Here are some places that have not been saved from demolition in the past few years: The Jacob Dangler House. Ruth McKenney’s old house at 14 Gay Street. The townhouse at 186 Lenox Avenue. The spectacular lobby of the McGraw-Hill Building. St. Edward’s and St. Michael’s Church (still there for now, but about to come down). A charming rowhouse on Vanderbilt Avenue. The Hotel Pennsylvania.
However: Not all is lost. An existential threat to the city’s physical fabric was stayed this past week, per the Architect’s Newspaper. It came in the form of an application to modify 101 East 63rd Street, a slate-gray steel-and-glass house built in 1966 by the architect Paul Rudolph that grew famous after it was sold to Halston (and reworked for him by Rudolph himself) in 1974, who started throwing parties there with Andy and Jackie and Liza and the rest of the Studio 54 crowd in attendance. After the house changed hands once more, Tom Ford bought it in 2019 for $18 million and has spent the last few years on a full and meticulous restoration. The scaffolding came down from the façade last year, and this week, one finely detailed request went to the Landmarks Preservation Commission: Ford and his architects want to move the door 19 inches outward, toward the street, shrinking the depth of the outer vestibule from four feet to two and a half. The alteration would, the owners argued, make the vestibule less likely to be occupied (as it occasionally has been) by people smoking, peeing, and sleeping, and also less likely to catch windblown litter.
Nineteen inches! An aesthetic crime. The house, after all, is a prime example of Rudolph’s work, much of which is concrete and brutalist and occupies the highest frequencies in the aesthetic spectrum, just outside the range of normie hearing. The Halston House is much easier to love than most of those buildings — it may be dark gray, but it’s not a postapocalyptic fortress — and preservationists argued that reworking the entry would irreparably alter the house’s interaction with the street and the façade’s multiple planes of shadow and light. Plus the overhead recessed light fixtures would have to be smaller: unacceptable! The Rudolph Foundation argued against the change, as did the LBGTQ+ historian Amanda Davis and a couple of other preservationist entities. The LPC heard it all, discussed, and voted it down, unanimously. The city was saved.
All joking aside: Landmarks probably made the right call. It’s supposed to care about architectural changes large and small, to preserve vernacular and elite architecture alike, and to judge any plan set before its members. (Many Rudolph buildings have not had protectors.) Nor is this a knock on Tom Ford’s sensitive stewardship of the house or the restoration into which he’s poured money. In fact the issue here is less about 19 inches of shadowed vestibule than it is about the reason to close it up. People are sleeping there because it’s undisturbed in the evenings — in other words, because nobody goes in or out most nights. In an interview when he bought the house, Ford called it “a place to be when I’m in New York,” and one gets the feeling that he’s elsewhere more often than not. The solution — and an LPC member alluded to this — is not a defensive redesign but having the house, and the rest of the block, more often occupied and thus vibrant. More broadly, we can’t rely on defensive or hostile architecture to protect houses from people; Ford’s architects will likely come back with a less intrusive proposal to the recessed entry, and even if it’s approved, that will merely shift the person needing a bed to the next empty nook.