Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Big Old Houses: Park Avenue Freeze Out

Park Avenue Freeze Out
by John Foreman


I'm departing from my usual paradigm this week to visit a hot button issue in my own back yard — well, more correctly 150 feet from my front door. There is, from my terrace on 63rd Street, a view of one of the Upper East Side's great architectural ornaments, Delano & Aldrich's 1923 Third Church of Christ, Scientist.
My neighborhood is flush with fine Delano & Aldrich clubs and mansions — notably the Colony and the Knickerbocker on 62nd (at Park and Fifth respectively), Harold Pratt's house at 68th and Park, the Brook down on 54th, etc., etc. The countryside around us is equally rich in the firm's suave neo-Georgian designs.
If you're like me, you probably know very little about Christian Science. Founder Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910) spent the first 58 years of her life dealing with selfish arrogant men, starting with a fire and brimstone-breathing religionist father who didn't want her to be educated, a 1st husband who died after 6 months of marriage (OK, not really his fault), a 2nd husband who wouldn't let her bring the child from her first marriage into his house, and a 3rd husband who chased other women. Mrs. Eddy (she ultimately used the first husband's name) found personal peace in the words of the Bible, and in an overriding belief in the power — indeed, the science — of love. The church she founded in 1879 has grown to 1700 churches in 76 different countries.

Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910)
Third Church's founders came from Boston in 1891 and settled in Harlem, then a pleasant middle class suburban area in the midst of rapid urbanization. After 9 years of meeting informally in people's houses, the church obtained a charter from the State of New York and rented space in its own name at Ellerslie Hall, a building still extant at 80 West 126th Street. In 1905, with membership grown to 134 congregants, Third Church left 126th Street, went around the corner, and bought the former Harlem Presbyterian Church at 35 East 125th Street.

Now, coincidence or not, the year before the move to 125th, an African-American real estate entrepreneur named Philip Payton Jr. (1876-1917), to some the "Father of Harlem," convinced a desperate white developer of new and virtually empty tenement houses on 135th off Lenox to accept African-American tenants. Black folks and block busters promptly poured into the area. By 1910 formerly all-white Harlem was 10% black; by 1920 it was 32% black; by 1930 it was 70% black.

Third Church wasn't waiting for that, however, because by 1920 they had already signed a contract to buy the northeast corner of Park Avenue and 63rd Street. Two years later the cornerstone was laid, and by Christmas 1923 the church was conducting its first service in the new building. Total cost for land and structure: $1,050,000, a sum defrayed somewhat by the sale in 1922 of 35 East 125th to a congregation of black Baptists.
That million-dollar start-up cost was the first of Third Church's many financial albatrosses. Crashing stock markets, shrinking congregations, close calls with bankruptcy, and runaway costs brought them finally to the brink of insolvency. And then, as Mrs. Eddy herself might have predicted, men arrived on white horses. The Rose Group, father Herb and sons Bert, John and Louis, rented the building in 2006 and agreed to embark, at their own expense, on a multi-million dollar restoration. They not only allowed the church to stay in the building, they provided it with a quarter million dollar guaranteed annual participation in Rose Group's profits from managing an upscale event and charity venue. I cannot imagine a more appropriate fulfillment of preservation and adaptive reuse goals, especially for shrunken religious congregations who can't keep the rain out of their distinguished but dilapidated homes.
What's happening under the netting? Repair of all the windows per Historic District requirements, and re-pointing of the brickwork. Not all Rose financed repairs are so visible. The building has also been completely rewired and re-plumbed, a new fire sprinkler system and new elevator installed, painting and plastering done on an epic scale, and public restrooms rebuilt to ADA standards. As of this writing, the Rose Group has spent $9.5 million dollars on repairs and capital improvements, a sum the church could not hope to have obtained without help.
The netting on 63rd Street will soon be down, and more netting will go up along Park Avenue. Delano & Aldrich's grand engaged Ionic columns need restoration, as does the slate dome on the roof above them. The roof project was originally budgeted at $650,000, but due to diversion of funds for legal fees, the job was delayed and the cost mushroomed to $2.75 million. More about that shortly. The building is now generally known by its address, 583 Park Avenue.
My host today is Louis Rose, an attractive fellow with smarts, taste and, fortunately for him, a good deal of stamina. To quote "Paper" magazine, the Roses are a "New York institution." They brought Cipriani to the Bowery Savings Bank on 42nd St., operate Guastavino's under the the 59th Street Bridge, and manage events at places like the Irish American Historical Society.

