Old Money and New Construction
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
NEW YORK -- To the ramparts, my friends!
An haute New York developer has proposed to erect a 22-story condominium tower atop the austere and officially landmarked walls of the Parke-Bernet Galleries building on the Upper East Side. And the burghers of this oldest of old-money neighborhoods are as revolutionaries to the barricades.
It's one of those marvelous New York moments when outrage trumps self-awareness, laying bare egos and ids more often artfully concealed from public view.
"If this tower is completed," complained Alexandra Donati, who lives in a Park Avenue cooperative where the net worth of members is counted in tens of millions of dollars, "it will mean that power for profit can overwhelm long-term conservation goals."
Then there is the aggrieved cry of Nicholas J. Sands, who happens to live across the street from the proposed tower. Like Donati, he has written to the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission, which could vote today to approve or reject the Madison Avenue project.
"Is there anything sacred left in New York?" he asked. "As the owner of a full floor condominium and private art gallery residence . . . which directly overlooks the building in full scale picturesque view, I would like to express my opposition."
One preservationist reported nearly passing out when word broke of the proposed tower atop the five-story art gallery, while novelist Tom Wolfe penned an exclamatory jeremiad against the project on the op-ed pages of the New York Times.
"It would be hard to dream up anything short of a Mobil station more out of place there than a Mondo Condo glass box," wrote Wolfe, who then executed a rhetorical pirouette and lanced the Landmarks Preservation Commission as "a bureau of the walking dead."
High on the opposing ridge, we find developer Aby Rosen, who calls himself a modernist and fancies himself a patron of the arts, and Lord Norman Foster, a properly British architect. They have recruited high-society worthies to their banner: perfume magnate Ron Perelman, heiress Veronica Hearst, celebrity editor Anna Wintour of Vogue (whose signature is three inches high and eight inches wide), a celebrity dermatologist and a few famous artists, not the least of whom is Jeff Koons. (Koons is not without a moneyed horse in this race, as Rosen a few years ago paid a record sum to purchase one of his artworks.)
Rosen and Foster cast themselves as aesthetic adherents of the progressive and the radical. Absent their glass-and-steel tower, they warn, young hedge-funders will shun this shtetl of prewar brick apartment buildings, where three-bedroom apartments retail at $5 million, give or take a million.
"You need to revitalize the area in order to give the younger generation who are seeking modern life and want to go away from classic building prewar," Rosen explained. The young titans yearn to "stay uptown close to private schools. You can't shut them out."
Lord Foster, who called in on his cellphone as he strolled to a fondue restaurant in Switzerland, framed the debate no less grandly.