A top White House official pressed an independent federal review council to make a decision affecting a $292 million New York hotel project that was to be managed by a firm with close ties to the Republican Party.
Lyn Nofziger, the White House political chief, says he made telephone calls to the chairman and executive director of the National Advisory Council on Historic Preservation while it was considering a request to designate the now-empty Morosco Theatre on Times Square a historic landmark.
"I asked them to hurry up and make a decision," Nofziger said. "I didn't tell him what decision to make. I just told them to make it rapidly."
The council staff did that. Without consulting council members, the staff completed a review of the project within 27 hours, and executive director Robert R. Garvey Jr. signed an agreement permitting demolition of the Morosco, which has produced more Pulitzer Prize-winning plays than any theater in the nation.
This cleared, at least momentarily, the latest roadblock delaying construction of the hotel complex, which the city of New York maintains is the linchpin in its efforts to revitalize the Times Square area.
Sources familiar with the council, established in 1966, say it has never before been under such intense White House pressure. It has seldom, if ever, reached a decision so rapidly, according to the sources.
The 2,000-room, 50-story hotel is to be developed by John Portman, a prominient Atlanta architect, and managed by the Marriott Corp., which has longstanding ties to the Republican Party. It is to be financed, in part, by a $21.5 million federal urban development action grant.
The Morosco is one of three theaters on the hotel site. Its historical value and the council's ruling are debatable, but the way the case was handled has raised serious questions among preservationists, and has led to a lawsuit by project opponents.
"I don't know if a bad decision was made, but the manner in which it was made is very peculiar," said one council member, who asked to remain anonymous. "There clearly was an inappropriate exertion of pressure from the White House."
"The advisory council was established to be the last resort for local communities when a project involving federal funds threatens local historic resources," says Michael L. Ainslie, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "Its decisions should be based on the availability of prudent and feasible alternatives to protect these resources, not on politics or individual economic gain."
The Nofziger calls came at a particularly sensitive time for the council. Plans by the Office of Management and Budget now call for its fiscal 1983 budget to be cut by 50 percent, according to congressional sources. There are also reports that some Reagan administration officials would like to abolish it.
Nofziger says he has never heard these reports, but adds, "I'm in favor of eliminating any part of government I can."
He says he made the telephone calls at the request of "a friend," whom he refuses to identify.
The controversy over the hotel is laced with big names, big money and big politics.
Marriott is one of the nation's largest and most successful hotel chains. Portman's controversial designs for the Peachtree Plaza in Atlanta, the Embarcadero Center in San Francisco, the Renaissance Center in Detroit and Hyatt Regency hotels have made him one of the nation's best-known architects.
The hotel complex would occupy a city block in the heart of New York's theater district, and provide more than 2,000 new jobs. A pet project of Mayor Edward Koch, it has the endorsement of The New York Times, New York's two U.S. senators and a host of lesser political figures.
But it also has influential opponents. Their chief beef is that the hotel design calls for demolition of the Morosco, which staged Eugene O'Neill's first play, "Beyond the Horizon," and the Helen Hayes Theatre. In September, the Actors' Equity Association bought a newspaper ad, telling New Yorkers: "You have sponsored the destruction of two of America's treasures . . . The theatre is why New York is famous. The theatre is why the world visits your great city. Hotels are merely to sleep in, between shows."
The ad was signed by a virtual who's who of American theater, including such show business friends of Ronald Reagan as Jimmy Stewart, Bob Hope, Charlton Heston and George Burns.
As part of the effort to save the theaters, hotel opponents commissioned architect Lee Harris Pomeroy to draw up an alternate design for the project. He came up with a plan to build the hotel over the theaters.
This plan went before the council after Interior Secretary James G. Watt declared the Morosco eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places on Nov. 17. When the Helen Hayes Theatre received a similar designation in 1978, the council considered and rejected another plan for building the hotel over the theaters.
Under a 1966 law, the 17-member commission reviews all federally financed projects that imperil historic buildings. The council is supposed to seek alternatives to destroying the landmark, a process that normally takes weeks, and sometimes months.
But after a 2 p.m. call from Nofziger on Nov. 19, the council staff began a series of marathon meetings on the hotel project. Without a meeting of the full council, the council staff reached a decision by 5 p.m. the next day.
In an affidavit in a court suit challenging the way the case was handled, council executive director Garvey said he received "telephone calls from a member of the White House staff and two congressmen" during deliberations.
He said, "I considered these views, along with the views of my staff, the city, and other participants and commentators" in reaching a decision. He refused further comment when contacted.