Mourning the Loss of Rizzoli Bookstore

Vornado

We would like to thank everyone who attended the rally on Friday to bid farewell to Rizzoli Booktore on its final day. We are especially grateful for Community Board Five for organizing the rally and State Senator Liz Krueger for speaking passionately about the need to protect small businesses from over-development.

The departure of Rizzoli represents a significant turning point for 57th Street. The street’s historic character and beloved local businesses are rapidly being lost to make way for architecturally bland mega-towers for billionaires. Emblematic of what is happening across our city, the closure of one of Midtown’s last independent bookstores is part of a larger trend that has witnessed countless smaller businesses being pushed out to make room for luxury residential development and retail chain stores.

We are deeply disappointed with the Landmarks Preservation Commission over their obstinate refusal to at least schedule a public hearing for this building’s interior and exterior. Given the tremendous public outcry to save this building, we believe it is only fair that a public hearing be held and the full Commission decide in an up or down vote whether to designate it a landmark.

The LPC is not infallible. The Landmarks Law provides for public hearings as a means of correcting glaring oversights by the LPC staff. Notably, it took no less than five public hearings before the LPC voted to designate the former Sohmer Piano Factory in Queens an individual landmark. Their current refusal to even consider this building for landmark designation does not indicate a lack of merit.

We are especially disgusted by actions undertaken by Vornado and LeFrak that have proven detrimental to Rizzoli’s business and have undermined a fair landmarks evaluation. According to our sources, these actions include:

  • Vornado erected a sidewalk shed and screen in front of the store’s exterior during the store’s busiest retail period under the fiction of “cleaning the facade,” directly weakening store traffic and net sales. In truth, the alteration permits obtained by Vornado were requested solely for the purposes of preemptive demolition and not for necessary restoration changes.
  • Vornado’s contractors preemptively demolished exterior portions of 31 W 57th Street less than 24 hours before The New York Times first announced plans to demolish the building. This includes the complete obliteration of the third floor and sixth floor limestone balustrades (video).
  • On several occasions, Vornado aggressively sought to assert their influence with the Rizzoli parent company to silence bookstore staff from speaking out about the Save Rizzoli petition. These threats to the Rizzoli corporate offices came from none other than Vornado President David R. Greenbaum.
  • The appearance of Vornado CEO Steve Roth in the bookstore on April 10th to take advantage of a 40% closing sale, by his very presence smugly gloating over the LPC’s refusal to designate the interior. Such behavior shows a willful disregard for the emotional state of bookstore staff already under stress over the loss of their jobs and potential destruction of their historic building.
  • The installation of a plywood fence across the storefront only minutes after Rizzoli’s final closing, depriving the bookstore of their valuable window space that could have been used to advertise their new location. This was undertaken to hide Vornado’s dirty work from public scrutiny. Rizzoli still has several weeks remaining on their lease.

The Save Rizzoli Committee will continue to actively fight to save this building and work with Borough President Gale Brewer to achieve greater transparency in the LPC.

 

LPC Chair Tierney Ignores Pleas for Public Hearing

As reported in the International Business Times, the Landmarks Preservation Commission has rejected The Save Rizzoli Committee’s and Borough President Gale Brewer’s request for an interior landmark designation. Their rationale defies belief:

“The overall interior design of the space dates to 1985, when interior elements such as chandeliers and bookshelves were installed and new cabinetry and new flooring were designed as part of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates’ redesign and transformation of the space to accommodate the bookstore. Some original interior fabric remaining from the Sohmer Piano showroom, such as the decorative ceiling and iron railings, was incorporated into the new design. Our review concluded that because there are few remaining elements from the piano showroom era, particularly in comparison with other intact interior landmark spaces like the Steinway Piano showroom on West 57th Street, the site no longer retains the integrity of its original design, and the ca. 1985 redesign of the space does not rise to the level of an interior designation.”

As can be clearly seen from this photograph taken circa 1920, the overall first floor design of the space clearly does not date to 1985. The most architecturally significant details of the Sohmer store—the vaulted stucco ceiling and ornamental capitals—still survive in pristine condition.

In 1984, Hard Holzman Pfeiffer Associates renovated the space, most notably, by adding a new glass storefront entrance, a staircase linking the 2nd and 3rd floors, and a balcony extension around the west side of the mezzanine. These additions do not significantly impair the original Sohmer ground floor interior. To deny interior landmark status on the basis that the floor tiles and the chandelier are not original is beyond preposterous.

In refusing to hold a public hearing on this building–despite the overwhelming pleas from the community board, elected officials, and the public–the Landmarks Preservation Commission has failed in its duty to protect these architecturally and historically significant buildings.

It is now apparent that LPC Chairperson Robert Tierney, whose term will soon expire, is the sole obstacle to protecting this landmark-worthy building. The Save Rizzoli Committee would like to strongly urge Mayor de Blasio to appoint a new Chair who will listen to the community.

