Of the dozens of buildings designed by McKim, Mead & White in New York City, nearly every one has become a protected landmark. One of the few unprotected could soon be headed for the wrecking ball, replaced by an office tower designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli that would surpass every skyscraper in Midtown but the Empire State Building.
Completed on 7th Avenue in 1919, almost a decade after its namesake depot across the street, the Hotel Pennsylvania was the third piece in a McKim, Mead & White trifecta that included Pennsylvania Station and the Farley Post Office. With one of those crown jewels already gone, and another set to be revamped (on February 16, Senator Charles Schumer announced $83 million in stimulus money for Moynihan Station), the Hotel Pennsylvania would be the last original piece of McKim, Mead & White’s work in the area.
Speculation about the hotel’s demise began in the late 1990s, when the Vornado Realty Trust took a controlling stake in the building. The latest plans, for a 1,190-foot-tall office tower, began in earnest two years ago, when Vornado began negotiations with Merrill Lynch to move its headquarters to the tower. The company’s board was set to vote on the matter when the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 effectively killed the deal.
Meanwhile, little was heard from the same preservation groups who decried the destruction of Pennsylvania Station. The Municipal Art Society actually backed the Vornado project, because at the time the developer was working on Moynihan Station. In a statement, MAS President Vin Cipolla acknowledged that the hotel may have “cultural significance” for many New Yorkers. He added, “The Municipal Art Society is taking a comprehensive look at the Far West Side and weighing how any new developments work in conjunction with that new station.”
Ultimately, a group of computer hackers who hold their annual convention at the hotel fought hardest for the building. Among them was Gregory Jones, who lobbied numerous politicians and civic groups. “All of them have snubbed out efforts to preserve the hotel,” he said. The local community board did vote for landmark designation, but the Landmarks Preservation Commission declined to hold a public hearing, deeming the hotel a later work exemplary of neither the firm nor the period.
Vornado is now moving ahead with two plans: one tower for an as-yet unknown anchor tenant, and an alternate design to accommodate multiple tenants, both of which were certified by the City Planning Commission on February 8 and will go through the seven-month public review process. Both buildings house roughly two million square feet, or 42.5 percent in excess of current zoning. Boosters point to $100 million in transit improvements, including the reopening of a tunnel between Sixth and Seventh avenues.
A Vornado spokesperson declined to comment except to say that the developer has determined that “now is a good time to go forward with this project.” The community does not think so, however, as the board voted against the project 36-1 last night, despite "a parade of landlords and business" brought out by Vornado, according to the Observer, to sing the project’s praises. The person with real clout over the project, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, told AN she would consider the project and its merits only when it reached her desk in a few months.