preservation watch

Change Is Coming to the McGraw-Hill Building’s Art Deco Lobby. Or Is It?

Preservationists sound alarm; architects say they’re not trashing a treasure.

Raymond Hood’s 1931 lobby at 330 West 42nd Street. Photo: Addison Godel
Raymond Hood’s 1931 lobby at 330 West 42nd Street. Photo: Addison Godel

When you read about the swingy 1930s architecture of New York, you learn about a few innovative, beautiful skyscrapers: the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the American Radiator Building, the Daily News Building with its Daily Planet globe in the lobby. And then historians get to Raymond Hood’s McGraw-Hill Building, at 330 West 42nd Street, and they do not just describe it — they exult in it. The building is slightly less famous than those others (probably because it’s west of Eighth Avenue, next to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and thus a little bit out of glossy midtown’s view), but it’s even more exuberant. Its palette goes beyond the gray, beige, and silver at the more decorous end of the Art Deco spectrum into an extravagant deep-sea green. The façade is covered in terra-cotta panels that are figured and sculpted, and the bands around the base are black, turquoise, golden bronze, and stainless steel. At sidewalk level, all that detailing comes roaring around the building like the 20th Century Limited, turning at the entrance and swooping right into the lobby. There, the walls are finished in glossy emerald panels with black and burnished-brass details. The whole thing is not perfectly intact — there have been modifications over the years, like new light fixtures and some messing with the ceiling to get air-conditioning in — but it is largely original, and the alterations aren’t jarring. It is, in every sense of the word, fantastic. When I moved to New York three decades ago, I went over there one day just to see it and came away absolutely sure that I’d been in one of the great rooms in New York. Today, the lobby is a little worn, yet even at 90 years old and a little tatty, it still looks like the future.

And then this week on Twitter, it sounded as though the jackhammers might be coming for it.

The owner of the building, Deco Tower Associates, has abandoned an earlier plan to convert the tower to apartments and is instead giving it a stem-to-stern renovation to keep it as an office building. When McGraw-Hill Publishing was headquartered there, from 1931 to 1972, the company had offices in the tower and several lower floors dedicated to typesetting, printing, binding, and warehousing. Part of the rehab involves turning the big truck bays along the 41st Street side into airy common spaces for tenants. (An excellent idea.) The storefronts facing 42nd Street will also be lightly reconfigured, and the designs that the architectural firm MdeAS submitted to the Landmarks Preservation Commission include some appropriately jazzy signage and new front doors. These interventions are historically sensitive and thoughtful. (They can’t get too radical because the building’s exterior was landmarked in 1979.) The owners have already done nice work on the windows and the terra-cotta, too. Some other nice improvements include removing bulky cooling towers from the roof and a discreet new entrance at the rear of the building. Only the most fundamentalist curmudgeon would argue with any of that.

One of the quirks of New York’s preservation law, though, is that it protects interiors and exteriors separately, and interior landmarks are relatively rare. That leaves the spectacular lobby vulnerable; in theory, the owners could replace it with a 7-Eleven. And on Tuesday, the preservationist Lloyd Bergenson circulated on Twitter a rendering, and links to others, that a lot of people found distressing. A cutaway view of the building that had been posted on the MdeAS website showed a double-height space replacing the current lobby, with virtually all the polychrome detail stripped out. Only a small slice of the colorful banding by the front doors would remain. Even more alarming, one particular rendering showed a white-and-beige, mostly rectilinear and glowy room that would be unobjectionable — even pretty nice — in a boutique hotel or law office. Here, though, it seemed like sacrilege. As the online uproar began, MdeAS pulled the entire set of images from its website.

That same Tuesday, the architect Dan Shannon, from MdeAS, presented the proposed changes to the storefronts, signage, and façade in a Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing to unanimous approval. Then came the public-statements portion of the meeting, and several testimonies — notably from Meghan Weatherby of the Art Deco Society of New York and the preservationists Kelly Carroll and Thomas Collins — expressed dismay over the prospect of losing the lobby. The architectural preservationist Theodore Grunewald made a particularly impassioned plea for its preservation; he cited it as one of the world’s great Moderne landmarks, calling it an “Emerald City extravaganza” and contrasting it with the rendering that was circulating, which he called “middlebrow minimalism” in the Apple Store vein. The commissioners seemed taken aback at the excitement about a topic that wasn’t on the agenda and over which they had no jurisdiction. Several members seemed a little surprised to hear that the lobby was at risk and indicated they would be in favor of protecting it.

