s pink Stony Creek granite—a key feature that sets 550 Madison Avenue apart from its glass-and-steel brethren. The Landmarks Preservation Commission seems less inclined to list the building, even after it was sold in 2013 to the developer Chetrit Group, which plans to convert part of the building into condos. An even more tenacious battle awaits Johnson’s other Postmodern New York works.
—Samuel Medina

1001 Fifth Avenue (1978)

The apartment infill at 1001 Fifth Avenue is the pedimented stepchild of the 1910 McKim, Mead & White building next door. Ironically, the building falls within the Metropolitan Museum Historic District, which was established in response to the demolition of the buildings that made way for Johnson and Burgee’s insertion, among others.

Fifty-Third at Third (1986)
The “Lipstick Building”

The Mendelsohn-inflected Lipstick Building—as the tower was soon nicknamed—is one if the few non-orthogonal buildings in a city, the critic Michael Sorkin wrote at the time, whose “relentless rectilinearity seems needless.” Johnson noted this, saying that the building would be a “special monument” for the city.

Bergdorf Goodman facade (1983-84)
Allan Greenberg
754 Fifth Avenue

Originally, Bergdorf Goodman was housed in one of seven linked stores designed by Ely Jacques Kahn in 1927. As the department store expanded, it took over all of the nearest buildings, except for the jewelry store on the corner. The company then turned to Allan Greenber—recommended by Philip Johnson—to create a facade that would unify the buildings. “I met with Ira Neimark, CEO of Bergdorf Goodman at the time,” says Greenberg. “He wanted three things: for the facade to look like it’s been there all the time, for it to have large and small display windows, and a new entrance on Fifth Avenue because the current entrance they had in 1984 was a single ordinary door.” The result had an aura of agelessness. “I asked the editor of an architectural magazine if they would publish it,” says Greenberg. “She said, ‘Oh God, no! That’s been there for a long time.’ I took this as a compliment.”
—Shannon Sharpe

Because the marble originally used on the building is no longer quarried, Greenberg designed his arched entry in hard Wisconsin limestone, for as close a color match as possible.

Frick Collection Pavilion (1977)
John Barrington Bayley, Harry van Dyke, and G. Frederick Poehler
1 East 70th Street

Amidst all the controversy over the Frick Collection’s proposed expansion, one overlooked gem is a 1977 addition in the form of a classical pavilion by Bayley, van Dyke, and Poehler. In his recent argument for saving the Russell Page garden, New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman seems willing to sacrifice the pavilion—quite wrongly, in our opinion. Writing in 1979 in his book The City Observed: New York: A Guide to the Architecture of Manhattan, the critic Paul Goldberger pointed out that creating a true classical pavilion in the 1970s was “a daring idea.” It might have seemed ridiculous to some architects at the time, but as Goldberger notes, “Modern architecture is a fallen angel, and what there is of an architectural vanguard seems more concerned with turning back to history again.” He observed that the pavilion not only integrated well with the rest of the Frick complex, it fit in with its neighbors along 70th Street. —PM

Bayley joined the city’s first Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1962, later served as its deputy director, and cofounded Classical America with Poehler.

Le Parker Meridien Hotel Atrium and Galleria (1981)
Galleria by Todd Lee, Building by Philip Birnbaum
118 West 57th Street

Le Parker Meridien Hotel replaced the 12-story Great Northern Hotel designed by Schwartz & Gross in 1910.

In 1979, the City gave special permission to Le Parker Meridien for a mixed hotel and apartment development, and an eight-floor zoning bonus in return for a public through-block arcade that included an outdoor plaza.

Todd Lee designed the entrance on 57th Street with patterned marble floors and walls and a classical pediment that leads to a vaulted, faux-painted, Tuscan colonnaded passage. This opens to a three-story-high rectangular mid-block atrium, then connects through to 57th Street.

