LPC Evaluating Rizzoli Interior


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.

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 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.

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”


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!

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!

Friday, April 4, 2014, 12 Noon–1 PM

Outside 31 West 57th Street, rain or shine

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:


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

Let your voice be heard


As recently reported on DNAinfo New York, the Landmark Preservation Commission continues to refuse to schedule a public hearing to vote on landmark designation for 31 W 57th Street.

We would like to make it clear that this does not preclude the Landmarks Preservation Commission from scheduling a public hearing in the near future.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission’s stance on 31 West 57th Street remains unchanged from its earlier position that these buildings—29, 31, 33, and 35 West 57th Street—do not meet landmark criteria. However, their evaluation was not put to a vote by the Commission. The entire basis of their inaction rests on a very brief third-party property evaluation report filed in 2007. Their decision is not final and can always be revisited.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission must be convinced that they have an obligation to save buildings of historic interest and architectural merit. If you haven’t already done so, now is an excellent time to write to the Landmarks Preservation Commission Chair Robert B. Tierney, and let him know the Rizzoli building deserves landmark designation.

Vornado Realty Destroys Historic 57th Street Façade!


29 W 57th Street. The undated photograph on the left shows the original ornamentation, while the photograph on the right (taken March 26th, 2014) shows significant damage to the medals and sculptural figures.

After learning of the growing preservation movement to landmark 29, 31, and 33 West 57th Street, Vornado Realty instructed their contractors to preemptively destroy the iconic caryatids and Légion d’Honneur medals on 29 West 57th Street in a transparent attempt to sabotage the landmark evaluation process.

Preemptive demolition is a common tactic among sleazy real estate developers. A similar fate befell the famed Dakota Stables when developers gained wind the Landmarks Preservation Commission was considering voting to declare the property an individual landmark.

29 W 57th street was built in 1924 for the American Piano Company and designed by the renowned architectural firm, Cross & Cross. It is a superlative work of New York architecture, a richly ornamented tall building that fuses Gothic and Art Deco, exemplified by the gilded sculptural ornamentation on the building’s exterior. The Cross of the Legion d’honneur appears on each side of the building’s water tower, referring to the award Napoleon III awarded Chickering & Sons for their pianos at the Paris Exhibition of 1867. The cloaked personifications, pipers above the twelfth floor setbacks and lyre players on the penthouse, are remarkable early examples of proto-Art Deco style. The Gothic elements show the influence of Cass Gilbert’s Woolworth Tower (1913).

Vornado has made it clear they do not value great architecture or our city’s vibrant past. In destroying these Art Deco treasures, Vornado has not only spat in the face of the Landmarks Law but also the very of spirit of American democracy.

We would like to encourage everyone appalled by this flagrant act of vandalism to write to Vornado and let them know destroying great art is unacceptable:

Steven Roth,
Vornado, CEO

David R. Greenbaum
Vornado, President of New York Offices

Glenn Weiss
Vornado, Director of Leasing,
212 894 7419

The Rizzoli Building Declared Eligible for National Register!

Important Update: The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation has declared Rizzoli Bookstore eligible for listing on the State and National Registers of Historic Places.
From their report:
“The former piano showrooms that are the focus of this evaluation – 29, 31, and 33 West 57th Street – represent the transition of West 57th Street, between Fifth and Seventh Avenues, from a neighborhood of townhouses and mansions for New York City’s elite to a cultural center due to the proximity of Carnegie Hall. As noted in the Federal Writers’ Project’s New York City Guide in 1939, ‘the completion of Carnegie Hall in 1891 established the district as the foremost musical center in the country. Manufacturers of musical instruments, especially pianos, opened impressive showrooms along Fifty-seventh Street.’
As a group, these three contiguous buildings at 29, 31, and 33 West 57th Street meet Criterion A in the area of commerce for their association with the booming piano business of the interwar years in New York City. They also meet Criterion C as examples of a specialized commercial building type: the piano showroom.”