Father Bert was director of special events at the Rainbow Room, and does the same job now at the Pierre Hotel. The Roses are native Upper East Siders; all three boys went to Allen Stevenson. One day, during a consulting job at the Plaza Athenee, Louis Rose spotted a brochure from The Christian Science church. Was anyone looking, the brochure asked, hopefully, for event space in the neighborhood? The space, as you will see, is amazing. After complicated negotiations, the Roses signed a 20-year lease.
The Auditorium was originally built with enough pews for 1500 people.
It is a magnificent space, with or without pews, and in immaculate condition. At swanky parties it's filled with flowers and china and silver, elaborate centerpieces, ballroom chairs, attractive people and dramatic lighting. During church services the floor is cleared and chairs are arranged before a reader, who sits at a table in front of the organ pipes. For years, I have wondered what a Christian Science service was like, so on a recent Wednesday evening I took the advice of the "Welcome!" sidewalk signs and joined in. There were 5 of us, plus the reader, in this enormous room. After listening to long passages from the Bible, each of us was invited to testify. I didn't. Supposed listeners (on the radio? online?) were invited to phone in. None did. It was, however, an extremely calming experience.
Chandelier and light fixtures are restored Delano & Aldrich originals.
The west wall of the auditorium, facing the organ pipes, is seen below. At either end of the vaulted entrance hall beyond it are matching stairs to the mezzanine.
Sunday School used to be held in the basement, in a space afflicted, until the Roses came along, with dropped ceilings, plasterboard partitions and fluorescent lighting. It is now a flexible pre-event space called the Arcade.
What happened to all those pews? They've been disassembled and re-purposed as wall paneling.
I had a wonderful time in the 1970s, but old buildings did not. Like the Sunday School, the basement men's room was mutilated in the name of "modernization." The paneling only looks original, but the sinks and urinals really are. Every old surviving sink in the building was "parted out" to create 4 complete specimens that actually work, right down to the original hardware.
Restoration of the men's room was a project done out of a love for building. The plumbing in the ladies' room, by contrast, is all new from Waterworks. The paneling in both lounges is topped with lengths of re-purposed bannister.
The building has three floors. We'll walk to 1, then switch to the elevator and admire the adapted vintage button plate.
As part of the deal, Rose Group restored the church offices and council room on the east side of the 3rd floor.
Rose Group occupies the rest of the third floor on the south and west sides of the building. The unusual interiors in the images below were intended to be class rooms, but never finished.
Now we come to the coolest part, the Delano and Aldrich dome and lantern which, unlike the rest of the world, I get to see.
The dome is leaking — not just the slate skin but the entire structure. Because costs have climbed so much, a giant temporary bath tub, worthy of Rube Goldberg, has been inserted under the dome to catch the leaks. The pity is this work would all have been done by now had the church and the Roses not been forced to spend $6 million — yes, million — in legal fees responding to a shut-them-down campaign waged by group that calls itself The Preservation Coalition. The PC, according to its bulletins, views 583 Park as a "disruptive business" with "trucks often double-parked," "cars idling during events" and "evening horn-honking." NYS Senator Liz Krueger, whom I doubt has seen any of this with her own eyes, is their cheerleader. The Roses' liquor license has been attacked, they are shunned by exactly the preservation groups that should be holding them up as heroes, and critical restoration work is being postponed.
What's that between 570 and 580 Park? That's my terrace! I've had my apartment on 63rd off Park for 15 years, 7 of them before the Roses arrived and almost 8 of them since. Am I living in an alternate universe where trucks don't double-park any more than they ever did, and cars idle with about the same frequency they always have, and horn honking is, well, unnoticeable as far as I can tell? Answer: no, I'm not. Where is all this coming from, I ask myself?
63rd and Park is a nice neighborhood, but you could hardly call it a tranquil backwater. It's 4 blocks from midtown. Yet the Preservation Coalition, whose entire focus is on 63rd Street and Park Avenue, and whose sole purpose is to shut down 583 Park, would have us believe our block is turning into a circus. How are they doing this? I got a clue recently at, of all places, the Millbrook Hunt Ball. A charming lady seated to my left shared with me her interest in historic preservation. Out of curiosity I asked what she knew about 583 Park. Her immediate response, despite having no first hand experience on the subject, was to wrinkle her nose and say, "Oh, I hear they're trying to make it into a nightclub." Now, 583 Park ain't the Limelight, so where exactly is she getting this message?
Before I answer that, let's go inside the lantern, climb up the inner ladder ... and get cold feet at the last minute. Something about that tight squeeze, my dangling camera and New York City dry cleaning bills has made me think twice.
We've now seen 583 Park Avenue.
The so-called Preservation Coalition isn't doing any preservation as far as I can see. They are instead providing opinions for people who probably wouldn't have had any opinion otherwise. Although I doubt that Sarah Kershaw, author of a June, 2009 article in the New York Times titled, "On Park Avenue, the Neighbors Are Not Amused," has herself witnessed any of the perversions she describes, her article provides numerous apparent reasons to believe the Preservation Coalition's narrative of events.

Among her reported anecdotes is that of an infuriated woman who, to underscore her displeasure over a de la Renta show under way inside 583, skids to a stop athwart Park Avenue and purposely blocks traffic. Did this really happen? Did I miss a Social X-ray leaping from her Mercedes crossover, and shaking a bangled fist at the Third Church of Christ, Scientist?
The essential mystery of this expensive and destructive confrontation bewildered me until I re-read Ms. Kershaw's article. "They crept into our neighborhood," said George Davis of 580 Park Avenue, "they didn't ask anybody if it was OK, they didn't come around and talk to us."
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