While some buildings segregate their public spaces, Le Parker Meridien “by design and management has so masterfully integrated the through-block arcade into its own functional orbit that it is difficult to tell where private ends and public begins,” writes Jerold S. Kayden in Privately Owned Public Space: The New York City Experience. The arcade is also the hotel’s lobby, and the City and building owner have been engaged in a series of legal disputes over the seating in the space. —PM

The 600-room hotel, designed by Philip Birnbaum with a mid-block galleria by Todd Lee, also had 100 rental apartments on the top nine floors.

Townhouse for Matt Sabatine (1984)
 Diana Agrest and Mario Gandelsonas
110 East 64th Street

Because the townhouse was in a historic district, the mullions had to be thickened to more closely match the others in the neighborhood.

Some of the Postmodern buildings now eligible for preservation once had to contend with landmarking decisions themselves. Matt Sabatine’s townhouse, designed by Agrest and Gandelsonas Architects after Manhattan’s Upper East Side was landmarked in 1981, is a fine case in point.

“We wanted to make an interpretation, quite clearly,” Agrest says. “We didn’t want to replicate a historic building.” The solution, which had to be approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, was to build a curved limestone facade that, in Agrest’s words, was a “hinge between two institutional buildings that had almost opposing styles”—the Modernist Asia House by Philip Johnson and the Gothic Central Presbyterian Church. During the approval process, the rectilinear base, originally designed as an indoor garage, remained as a way to echo the edge of the street. “We had to compromise at some point, because of the commission. A lot of other people got away with things, doing whatever,” Agrest says, ruefully. “But that’s a long story.” —Avinash Rajagopal

AXA Equitable Building (1985)
Edward Larrabee Barnes
787 Seventh Avenue

As part of the building’s design, a sky-lit, open-air pedestrian passageway connects 51st and 52nd Streets mid-block.

When the 752-foot-high, 1,740,000-square-foot Equitable Center opened its doors, Paul Goldberger critiqued it in the New York Times as “at once…Modern and ‘Postmodern.’” Yet it is precisely this admixture of design philosophies that makes the building an important marker of a moment in New York’s architectural history—when the great Modernists, Edward Larrabee Barnes among them, began to reconsider their ideas. The most spectacular parts of the building are the common and public spaces—the lobby is a shrine to contemporary art with a mural by Roy Lichtenstein and two galleries. —AR

870 Park Avenue (1974)
Robert A.M. Stern and John S. Hagmann

The original owner of this home was the businessman Leonard Stern. The interiors were destroyed in a fire in 1992, but the exterior remains true to the Stern and Hagmann design.

When Robert A. M. Stern was brought on to renovate this Upper East Side townhouse, he knew it was a big opportunity. “I was a young architect,” he says. “It was a big commission on a prominent site, so I did all I could to make it something of consequence.” Sterns’s goal was to design a Modern building that could also work contextually within the traditional neighborhood. “The design has what I thought were pretty daring [features] in those days— classically derived pilasters and proportions with ornaments,” he says, “all of which I think fall into the Postmodern sensibility that was emerging at the time.” —SS

ONE UN New York (1975, 1983)
Kevin Roche, John Dinkeloo, and Associates
1 United Nations Plaza

It’s been eight years since the Ambassador Grill last served lunch or dinner. The kitchen continues to spoon out bowls of oatmeal for breakfast, while the bar opens later in the evening, offering a small selection of bottled beers. In 2012, the hotel was sold and the new owners have announced their intention to gut Ambassador.​

Unlike their peers, who painlessly transitioned into Postmodernism, Roche and Dinkeloo persisted in their late-Modern tastes well into the late 1980s. Opened in 1975, the Ambassador Grill at One United Nations Plaza straddles the two periods. Its wedges of latticed mirrors—which Herbert Muschamp, explaining how Rem Koolhaas was once a frequent visitor, suggested had influenced OMA’s design for the Seattle Public Library—and touches of period glamour make for a delirious experience. Outside, in the lobby of the Millennium Hotels’s ONE UN New York, completed later in 1983, the architects piled more mirrors in the entrance vestibule, whose conical, beehive-like ceiling recalls the Alhambra. The corridor connecting the two employs classical columns, which Roche and Dinkeloo had previously developed for the Central Park Zoo (1980–1988) and deployed in the lobby of 31 West 52nd Street (1987), formerly the E.F. Hutton Building. “The lobby merits comparison to some of the great Art Deco lobbies in terms of its elaborate detail,” says Kyle Johnson, a Roche expert who consulted on an exhibition about the architect at the Museum of the City of New York in 2012. The firm’s decade-spanning work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is less appreciated. The museum recently announced plans to gut and remodel the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing (1987), the last of Roche and Dinkeloo’s additions. “Not a great piece of architecture on its own,” Johnson admits, “but a major change will also alter the overall master-planned expansion.” —SM

