Rizzoli Ceiling Soon to Perish



It deeply saddens us to report that a last minute effort to save portions of the iconic Rizzoli ceiling has failed. At some point next week, the ceiling will be destroyed. Working downward from the third floor, Vornado’s contractors will jackhammer into the ceiling from above, reducing what was once a sublime neo-classical confection to dust and rubble.

Early last month, the Save Rizzoli Committee began a concerted effort to preserve the Rizzoli Bookstore ceiling. Operating independently from Rizzoli International Publications, our team of experts worked tirelessly to formulate an emergency salvage plan to safely extract portions of the ceiling’s bas-relief ornamentation for future conservation and public display.

As documented on Curbed, many of the interior elements had already been extracted. However, as of last week, the original plaster ceiling (c. 1919) still remained intact. With the help of ICS Builders, we had planned to begin work on Friday, June 27th and finish no later than Monday, June 30th in a race against the clock undertaking that wouldn’t have interfered with ongoing demolition work.

In the days preceding the ceiling extraction, we had been in communication with Vornado Realty Trust to acquire their permission and insurance requirements for our highly experienced crew to enter the site and remove large portions of the ceiling. By all accounts, they initially supported the endeavor, and everyone appeared to be on board. Our team only awaited the approval of Vornado CEO Steven Roth.

But then on Thursday, as our preservationists prepared to conduct a probe of the ceiling’s material condition, we learned our access to the site had been denied. At the last minute, Steven Roth intervened and thwarted our attempt to preserve the building’s architectural details for posterity.

To date, we have not received an explanation from Vornado for Steven Roth’s decision. Lacking a rational basis for his refusal, Mr. Roth’s actions can only be construed as an attempt to punish those who sought to save the building.

Not since the demolition of the New York Aquarium by Robert Moses has such petty vindictiveness resulted in the senseless loss of a cherished public space. We deplore the demolition of landmark-worthy buildings and those who seek to profit from their destruction.

The Save Rizzoli Committee would like to thank everyone who has supported our cause throughout the last few months. We are greatly indebted to the support of Community Board Five, the Historic Districts Council, the New York Landmarks Conservancy, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Preservation, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and State Senator Liz Krueger. We would especially like to thank Lisa Renz for her tireless assistance and dedication in our efforts to try to save the historic Rizzoli ceiling.

Above image from Walk About New York.

The Sad Destruction of Chickering Hall

If you’ve traveled down West 57th Street lately, you may have noticed that the Chickering Hall building at 29 West 57th Street has a fresh new coat of paint. In light of the fact that the building is slated for demolition, this hardly seems like a necessary gesture of historic restoration on the part of property owners. In reality, it was undertaken in a futile attempt to mask the preemptive demolition of the building’s iconic architectural details.

As previously reported, Vornado stripped the sculptural ornamentation off the 29 W 57th Street facade in order to prevent the Cross & Cross building from being designated an individual landmark.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission had been in the process of evaluating the property based on an earlier Request for Evaluation submitted by the Save Rizzoli Committee. When the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation informed Vornado that the property was eligible for listing on the National Registry in early February, Vornado executives went ballistic. Not long after that, After Hours work permits went up and jack hammering on the facade commenced.

Despite the presence of scaffolding, the destruction of the facade had been plainly visible from the street for weeks. Nervous over recent national attention to the story in the press, Vornado sought to make the alterations less apparent to bystanders. Unfortunately for Vornado, we have extensively documented the mutilations to Chickering Hall conducted by their contractors before the paint job went up. As you can see from the images below, Vornado removed not only the famed Legion of Honor medallions and caryatids, they methodically stripped the entire exterior of practically every ornamental detail.

Concerned citizens outraged over real estate developers subverting the landmark review process should contact Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and insist that proposed legislation to reform the Landmarks Preservation Commission include tough measures to prevent developers from preemptively demolishing historic, landmark-worthy buildings.

The New York Times Blasts Landmarks Commission

The New York Times Editorial Board has just printed a scathing indictment of the Landmarks Preservation Commission over their failure to landmark the Rizzoli building.

Here is the entire editorial:

One57, the luxury condominium skyscraper under development just south of Central Park, lists several neighborhood attractions on its website. Among them is the Rizzoli Bookstore, which for decades operated out of a roughly 100-year-old neo-French Classical townhouse at 31 West 57th Street.

But One57’s residents will never have the pleasure of admiring the building, because it’s slated for demolition. Rizzoli’s last day was April 11. Instead of a Diocletian window, pedestrians strolling by are now confronted with a construction shed.

This loss reflects serious shortcomings in New York City’s system for protecting culturally important sites. When the Vornado Realty Trust and the LeFrak Organization announced plans to raze 31 West 57 along with two adjacent properties a few months ago, activists petitioned the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to give the building landmark status. Community Board 5 had already voted unanimously for landmark designation in 2007. State Senator Liz Krueger; the Manhattan borough president, Gale Brewer; and the New York Landmarks Conservancy supported the measure as well. The commission said no.

The verdict is galling, as is the process that led to it. The commission never responded to the community board’s initial request and never held a public hearing. What’s worse is that this is not unusual. Commissioners are appointed by the mayor and, under Michael Bloomberg, were perceived as overly deferential to developers. In 2008, Judge Marilyn Shafer of the New York State Supreme Court ruled that the commission habitually acted in an “arbitrary and capricious” manner and ordered it to conduct business in a more timely fashion. An appellate court later reversed the decision because it found no harm to the petitioners, removing the commission’s legal incentive to change its ways.

Ms. Brewer has been trying to reform the landmark process for years. Earlier this month, she suggested requiring a 30-day landmark review of any building over 50 years old that was slated for demolition.

That seems impractical given that the commission is a small agency and that most of the city’s buildings were constructed before 1965. But she also offered two modest, eminently reasonable proposals: the commission should study remaining buildings on West 57th Street and “identify and landmark those that represent the best of their eras”; and “follow transparent and consistent time frames” in responding to future requests.

West 57th Street is the epicenter of the luxury glass-box boom, in which the lovely old buildings that give New York character are being replaced by bland monoliths. Given that the commission is often all that stands between a neighborhood icon and a wrecking ball, it needs, at the very least, to work on its response time.


Mourning the Loss of Rizzoli Bookstore


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!