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The Art of Conversation

Project: New addition to the Carhart Mansion, New York, NY

Architects: Zivkovic Associates Architects, New York, NY; with John Simpson & Partners Ltd., Bloomsbury, London, U.K.

Construction Manager: F.J. Sciame Construction Co., Inc., New York, NY

Reviewed by Steven W. Semes

The Amory S. Carhart Mansion, at 3 East 95th Street in New York City, designed between 1913 and 1916 by the superb Classical architect Horace Trumbauer (1868-1938), is one of the gems of Manhattan’s Carnegie Hill neighborhood. Rising just steps from Fifth Avenue and Central Park, it is also an individually designated city landmark. Based on the model of an 18th-century Parisian townhouse, its scale, proportions and robust detailing give it a strong American accent. From its commanding position at the western end of the block, the Carhart Mansion leads an elegant parade of townhouses that, despite their variety of style, massing and material, compose an exceptionally congruent urban streetscape. To the east is the intriguing Fabbri Mansion (now the House of the Redeemer, a religious retreat center affiliated with the Episcopal Church), designed by Egisto Fabbri and Grosvenor Atterbury between 1914 and 1916, with its Neo-Italian Renaissance detailing and unusual entry courtyard. The street is almost a textbook example of a lively urban block, but as polished and confident as its buildings are, the elegant camaraderie of the entire ensemble might easily be ruined by a single boorish gate-crasher. That was the case when an unattractive 1950s building rose at Number 5, the lot adjacent to the Carhart Mansion. Happily, its just-completed replacement has joined the ensemble, not only re-establishing proper etiquette, but also raising the tone of the whole party.

After World War II, the Carhart Mansion, like many other grand houses, was adapted for use as a private school, the Lycée Français de New York. The school expanded into the low addition at Number 5 next door and occupied other historic townhouses in the neighborhood as well. After many years accommodating les petits écoliers, in early 2001 the school offered the building for sale, along with five other properties in the neighborhood, and planned to consolidate its facilities into a new building.

Architect Brian Connolly, principal at Zivkovic Associates Architects of New York, NY, prepared the initial feasibility studies for a number of the sites, testing their development potential to assist with the sale. Connolly developed plans for three or four luxury apartments in the Carhart Mansion and a new annex on the site of 5 East 95th Street, sympathetic in scale and materials, deferential in character and plainly speaking the same Classical language as the Trumbauer building.

By late 2001, the school had sold the two 95th Street lots to a developer, who hired Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners LLP to direct the restoration and adaptation of the townhouse and design the addition. Among other things, the New York City- and Washington, DC-based firm was undoubtedly chosen for its long-standing track record of successfully navigating the review process of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). Known for its sensitive work on Grand Central Terminal and Ellis Island, Beyer Blinder Belle proposed for the new 95th Street building a frankly Modernist structure with a gridded veneer stone cladding and a large central bay of aluminum-and-glass curtain wall. The scheme, according to Managing Partner Fred Bland, FAIA, AICP, represents the firm’s approach to additions in historic contexts – or at least represents their response to this individual case, since the firm believes that "no one size fits all" but seeks "individual answers for individual monuments." The architects’ approach convinced the LPC, which approved the design with only minor modifications.

If you speak with architects and consultants who appear frequently before the LPC, they characterize their perceptions of the LPC’s decisions as follows: Designs for additions to landmarks or infill buildings in historic districts that do not violate the cornice lines and overall massing of neighboring protected buildings will likely win approval, even if aggressively Modernist in style, materials and details; but new traditional designs would have a harder time being approved on the basis of style alone. Accordingly, a number of prominent New York architects specializing in projects involving landmarks have advised their clients that new traditional designs employing actual historic architectural language, such as fully realized Classicism, would likely cost them a lot more in time and money in the review process. This perception has had a chilling effect on new traditional design in historic districts in New York City and in other cities where similar views prevail.