The mirror hallway linking the hotel lobby to the restaurant may also be threatened. The classical-inflected columns are versions of those first introduced at the Central Park Zoo.

Banca Commerciale Italiana (1982–1986)
Gino Valle  
1 William Street

For a modest building, this 11-story structure wedged into William Street in the Financial District has an outsized significance. It was the first building in the city in many years to be designed by a noted European architect. The Milanese Banca Commerciale Italiana hired the Italian Gino Valle to fill out the tiny trapezoidal city block that already contained the 1907 Seligman Building. Valle was a Modernist at the time, but here he designed a detailed limestone companion to the older building, picking out the floors with coursing in gleaming black granite and topping it with a wireframe turret. International critics took notice. “Kenneth Frampton wrote about it in Domus, it was on the cover of Lotus International, and Manfredo Tafuri mentions it in his book on the history of Italian architecture,” says Brian Kish, a curator and expert in Italian design. “Even though, physically, it’s quite small, the ideas are quite large. I’d say it’s a real gem.” —AR

Valle’s building influenced later works in New York City, such as the limestone and granite facade of 712 Fifth Avenue (1991) by Kohn Pedersen Fox.

Exterior of Domenico Vacca (1984)
Michael Graves & Associates
781 Fifth Avenue

The stylish facade of Domenico Vacca is what remains of Michael Graves’s original design for a Diane von Furstenberg store at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel. Against the backdrop of the extravagant 1980s, when money and greed were virtues, the fashion designer wanted a new couture shop aimed at an affluent, showier woman. “Make it a little shrine to Venus,” she told Graves. “Make it a place where a woman can walk in and dream and fantasize, and for a man who wants to indulge her.” Two million dollars later, Graves replaced the existing storefront with a new facade that sensitively conformed to the historical character of the hotel.

The two-story boutique had a gilded Grecian vessel, designed by Graves, set in the glass facade over the front door (to “gather in light and symbolize the feminine spirits”), and a tented salesroom on the first floor. The detailing and composition of the shop gave it the ambience of a fine wardrobe cabinet. —PM 

When fashion designer Geoffrey Beene moved onto the premises in 1989, he had the whole interior redesigned.

Schermerhorn Hall (1985)
Susana Torre, with Wank Adams Slavin Associates
1190 Amsterdam Avenue

Torre’s $6.25 million renovation included a 200-seat auditorium, several offices, two galleries, and a visual resources center.

Courtesy Norman McGrath

When Torre was hired to renovate Schermerhorn Hall at Columbia University, a structure built by McKim, Mead & White in 1896, she had to rectify a brutal 1939 modernization that had replaced McKim’s grand entrance hall with a cramped vestibule, and his monumental stairs with an elevator. Torre’s understanding of architectural history informed her plan, which was especially fitting since the users were the art history and archaeology departments. She added spatial complexity while referencing ornamental details from the McKim design. The stairway now includes globe lights, which are repeated in the classroom halls on the upper floors, but the golden marble cladding is unique to the sunlit lobby. “McKim’s original building was full of architectural subtleties,” Daralice D. Boles wrote in Progressive Architecture at the time. “Torre, too, introduces architectural ideas that may elude most building users. For example, structural piers, which raise the height of the building, are treated as continuous columns, with a base at the entrance level and a capital on the top floor.” —PM

Shun Lee West (1985)
Stanley Jay Friedman
43 West 65th Street

“The lighting was not typically like Chinese restaurants,” Friedman says. “We had a lot of controls on how we lit this place. We wanted it to be subtle and romantic.”