Shannon says that the incipient Battle of McGraw-Hill is based mostly on a misunderstanding. The rendering that started all the excitement, he explained to me, is a preliminary sketch of a ground-floor fitness center next to the lobby, not the lobby itself. The redesign of the latter space “is in progress right now,” he says, insisting that it will be sympathetic and respectful and that nothing’s been decided for good. He talks a good game about the building’s historical significance and explicitly praises Hood’s design. When I mentioned the atmosphere of what’s there now, he immediately said, “That’s the right word, atmosphere.” The reimagined ground floor will, he says, “incorporate some of the original material, and the interior will be influenced by Hood’s design.” Besides, he added, the plan is not done yet, nor has it been been approved by the client.

But that phrasing gives him a lot of latitude, and when I asked Shannon point-blank whether there was indeed a plan to knock out the lobby ceiling, he admitted that something is going to happen there. “The volume in certain areas will change,” he says. “In commercial office buildings, and especially at 330, the entry environment and experience [today] is much more involved than just moving from the door to an elevator lobby. There’s an element of great security, of course, and the experience of place, where you transition — a café, a seating area, connections to larger spaces that accommodate the tenants.” If I hear him correctly, he’s saying that you need a bigger and airier room to accommodate lounging and texting and meeting for coffee, and other MdeAS lobby redesigns that include those have tended toward the white-and-minimal. In his words, his clients want “a destination space. Once you get there, we want to make sure that tenants and visitors feel that their environment accommodates them.”

And with that in mind, you can see the rationale. The current space is dark, close, dramatic but not soaring. The Municipal Art Society’s Fred Papert told this magazine in 1978, ”Have you seen that lobby? … If Fred Astaire worked in an office building, this would have been the one.” But it’s also kind of narrow. You might tap-dance through it, but you probably would not have room to lounge, if lounging is what you want.

The preservationists, though, aren’t sitting around. Yesterday, the Art Deco Society of New York launched a petition to get the lobby declared a landmark, and Grunewald says that he’s filing an emergency application to get it reviewed by the LPC, possibly as soon as today. That filing does two things: It calls on the commission to research and evaluate the interior, a step toward — but one that doesn’t clinch — a pause on demolition, for which there already appear to be permits issued. Work can continue until the application has been accepted and put on the LPC’s calendar. That process usually takes several months, if not longer, although the commission is capable of acting in a hurry when it needs to.

The lobby in 1931. Photo: MCNY/Gottscho-Schleisner/Getty Images

Last-minute stays of demolition are unusual, but they do happen. In 1984, a turn-of-the-20th-century building at 714 Fifth Avenue was on the brink of being razed to make way for a skyscraper when an architectural historian discovered that the building’s grimy windows were enormous custom-made pieces of Lalique art glass. The LPC snapped into action and designated it; the frustrated developer, after a bunch of lawyering, eventually agreed to restore the façade and set the new tower behind it. And in the era before official landmarking, Carnegie Hall was just weeks from the wrecking ball in 1960 when the city dove in to buy and preserve it.

Although many buildings and whole neighborhoods are armored against change, not many interiors are. In New York, there hasn’t been an interior landmarking since 2017, and that was the indisputably worthy Rose Reading Room at the New York Public Library. Thomas Collins, who spoke at the hearing and is a graduate student in art and architectural history at CUNY, noted to me that they happen significantly less often than they used to. The lack of a designation at McGraw-Hill is a little surprising because the lobby is so much of a piece with the exterior and also because it’s become a really rare survivor. It made it through the 1960s, when a lot of vestibules and elevator banks got Formica’d into submission, and also through the 1980s, the era of pink-granite-slab renovations. (The AIA Guide refers to one of those buildings as “modernized with misunderstanding.”) Moderne interiors like this were never super-plentiful in New York to begin with — the vogue for the style lasted less than a decade before the war stopped construction — and there are fewer of them every year. “There’s absolutely no way we can let this happen,” Grunewald says. “It’s unconscionable.”

I called Frederick Bland, the Beyer Blinder Belle architect who is the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s vice-chair, to find out what might become of the emergency request for evaluation his group will receive today. As you’d expect, he  couldn’t speak about a submission he and his colleagues haven’t seen yet. But he admits that the passion for the space caught their attention. ”We were a little surprised to hear so much discussion of the lobby,” he told me. “And we’re interested in hearing more.”

Does Grunewald think this last-minute diving save will work? “Honestly?” he says. “I think our chances are very poor.” New York is divided between those who think the LPC has overreached and those, like Grunewald, who believe it’s too accommodating to developers. “I think one would be naïve to place that much faith in the words of an owner and an architect who were confronted at a public hearing for the first time on this,” he says. Collins uses the same word Grunewald does — unconscionable — and he’s particularly concerned about the most distressing prospect of all: pre-emptive demolition, in which the owner rips out everything in the time lag before the LPC can act. Too often, that’s how it goes: We lose good things before we know that we’re losing them, and our heritage suffers by neglect rather than by purpose.

Change Is Coming to the McGraw-Hill Building’s Deco Lobby