In response, members of the LPC have publicly denied any aesthetic or stylistic bias. LPC Chairman Robert Tierney told me in an interview that "openness is our policy" and disputed the idea that the LPC has any stylistic preferences. He wouldn’t speculate on the motives of the architects who had advised clients to abandon traditional schemes, but did mention that the more "striking" contemporary buildings tend to attract more attention, whereas "ten contextual projects won’t be remembered." To be sure, a large number of high profile contrasting Modernist buildings have been approved for landmark sites in recent years, including the Harvard Club of New York City, the Pierpont Morgan Library and the Hearst Tower, as well as smaller projects for infill sites in Greenwich Village and other neighborhoods. The Beyer Blinder Belle proposal for 95th Street certainly fits comfortably within the perceived "mainstream" of LPC-approved projects, and so it is not surprising that the LPC found the design appropriate.

There was only one problem. The developer/owner and its real estate broker, who was trying to pre-sell the units, were unhappy with the schizoid pairing of the Classical landmark and the Modernist addition. While the restored façade and interior rooms in the Trumbauer wing of the complex would be on a grand scale, the units in the new building were designed to much less luxurious contemporary apartment standards and the exterior did not bear comparison with the older building to which it would be joined. The broker advised that the units in the new building would not command the expected prices and the developer made the decision to return to a more Classical design.

In mid-2002 the developer called in Zivkovic Associates to prepare new plans and elevations for the new building based on the earlier studies by Connolly. They kept the general massing of the Beyer Blinder Belle scheme but gave the façade a strongly Classical composition along the lines of their earlier proposal. The client approved this direction and, in early 2003, asked the architects to finalize the design for re-submittal to the LPC. (Fortunately, the project enjoyed the luxury of a long time frame, as the school had arranged to remain in the buildings until their new facility was ready.)

To assist them, Zivkovic Associates assembled an unimpeachable team of consultants, including Shelly Friedman (zoning and planning attorney), Higgins & Quaesbarth (landmarks preservation consultants) and Donald Friedman (structural engineer and traditional masonry construction consultant). In its own office, partner Don Zivkovic was involved, John Spencer was appointed project architect and Pargev Vardanian was placed in charge of detailing the stonework. The firm also invited John Simpson, principal of John Simpson & Partners Ltd. of Bloomsbury, London, U.K., to join their team as an architectural consultant, particularly with respect to the exterior of the new wing.

Simpson arrived in New York from London as his Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace was under construction. He clearly made an impression. Non-New Yorkers not fully appreciate how susceptible New Yorkers are to the genuine charm of a sophisticated English architect with Her Majesty the Queen topping his list of client references. (A British accent will get you almost anything in this town, just ask British architect Sir Norman Foster.) It is also perhaps not irrelevant to mention here that Zivkovic is an Australian and Connolly a native of Ireland, adding their own accents to the exotic mix of the team. Simpson, Zivkovic and Connolly worked with their respective staffs and consultants in close collaboration on the project through completion, countering the contemporary emphasis on individual "star" architects.

It isn’t often that the LPC is asked to consider a new design proposal, having already approved a different design only the year before for the same site and for the same applicant. Since the new proposal was a completely new conception, the review process started over from the beginning. Initially, the LPC was skeptical about the proposed Classical design. One staff member told Simpson, "You can’t do that – the façade has to be plain and simple."

The LPC’s concerns seemed to focus on the question of how well the design would be executed – whether the quality of the craftsmanship in the new construction would do justice to the historic buildings around it. (Oddly, this did not seem to be an issue with the earlier Modernist design!) The commonly expressed fear is that Classical detailing, so alluring in the renderings, might end up looking thin and saccharine in execution. Admittedly, this fear is not an unreasonable one, given the plethora of ersatz Classical designs rendered in synthetic materials visible across the land.

In this case, however, the LPC’s concerns were allayed by the architects’ use of thick, load-bearing masonry walls on the two façades visible from the street, eliminating tell-tale expansion joints. These massive walls would be built more or less as Trumbauer’s had been. Substantial new windows and wrought-iron balconies completed the picture. The architects also planned carved ornament decorating the façades: swags, rosettes, anthemions, volutes and urns. Antefixae punctuated the roofline. As realized, the new building joins the 1977 addition to The Frick Collection and the 1993 addition to The Jewish Museum, both located just down Fifth Avenue, as a model of craftsmanship in limestone. The Classical detail is not skin-deep; it is the real thing.