When Friedman was approached by restaurateur Michael Tong to design his eatery, the designer wanted to break the red-lantern stereotype of Chinese restaurants. “I thought that I’d like an environment that looked like a 1930s club,” he says—a smart move given Art Deco’s obsession with Eastern motifs. Tong has made very few changes to the original scheme. The dining area still features black booths designed by Friedman. Glowing golden dragons fly along the walls, which are now red instead of the original light pink. The pièce de résistance is the dim sum cafe, which was completed a couple of years later, with papier– mâché heads of the animals in the Chinese zodiac hanging from a checkerboard ceiling. After finishing lunch at the restaurant this past September, one diner took her companion to peer through the café’s doors, which wouldn’t open until 4 p.m. “Wow,” she said. “I told you they haven’t changed it.” —AR

Not much has changed in Shun Lee West’s decor over the years. In the dining area, restaurateur Michael Tong “had the dragon made over again, exactly the way in which it was,” Friedman says.

Central Park Path Lampposts (1981)
Gerald Allen and Kent Bloomer (with Howard Brandston as lighting consultant) 

In 1909, the park’s gas lamps were replaced by 80-watt tungsten bulbs, which gave way to 175-watt metal halide bulbs in 1981. The city installed 1,600 LED luminaires in the park in 2012.

Visitors to Central Park commonly assume that the light fixtures, buildings, and pavilions are the work of the original designers, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. In fact, many park features are interpretations of the originals, designed in the 1980s by various architects, landscape architects, and industrial designers. “These designers may have based their work on historic photos, but the ornamental details of their designs are often redolent of the pervasive Postmodernism of their own time, not slavish copies of the originals,” says Gotkin.

The Central Park lampposts are a prime example of Postmodern design methodology. The designers used a Ruskinian design approach, inspired by nature, but also referenced an eclectic variety of historical precedents to create a completely new design. Gotkin observes, “These later contributions to the Central Park landscape need to be reevaluated as individual works of design with historical integrity from their own era, part of the cumulative architectural history of New York City.” —SS

Central Park Ballplayers’ House (1990)
Buttrick White & Burtis

Buttrick White & Burtis’s design won them an award from the Preservation League of New York State in 1991.

It now serves as a quaint spot to get a bite to eat while watching a baseball game, but the stand originally served as the boys Ballplayers’ House, a changing room for boys who played baseball and cricket on the nineteenth-century field. “The design was directly inspired by Calvert Vaux’s original ball players’ pavilion,” says the architect Samuel White of Buttrick White & Burtis. “The colors and materials of the new building are faithful to the original, but the building is smaller than the original, and the program is different.”

The designers wanted the pavilion to be of its time, rather than a reproduction, so they added some geometrical complexity to create the fanciful latticework facade. Project architect William Braham designed a tile frieze with a pattern of bats and balls, which was then produced by Brenda Burton using the traditional encaustic tile method. —SS

Dene Summerhouse (1983)
Central Park Conservancy

“Dene” means a valley, and refers to a stretch of landscape on the park’s East Side. The Summerhouse stands at its southern end.

Central Park has a long history of reinterpreting the past, with different park administrations periodically contributing new quasi-historical structures to the landmarked park. In the 1970s and 1980s, architect and artist James R. Lamantia conducted meticulous historical research examining old stereoscopic photos, sketches, and paintings of Central Park, in an effort to create an informed framework for recreating historical park structures. This came to fruition in the late 1980s, when the newly founded Central Park Conservancy established a highly skilled team of park carpenters to relearn the craft of rustic construction, creating intricately handmade structures intended to complement the park’s picturesque landscapes. Using unhewn lumber, craftsmen created the Dene Summerhouse and other rustic features in Central Park. The structures are interpretations of the originals, filtered through research, design, and craftsmanship. —SS

Recent Viewpoints