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Old Money and New Construction

On New York's Upper East Side, a developer wants to restore the Parke-Bernet Galleries building and add a 22-story glass tower  --  a project that has generated discord among the community's moneyed residents.
On New York's Upper East Side, a developer wants to restore the Parke-Bernet Galleries building and add a 22-story glass tower -- a project that has generated discord among the community's moneyed residents. (Photos By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

"Cities either wither as they are preserved in aspic, as it were, or they regenerate," Foster said. "What is now revered by preservationists is the result of earlier transformations."

Supporters of the tower divine a revolution aborning. Financier Phillippe P. Laffont, who lives in an Upper East Side townhouse, urged Landmark commissioners to walk his neighborhood.

"Look closely," he advised in a letter, "and you will see that modernity erupts from every nook and cranny. Picture windows have replaced the original panes. . . . Floors have been knocked through to create larger spaces. . . . Isn't it time we gave true expression to this pent up desire?"

The plate tectonics of power in New York in fact are shifting. For nearly a century, Park, Madison and Fifth avenues constituted a world all but hermetic in its wealth and self-regard. As late as 1998, financier Steven Rattner could aver that he knew little of the East Village; his was a world demarcated by his vast Upper East Side cooperative, his office aerie in Rockefeller Center and perhaps a side trip to catch the opera at Lincoln Center or a Broadway drama.

The dominance of that world has faded a touch. Last year, Tribeca, in Lower Manhattan, became the most expensive precinct in the most expensive borough in the most expensive city in the nation. The vaguely hip stockbroker lusts for SoHo no less than Park Avenue.

"The problem for the Upper East Side is that it's increasingly looking like a naturally occurring retirement community," said Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban studies at New York University's Wagner School. "It no longer has a monopoly on brains, talent and ambitions."

Moss nonetheless views Rosen's proposed tower as too radical. A grande dame of a neighborhood must be led oh so delicately to her facelift.

"This is an idea that's 50 years ahead of its time," Moss said. "The problem for his Lordship is that the House of Lords doesn't have much standing on the Upper East Side."

Rosen is acutely aware that a war with old money is not easily won. (A Mellon and a Von Mueffling chimed in with hand-lettered notes of opposition.) He frames the battle as between the young and daring and "the conformists." He hints darkly that he could build an even bigger building and create a wind tunnel on Madison Avenue.

As for Tom Wolfe . . .

He "used to be, maybe, a good writer," Rosen said. "I don't want to say he's a struggling writer. . . . I don't want to say how many books he sold, but it wasn't too many."

A little later, Rosen talks a little compromise. Maybe he chops a few floors off, maybe he chooses a "champagne-colored bronze to be more contextual with the base." He just hopes the Landmark Commission doesn't toss a dagger into the heart of his project this week.

Whatever. Wolfe wrote his own letter to the Landmark Commission. "The tower," he wrote, "is a flagrant violation upon which the New York City landmarks preservation process was founded in 1965. But this is a new century with new money, new politics and bungee principles."

The sound on the Upper East Side is of an incoming mortar round.


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