There was another concern: Members of the LPC have said publicly that they do not look favorably on what some call "replicative" additions indistinguishable from the style of the landmark onto which they are grafted. The example often cited is Kevin Roche’s addition to The Jewish Museum, in which two bays of new Gothic stonework were seamlessly added to the original building, closely matching the historic details and materials. Many preservationists object to this approach, claiming that the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, promulgated in 1977, mandate new construction be distinguishable from the historic fabric. This is often interpreted as requiring a Modernist expression for additions to landmarks (a view reflected in the unspoken consensus I mentioned earlier), but the whole issue remains a subject of debate.

The new design for 5 East 95th Street was different. Although generally continuous in the sense that it is also Classical, the Zivkovic/Simpson design was not a literal extension of Trumbauer’s building. In fact, it is perfectly distinguishable from the landmark next door, thereby satisfying the Secretary of the Interior’s standards. Each building would have its own distinctive character: Trumbauer’s taste was strongly influenced by late-18th-century France, but with American traits. (As Simpson says, "My God, it is American in its scale – so Roman and full!") Simpson’s own taste inclines toward English Neoclassical models, especially the early-19th-century work of John Nash and Charles Robert Cockerell, while Zivkovic declares his admiration for the home-grown Classicism of McKim, Mead & White. But, like Trumbauer’s, the new design is an inventive work in its own right, not a copy of any other building. Together, the two structures just look like a pair of good neighbors on an historic street.

Despite being a departure from the designs it typically receives and approves, the LPC accepted the proposal after a couple of hearings, almost as a kind of experiment. Now that the built results are visible, everyone involved, including the LPC, agrees that the project worked out very nicely indeed. It remains to be seen if the convincing results of their decision will have an impact on the LPC’s review of other new traditional-design proposals that come before them in the future. At least, as a result of this precedent, some of the city’s architects will no longer be able to use the alleged preferences of the LPC as an excuse for dodging new traditional design. When I asked Chairman Tierney if he’d welcome more work like the 95th Street townhouse coming before the LPC, he responded, "We’d be delighted." New York’s traditional architects had better get busy and take the chairman at his word.

F.J. Sciame Construction Co., Inc., of New York managed the building’s schedule (18 months from pouring foundations to receipt of a Certificate of Occupancy) and budget, despite "fast-track" release of sequential construction document packages, the demands of restoring Trumbauer’s interiors and façade and the many obstacles that typically come with construction in a Manhattan residential neighborhood.

With respect to costs, Zivkovic points out that a building of this quality was obtainable at substantially the same unit cost as new Modernist luxury apartment buildings. To be sure, there are few real estate markets in the United States with prices high enough to cover the cost of such luxurious construction, regardless of style. It is nonetheless the case that a Classical building is not necessarily more expensive than a Modernist one at the same level of quality and expectation. The difference is in the value of what the buyer receives – not a raw loft-like space with sealed concrete floors and exposed sprinklers above (as in the recent new apartment towers on West Street by Richard Meier & Partners Architects), but high ceilings with decorative plasterwork, plaster moldings on the walls, 2½-in.-thick raised-panel doors, traditional herringbone hardwood parquet floors and advanced acoustical isolation between units.

Furthermore, as Simpson points out, the Classical design of the Carhart Mansion and its addition "lends itself with particular ease to the incorporation of the latest developments in building technology."

One must also factor in life-cycle costs: solid masonry will last hundreds of years, but how long will the curtain-walls on the Meier buildings last? Sustainability, an issue Modernist architects have sought to appropriate for themselves, is a natural attribute of nearly all traditional building materials and methods, in contrast to industrialized techniques and synthetic materials, which consume energy both in their manufacture and in their use. In Europe, as Simpson points out, requirements for reduced energy consumption and increased insulation have made Modernist curtain-wall systems more expensive than traditional masonry.

Ultimately, the choice of putting up a Classical building on this site was determined by financial and marketing factors: the owner decided that only such a building would generate the returns sought for the project, a direct reflection of its desirability in the eyes of prospective buyers. This exposes and refutes the myth that only Modernist buildings make economic sense; it also underscores the critical role of an informed client in advancing both the building culture and the market. Other brokers and developers have taken notice and the team for this project is exploring new opportunities on other sites.

