Landmarks in Plain Sight

Landmarks in Plain Sight

A row of houses in Alice Court.
Courtesy LPC

The designation of a new city landmark is sometimes greeted with shock that the building in question hadn’t been designated long before. This was especially true today, when the Landmarks Preservation Commission recognized two icons of the Manhattan skyline—4 Irving Place and One Chase Manhattan Plaza—as well as a lesser-known development in Bed-Stuy: the Alice and Agate Courts Historic District.

“This has it all,” said chairman Robert Tierney of 4 Irving Place, though he could have been talking about all three. “No wonder people assume it’s already a landmark.” Commissioner Fred Bland concurred. “It’s hard to believe this hasn’t been designated already,” he said.

SOM’s One Chase Manhattan Plaza.
The Consolidated Edison Building at 4 IRving Place.

Better known as the home of Consolidated Edison—the first piece of the building was built for Consolidated Gas and completed in 1914—4 Irving Place is one of that trio of beacons—along with the Empire State Building and the MetLife clock tower—that have long illuminated the night sky. That is, after 1928, when Warren & Wetmore completed two wings and the tower addition to Henry Hardenbergh’s original design. “This project is especially important because its two pieces were completed at the end of the careers of two very important New York architects,” Bland said.

Bland added that the building also had a personal importance for him because he used it as his clock when his office was located nearby. “I had to go out and buy a watch when we moved,” he said. Summing up the designation, Commissioner Diana Chapin said, “It’s already a landmark in the New York skyline. Now it will be a protected landmark, as well.”

The same could be said for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s One Chase Manhattan Plaza. As the first modernist skyscraper to be built downtown, the building not only redefined Lower Manhattan’s architecture but resurrected the area’s appeal as a commercial center. “It turned around a section of New York that was in free fall,” Brandes Gratz said. “It made all the difference for the future.”

In addition to the signature work of Gordon Bunshaft, the commission recognized the important role art played in the project, namely the recessed rock garden and adjacent sculpture by Isamu Noguchi. But above all else, commissioners celebrated the plaza at the base of the building, which provides ample public space in an area better known for its narrow, canyon-like streets. Commissioner Margery Perlmutter said that the contrasting elements of art, architecture, and open space made the ensemble a work of art in its own right. “With the mix of scales, it almost becomes sculptural,” she said.

Not everything the commission recognized today was so well-known. Also designated was one of the smallest historic districts in the city, Alice and Agate Courts: two adjacent half-block cul-de-sacs in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. They were developed and built by Florian Grosjean, a kitchenware manufacturer, in 1888 and 1889 as rental apartments for his workers. The commission was particularly impressed by the longstanding maintenance of the 36 Queen Anne­–style row houses.

“Brooklyn really surprises with its hidden jewels like these,” Perlmutter said. “You wander around past all these bland developments and then you suddenly come upon this amazing architecture. It has to be preserved. It’s miraculous they’re still intact.”

Isamu Noguchi’s Sunken Garden at One Chase Manhattan Plaza. The integration of art into the project was seen as one of its crowning features.

An aerial view of the tiny alice and agate courts historic district in bedford-Stuyvesant.
Courtesy Google