To write to Mayor de Blasio requesting he quickly appoint a new Landmarks Preservation Commission Chair, please go here.

Community To Rally on Rizzoli Bookstore’s Last Day

On Friday, Rizzoli Bookstore will be forced to close its doors after 29 years in the six-story architectural gem located at 31 West 57th Street.

In solidarity with those losing their jobs and in recognition of a city losing an important piece of our cultural fabric, Community Board Five is calling for a rally of support. We would like to encourage everyone to attend.

This rally will be held Friday April 11th at 10:00 A.M. in front of Rizzoli Bookstore.

Let’s show the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the media that the city cannot continue to allow the demolition of historic buildings to go unchecked. Invite your friends and everyone you know who cares about great architecture, bookstores, and the future of our city. Get the word out on Facebook and Twitter. Let’s show the LPC and media how much beautiful bookstores matter!

LPC Evaluating Rizzoli Interior

RizzoliExterior

As recently reported, the Landmarks Preservation Commission is now considering an 11th hour appeal to landmark Rizzoli Bookstore’s historic interior. Although the LPC had previously evaluated the exterior of the building, their evaluation report did not examine the interior.  Yet, in the wake of enormous public outrage over the building’s proposed demolition and a recent press conference where Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and leading preservationists called for reforming the Commission, the LPC has finally decided the interior warrants review.

When news broke in January that Vornado and LeFrak planned to demolish the three historic former Piano Row buildings on 57th Street, preservationists scrambled to mount a campaign to save them. Previously, Community Board 5 had voted unanimously in 2007 that these buildings should be landmarked, and City Council Member Daniel Garodnick had requested the Landmarks Preservation Commission designate the building a historic landmark. While the majority of preservation efforts have thus far focused on designating the exquisite facades of 29, 31, 33 W 57th Street, the very fine interior of 31 W 57th Street deserves special consideration.

To date, the petition to landmark the Rizzoli building has received over 16,000 signatures. The petition’s official objective seeks to “designate 31 West 57th Street as an individual and interior landmark.” As of 2014, over 31,000 buildings have been landmarked in New York City. However, landmark designation for interiors is rare. Since the Landmarks Law was signed in 1965, there have only been 115 interior landmark designations.

A number of reasons can be cited for why there have been so few interior designations. While building exteriors remain comparatively unaltered over the years, interiors suffer from the vicissitudes of shifting tastes in style. Altering the exterior of a building can be cost prohibitive compared to interiors, which can gutted and renovated to suit new tenants without great expenditure.

Not surprisingly, commercial interiors are among the least well preserved building types. Unlike domestic or church interiors, it is rare for a commercial interior of Rizzoli Bookstore’s quality and condition to survive largely intact over so many decades after serving as the flagship store for two different tenants. The building and interior were constructed specifically to meet the needs of its first tenant, the Sohmer Piano Company.

SohmerInterior4The Sohmer Piano Company was founded in 1872 by Hugo Sohmer. In 1884, Hugo Sohmer patented the first five-foot grand piano in the world, and not long after that, the company moved to 170 Fifth Avenue in a Beaux-Arts building designed by Robert Maynicke in 1897. By the 1880s, the company was one of the most popular producers of pianos in Greater New Yorker, manufacturing 46 pianos per week. As the LPC’s designation report for the Sohmer Factory in Astoria declares: “The firm specialized in the making of ‘verticals’ or upright pianos that were more popular for domestic usage, and the company’s product was one of the finest pianos made in the United States.”

However, it wasn’t long before the rapidly expanding piano manufacturer would require new space to reflect its rising prosperity and prestige. In 1919, Sohmer moved to a new six-story building on 57th Street. In addition to their famed upright and grand pianos, the 57th Street store offered an impressive selection of Victrola records on the third floor.

In fact, Sohmer was the first piano company to move to 57th Street. In the January 10, 1925 issue of Presto magazine, the Sohmer store was noted for being “one of the busiest retail centers in the metropolis.” The store’s success precipitated an influx of other piano manufacturers to the street, including Chickering, Story & Clark, and Steinway. In time, the street would transform into New York’s fabled Piano Row. The success of Sohmer (and Rizzoli Bookstore) can be attributed in no small part to the exceedingly fine interior space.

It is one of the finest interior piano showrooms ever built in New York, second only to Steinway in terms of its architectural significance. Unquestionably, the later Steinway interior impresses in terms of its chromatic opulence. In many ways, Steinway’s interior is New York’s piano showroom sans pareil—featuring white Italian marble, green marble pilasters from the Cyclades, and a polished yellow Kasota limestone floor. The wealth of its material splendor never fails to impress visitors.

