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 buildings official New York Cityh landmarks. 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 West 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 passed in 1965 and amended in 1973 to allow for the creation of interior and scenic landmarks, only 115 historic properties have received interior landmark designation.
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.
The 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 York, 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.
Remarkably 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.