Perhaps the strongest aspect of the completed new building is the way it works three-dimensionally in its urban setting. Unlike most townhouses, 5 East 95th Street is semi-detached – it abuts an open space to the east. The articulated front block of the building turns a corner, offering a second front to the Fabbri Mansion courtyard next door, complete with a balustraded balcony at the second floor and a pediment at the top of the east elevation. The rooftop of the new building is a collection of pavilions and terraces, ("a little Palatine hill" in Simpson’s words) stepping back in response to zoning height limitations. These moves enliven the streetscape and make the new townhouse not just a demure background building, but an active player in the little society of buildings making up the block.

Looking more closely, the exterior restoration of the Trumbauer building is entirely convincing and the architects have managed to re-establish the original character of the building as a grand residence. Trumbauer’s principal interiors were restored, in particular the elegant stair hall and the grand salon on the street at the second floor. Other interiors, though designed in character with the historic architecture, are largely under the control of the buyers and, therefore, subject to change.

As faultless as we believe Trumbauer’s façade to be (and I think it is), the new building is designed so that we no longer see it as an addition or competitor, but as a confident and worthy neighbor. It is worth a moment to see how this was achieved. While the new building maintains key horizontal alignments, such as floor levels, cornice and window heads and sills, the new street façade subtly detaches itself from its historic neighbor by changing the scale of the rustication on the ground floor and separating the piano nobile and third floors, in contrast to Trumbauer’s linkage of these two floors by pilaster strips and recessed spandrels. These contrasts are subtle but effective and give Number 5 a sense of mass, figural intensity and dignity that allows it to hold its own as a partner, rather than an adjunct, to Trumbauer’s robust Number 3 next door.

Another subtlety is found in the way the vertical non-alignment of the window openings on the street elevation reinforces the stolid horizontality of the new façade. Each group of three openings is centered on its respective floor, but the groups narrow as they rise, making the building seem heavier on top. While this is usually not a desirable trait in a Classical composition, it makes visual sense in combination with the adjacent Trumbauer façade, with its insistent verticality. The slightly unexpected heaviness and horizontality of the addition is just what is needed to "bookend" the pair and turn the corner at the Fabbri courtyard. The east elevation on the courtyard, with its pediment and implied Palladian window, re-establishes a vertical emphasis, anchoring the street façade like a little tower. This is Classical design of a very sophisticated and confident sort.

Not visible from the street, the rear courtyard of the new wing makes a delightful space out of what might have been an indifferent light well: it is rendered in brick with jolly wrought-iron balconies that, like those on the south and east elevations, were fabricated by English craftspeople.

A single critical comment concerns the carved-stone ornament on the new building, which simply does not rise to the exquisite level of that on Trumbauer’s façade. Given the state of art and architecture today, it would be extraordinary if it did; it is rare enough to find a new building today that has any ornament at all. And yet the juxtaposition highlights the relative crudeness of the new anthemions, sculpted panels, rosettes and tendrils on the sides of the consoles below the balcony. This crudeness is not just a matter of style, but of sculptural refinement. The decorative panels below the third-floor windows might have been better had they, like Trumbauer’s, been recessed instead of projecting from the wall surface. They and the rosettes between them look simply stuck on rather than integral with the wall. While good decorative sculpture is still hard to find today, the quality of carved and molded ornament in general is improving as supply begins to adjust to demand. With so many great examples even within the neighborhood, it should not be difficult to raise the bar in this area, too.

In my view, 5 East 95th Street is an outstanding example of new Classical work in an urban setting and, one hopes, a harbinger of more and better work still to come. It is impressive not only because it is well designed and executed, but because it does more than just "fit in." Think of adding a new building to an historic context as like walking into a party and joining a conversation already in progress: The newcomer might timidly nod his head and agree with everything the other people say; the new person might rudely interject irrelevancies and vulgar language; or the newcomer might smoothly, almost without the other speakers being aware of it, guide the conversation into new subjects. This last option is what the Zivkovic/Simpson team has done in this project. It was gutsy for them to look upon the Trumbauer house not as some aloof and untouchable personage, but as an older peer – something one approaches with respect but not obsequiousness. Conversation is possible, and on a high level. Is this not a model for how new traditional architecture, urbanism and historic preservation should work together to bring civility and continuity to the city? Is that not precisely what good urban architecture is supposed to do?  

 

 

 
 

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