The title above could as easily have been “Save the Roosevelt Hotel!” or for that matter “Save Grand Central Terminal!” “Save the Chrysler Building!” might also be apt. Or it could be “All is lost!” … “Or maybe not!” could equally if perhaps over-optimistically be tacked on. The point is that a superproject is almost set to proceed across Vanderbilt Avenue from Grand Central, which will continue to chip away at the remaining grandes dames of the Beaux Arts in the terminal’s vicinity.
“City Chips Away at Beaux Arts Heart of Manhattan,” by Cara Greenberg in the Architectural Record, states the facts of the case straightforwardly. I can state that the facts she reports are depressing in the extreme. It looks as if the correlation of forces arrays strongly against what was conceived in the early 20th century as Terminal City. Greenberg quotes architect Peter Pennoyer, author (with Anne Walker) of The Architecture of Warren & Wetmore, describing this section of Midtown around Grand Central as “an urban ensemble, a mythic place, arguably more important than Rockefeller Center.”
The Pan Am Building was the first major snub to Grand Central in the 1960s, courtesy of Walter Gropius, a founder of modernism and former director of the Bauhaus who helped with the design of the Pan Am (now the MetLife). The world’s largest office building was plopped between the terminal and the Beaux Arts New York Central tower, belittling the latter in the view down Park Avenue from the north, and the former in the view up it. In the late ’70s came the obscene transformation of the Commodore Hotel (“the most beautiful lobby in the world”) by Donald Trump into the Grand (sic) Hyatt, which Greenberg describes as “a black glass edifice wildly unsympathetic to the stately monument to the east on 42nd Street.” (In the photo at left, the Hyatt sits between Grand Central and the Chrysler Building.)
This year, if the city enacts a rezoning proposal in this area that would resuscitate part of a larger Midtown rezoning plan whose passage was thwarted a year or so ago, demolition will begin to make way for One Vanderbilt, a Kohn Pedersen Fox tower of 1,450 feet, tallest in Midtown. Razed will be not just 51 East 42nd St., by Warren & Wetmore, architects of Grand Central, but two other excellent buildings that arose in order to create an elegant setting for the terminal.
If this goes forward, the nearby Yale Club and Roosevelt Hotel had better begin getting their affairs in order. Pressure to redevelop the newly rezoned area will be intense. Unfortunately, none of these buildings are landmarked, and the preservation community is not going to the mat for 51 E. 42nd. Too bad nobody thought to rename it the Sex and Violence Building. (Homage to a famous Wall Street Journal headline intended to induce readers to begin reading an editorial about the federal deficit, or was it the trade imbalance?) Too bad, for that matter, that these buildings had not been redeveloped as residential by now, which, as Pennoyer points out in Greenberg’s piece, would have assured the area of a stronger constituency for its preservation.
And if One Vanderbilt goes up, then the Chrysler Building had better be prepared to hold its nose for an ugly new “dancing partner,” to quote one of the project’s supporters.
I think this is tragic, but some three quarters of the buildings of Terminal City disappeared long ago in the redevelopment spurt that followed World War II. Vanderbilt Avenue along the west edge of Grand Central is a narrow street that parallels one of the two elevated roads that flank the terminal. They make it not just a beautiful piece of architecture but a fascinating example of enlightened transportation infrastructure beyond its obvious role as a depot for rail. The supporters of One Vanderbilt can argue plausibly that their project, which plans to turn Vanderbilt Avenue into a pedestrian way, will bring light and needed transit improvements to the vicinity.
Maybe so, but at what cost? The buildings that face demolition are owned by a rapacious developer (SL Green), but there is no law against development or rapaciousness. New York has long been a petri dish for the most grisly aspects of capitalism’s “creative destruction.”
And yet zoning issues are where democracy’s rubber meets the road, and if nobody is really very upset by the coming loss of the Sex and Violence Building, then the Yale Club and the Roosevelt Hotel will just have to prepare to meet their maker. Those who understand the value of retaining not just beauty in the city but of treating architecture of this moderate size as the key to sustainability in the big city must prepare for defeat, and for the Dubaization of Midtown, which has already begun along 57th Street.
Without a miracle, those who want one last sight of a great beauty had better book a trip to Manhattan before the summer rolls around. And those who don’t want New York to become the set for Blade Runner East should get their act together now.