Situated along Broadway between the landmark-rich Theater and Flatiron Districts, Manhattan’s Garment District represents a near preservation dead zone. As the area undergoes a large-scale revitalization, property owners are turning attention from ground floor retail to renovating the entrances and lobbies that lead to the increasingly valuable office space above. Yet without landmarking protections in place, the architectural reminders of the district’s history as a global hub for clothing design and manufacturing are in peril of being lost.
GRT Architects sought to change this pattern with its Fashion Tower project at 135 West 36th Street, the site of an art deco-era Emery Roth skyscraper. Unlike Roth’s prestigious pre-war apartment buildings, Fashion Tower fell victim to a thoughtless 1970s facade treatment, in which a flexible, stucco-like paint was applied to the exterior. Not only acting as an ad-hoc urban lint roller, collecting grime from traffic over decades, the frontage makeover meant the loss of period ornamental motifs.
To recover the building’s forgotten pageantry, GRT’s team embarked on a period of research at Columbia University’s Avery Library. Archival drawings and photographs, along with forensic paint analysis and insight from preservation specialists Walter B. Melvin Architects and historian Andrew Dolkart, allowed the designers to piece together the exterior entry’s original details that now match an identical freight entrance at the building’s eastern side. With terra cotta sourced from upstate New York’s Boston Valley and replica stone engravings rendered by a Brooklyn-based mason, the threshold now signals its original Garment District badges of honor: polychrome peacocks hold court above the entry, complemented above by surviving winged putti wielding shears and draping fabric. This sumptuous symbolism tells a largely untold story, as Fashion Tower stands as the only building in the district with ornamentation that references the fashion trades.
The art deco narrative continues in the lobby through an entirely 21st-century concept. GRT Architects sheathed the double-height space with a faceted pattern of calacatta marble and bronze-tinted anodized aluminum. The interplay of silhouettes brings to mind pleated fabric as well as the soaring geometry that defined the period’s architectural style. Passage through the lobby reveals the walls’ shifting planes, enlivening the less than stimulating march toward the elevator, which is standard in this part of Midtown. The interior impact is decidedly fashion-forward, while the restored facade pays homage to styles past—a promising statement for the nascent firm’s inaugural project.