I am cataloging the New York City works of the great turn-of-the-20th-century architect Henry J. Hardenbergh, in preparation for a Starts & Fits feature section on his important legacy and impact on our city’s built environment. This post is a result of that research.
The New York Times said this parking lot, across 40th Street from the New York Public Library, is “perhaps the most elegant one in Manhattan.” The picturesque iron fence and stone wall force drivers to use the back entrance (where they belong), save the pedestrians on the near side from having to dodge out of the way of moving vehicles, and partially hide the view of the parked cars. But the fence exists only because it was required by the City Planning Commission, and still, it borders a parking lot — the most wasteful use of space in the city center. The story of how this lot came to replace a much beloved and heavily used building is a sad tale of a city deteriorating and a preservation apparatus that didn’t reach a building in time to save it.
A nine-story Flemish-style clubhouse designed by Henry J. Hardenbergh was built here in 1907 as the home for the New York Club. The building had a limestone base on the ground floors and a brick facade with carved stonework on the upper floors. Arched windows were framed by four pairs of Doric columns between the second and fifth floors. The club, adjacent to the Republican Club and the Engineers Club, formed a little row of clubs across the street from Bryant Park. When the New York Club withered, the building was purchased in 1945 by supporters of Freedom House, a nonprofit organization “devoted to strenghtening free societies,” in The Times’s words. Freedom House named the building in honor of the 1940 Republican presidential candidate, Wendell Willkie, and used the building for its offices and to provide low-cost space to numerous other nonprofit organizations. By the mid-1980s, ownership of the building been handed down to the Willkie Foundation, which shared all its directors with Freedom House. Late in 1984 or early in 1985, the Willkie Foundation sold the building to the Republic National Bank of New York for $5.7 million with the understanding that the bank would assume ownership on July 1, 1985. The organization sold its building in part, it said, because it could not keep up with the costs imposed by Local Law 10, a law passed by the City Council in 1980 after a Barnard College student was killed by falling masonry. The law required owners of buildings more than six stories high to have their buildings inspected every five years and make prompt repairs if needed.
As early as 1979, it had been suggested in a citywide survey that the building be put on the list of buildings under consideration for landmark status. It is forbidden to alter the structure or facade of any landmarked building, or even one on the list to be considered a landmark. Owning a landmarked building is often viewed as a burden by landlords, who must comply with heightened upkeep regulations and most importantly, are generally unable to build a larger building on site or enlarge the landmark. Contrary to what one might think, landlords often lobby strenuously against landmark status for their own buildings. Perpetual preservation loomed over the Willkie Memorial Building in early 1985, when, shortly after completing the deal to buy the building, but before even taking ownership, Republic National Bank offered to perform the work necessary to, er, keep the building up to code. In 1983, the bank had completed construction of its new $55 million skyscraper headquarters at 452 Fifth Avenue, two doors down from the Willkie Memorial Building. The bank had plans for this nearby site that didn’t include preserving a 1907 clubhouse, no matter how architecturally meritorious.
On the frigid evening of Feb. 15, 1985, a crew of workers took jackhammers to the facade, stripping balustrades and stone carvings around the windows and chipping into the four pairs of Doric columns. A spokeswoman for Freedom House said the work was needed to comply with Local Law 10, but the City Building Commissioner, Charles M. Smith Jr., said the work on the facade “had gone beyond safety-compliance procedures,” as The Times paraphrased. But they had a permit for daytime work, so there was nothing the commissioner could do aside from temporarily halting nighttime work. The Landmarks Preservation Commission hadn’t acted quickly enough, and preservations were furious that the building hadn’t formally been listed. “We have a small staff of 50 persons, and we’re not able to move quickly to protect all buildings identified as significant,” Lenore Norman, the commission’s executive director, told The Times.
Preservationists noted that by vandalizing the facade, the workers had ruined the chances that the building would be landmarked. Perhaps that was the point of all that haste. Even before the destruction of the facade, Freedom House had asked tenants in the building, which included the Public Education Association, the New York City School Volunteer Program, the Citizen’s Housing and Planning Council and American Movement for World Government, to vacate by mid-June. The tenants sued Freedom House later that year. The suit was settled out of court, probably with Freedom House putting money into a housing fund for the nonprofits it made homeless. Meanwhile, the building stood vacant and shrouded by scaffolding. Not long afterward, it was demolished, leaving only the parking lot and a nine-story outline where it had stood against the adjacent building.
Public word of Republic National Bank’s plans for the lot first surfaced in 1991. Eventually, we learned that they intended to build a 16- or 17-story tower that would have been connected to the building at the rear, which is or was the bank’s data center at 1 West 39th Street. The tower, to cost a reported $2.6 million in 1994, was to have been desiged by Fox & Fowle and have had “a limestone facade, recessed flanks, a two-story entry and a pyramid top,” as The Times described it. But the effort to build that tower seems to have stalled before December 1999, when Edmond Safra, the 67-year-old billionaire owner of Republic National Bank, was killed in a fire set by his nurse, and Republic was bought by HSBC for $9.8 bllion. The parking lot’s new corporate owner seems not to be in a hurry to develop this site, as a temporary permit for the parking lot has been extended for some years now. The Willkie Building will never return, but one would be happy to see something fill this void in the city’s fabric.