The shallow, double-height plasterwork ceiling and second floor balcony in the Sohmer building (1919) partially inspired the orthogonal double-height rotunda and second floor balcony in Steinway (1924). As in the Steinway building, we find classical motifs and grotesques in the Sohmer ceiling that were modeled on ancient Roman monuments, Italian Renaissance frescoes, and the English interiors of Robert Adam. The cream colored ground and ochre highlights of the groin-vaulted ceiling amplify the warmth and lightness afforded by the radiant Diocletian window. The classical motifs, rendered in low-relief with delicate sensitivity, convey a calm lyricism that leaves the visitor transfixed within a strictly composed space that is at once grand and intimate. The glass storefront, unusually large for the era, allows for stunning views of the interior from the street. If Steinway is a Beethoven sonata then the Sohmer interior is a Chopin Nocturne.

RizzInterior3Remarkably built at 1/15th the construction cost of the Steinway building, the Sohmer showroom employs a clarity of design and economy of means to achieve its own unique sense of concinnitās and delight. Randolph Almiroty skillfully integrated the classical revival scheme into the interior space through details elaborated almost entirely through stucco, a highly cost-effective medium.

Stucco decoration can traditionally be found in every civilization, but the first sophisticated application can be traced to ancient Rome. The use of plasterwork as interior decoration has a long and respected history in interior ceiling decoration, as can be seen in such renowned examples as the baths at Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli, the Hall of the Abencerrajes in the Alhambra, and countless Baroque cathedral ceilings throughout Italy.

Alas, the original interior decoration of Story & Clark, Mehlin, Aeolian, and Chickering Hall no longer survive. A rare surviving example of an early 20th century neo-classical commercial interior, the Sohmer building is an absolute jewel that greatly enriches the architectural diversity and character of 57th Street.

Both the Steinway and Sohmer interiors are important representations of New York’s piano industry, and there is no reason the LPC should restrict the landmark designations for historic piano buildings to an arbitrary number. With the renewal of interest in classical interior ornamentation, we should not allow such a fine example as 31 W 57th Street to be sacrificed on the altar of rampant real estate development.

Despite its manifest architectural and historic significance, the Sohmer interior had never previously been evaluated by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Now that the LPC is considering a last minute appeal to evaluate the Sohmer interior, we would like to strongly encourage the LPC to quickly review the interior space and schedule a public hearing before Vornado and LeFrak are allowed to preemptively demolish the interior.

“Rizzoli A Line In The Sand”

SaveRizzoliRally

The Save Rizzoli Committee would like to thank everyone who showed up to today’s rally outside of Rizzoli Bookstore that helped make it a success. We would especially like to thank Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Simeon Bankoff, Peg Breen, and Layla Law-Gisiko for taking the time to voice their support for Rizzoli Bookstore and the serious need for greater transparency in the landmarks designation process.

Here are just a few of their remarks:

“The landmarks process requires reform; we must avoid more Rizzoli-like ambushes on our history. We are here today to ask that the LPC immediately study those remaining buildings on West 57th Street to identify and landmark those that represent the best of their eras, and I will introduce legislation which will require the LPC to follow transparent and consistent time frames in responding to future designation requests.

I ask that building owners and managers consider the special needs of bookstores and other small cultural businesses when they are designing and leasing space. Without a lively streescape and diversity within our commercial districts, we will lose what makes Manhattan Manhattan–that which draws people to livehere, work here, shop here, and the millions who come to visit here. With greater transparency and consistent time frames, both preservation and building ownership can benefit,”Borough President Brewer said.

“New York City’s history belongs to everyone and we are in the process of losing it. The Rizzoli Building is not a hidden gem–it was a known quantity which the City never acted on to protect, despite community requests. The Landmarks Preservation Commission and the de Blasio administration must take a strong stand to protect New York City’s existing history as we move forward in building a New York City open to all,” Simeon Bankoff, Executive Director, Historic Districts Council

Rally Outside of Rizzoli Tomorrow!

BREAKING NEWS:
Borough President Gale Brewer and preservationists to call on City Landmarks Commission to reverse stand on Rizzoli bookstore, reform landmarks process to prevent destruction of significant public buildings

On Friday April 4, in front of the historic Rizzoli bookstore at 31 West 57th Street, Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer and leading preservationists will call on the Landmarks Preservation Commission to reverse their rejection of landmark status for the Rizzoli Bookstore building and ask for an immediate consideration of landmark status for other notable buildings on W. 57th between Fifth Avenue and Eighth Avenue. All are welcome to attend!

WHEN:
Friday, April 4, 2014, 12 Noon–1 PM

WHERE:
Outside 31 West 57th Street, rain or shine

WHO:
Gale A. Brewer, Manhattan Borough President
Peg Breen, New York Landmarks Conservancy
Andrea Goldwyn, New York Landmarks Conservancy
Simeon Bankoff, Historic Districts Council
Signers of the Change.org petition

Bookstore Window

Walking by the Rizzoli Bookstore today, something in their storefront window caught our eye:

photo

Below the gorgeous photograph of the demolished Penn Station, the text reads:

Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud monuments, until there will be nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children? If they are not inspired by the past of our city, where will they find the strength to fight for her future? – Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis