Will New York lose another architecturally significant building interior because it isn’t protected by landmark designation? That’s the fear of local preservationists who have launched an effort to protect the art moderne lobby of the former McGraw-Hill building, a 1931 Raymond Hood-designed office tower at 330 West 42nd Street that is currently empty and awaiting renovation.
Still smarting from the demolition of the lobby in Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s 1984 Sony Corporation building, now 550 Madison Avenue, advocates of New York’s architectural heritage voiced their concerns about the McGraw-Hill lobby during this week’s meeting of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) where panel members were reviewing plans for the building’s exterior renovation in preparation for new tenants. The lobby wasn’t one of the items slated for review, but the subject came up when the panel opened the meeting for public testimony.
After the virtual hearing on Tuesday, the Art Deco Society of New York launched a petition drive on gopetition.com to urge the preservation commission to add the McGraw-Hill lobby to its list of interior landmarks so the panel has the legal authority to review and approve any proposed changes and block inappropriate alterations.
Consultants working on the building renovation, including MdeAS Architects and Higgins Quasebarth & Partners, acknowledged that they’re planning to renovate the lobby to meet today’s tenancy requirements but said they don’t yet have a final design.
Speaking at the meeting, Higgins Quasebarth cofounder and principal Bill Higgins fueled preservationists’ concerns about the lobby renovations by saying that while the design team is “trying to achieve[…] a harmonious combination of new and old,” and “have a valid and productive conversation between new and old fabric,” it is “not proposing a restorative approach.”
Five of the 11 commissioners, including chair Sarah Carroll, expressed concern about what they heard from the preservationists and urged the development team to be sensitive about the lobby.
But the commissioners stopped short of taking any immediate action related to the building’s interior, saying it wasn’t part of the scope of work they were scheduled to review at this week’s hearing and that the commission doesn’t have legal authority to review plans for the lobby because it doesn’t have interior landmark designation.
The warning was first sounded by preservationist Theodore Grunewald, who told the panel he has seen renderings indicating that the design team is planning to demolish portions of the 80-year-old lobby rather than restore the space.
Grunewald said he was appalled to think that the interior, which he called “one of New York City’s finest Art Deco lobbies,” might not be preserved as part of the renovation.
“The intact 1931 lobby, with the addition of sympathetic lighting fixtures added in the 1980s, is an astonishing polychromatic Emerald City extravaganza,” he told the commission. “If Fred Astaire had worked in an office building, this would have been the one.”
Grunewald has posted “before and after” images on his Twitter feed indicating that the design team is contemplating major changes to the building’s lobby. He said much of the lobby’s significance is due to the “unique, integral relationship” it has with the building’s exterior: “Outside brought in. Inside brought out.” Supplanting it with a less exuberant design, he warned, would be contrary to Hood’s vision.
“Apple store fever is as contagious as COVID-19,” he told the panel. “Please do not allow this irreplaceable art deco masterpiece to be replaced by middle brow minimalism.”
“Raymond Hood’s lobby is really one of the most exceptional streamlined Moderne interiors” anywhere, added Thomas Collins. “The lobby is T-shaped with the same green, black and chrome banding on the entrance that continues into the lobby walls, leading to a central elevator core which is surrounded by…really brilliant emerald green enameled walls. The visitor is surrounded by this sea of color. It’s really quite dramatic.”
In its online petition, which was posted by executive director Meghan Weatherby on February 9 and has garnered nearly 1,400 signatures at the time of writing, the Art Deco Society of New York calls the lobby “a globally recognized architectural masterpiece” and “one of New York City’s most over-the-top Art Deco interiors.”
Although the ceiling has been altered, “the lobby walls still bear an important, unmistakable resemblance to the building’s iconic exterior,” the petition states. “The alternating blue and green steel bands separated by silver and gold-colored metal tubes at the main entrance are seamlessly carried into the lobby to complement its green enameled steel walls.”
Without the preservation commission’s help, the society warns, “this important interior space could be lost forever!”
The 35-story tower is one of three in New York associated with the McGraw-Hill publishing company, but the company no longer occupies 330 West 42nd Street.
Designed by Hood in association with Frederick Godley and Jacques André Fouilhoux, it was designated an individual city landmark in 1979, meaning that any changes to the exterior must be reviewed and approved by the city’s preservation commission. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. The preservation commission characterizes its design as an example of “Moderne/International Style.”
Containing 552,000 square feet of space, the tower is owned by a real estate investor that plans to renovate the building and needs the panel’s approval before it can begin exterior work.
The meeting on February 9 was scheduled so the commission could review proposed changes involving signs; storefronts; infill panels and a canopy, as part of the permitting process.
Before presenting plans for the exterior, Higgins provided an overview of the building’s history and architectural importance.
He said Hood’s tower was designed at a time when art moderne architecture was in vogue and when the International Style was starting to influence architects in New York City.
It’s also noteworthy, said Higgins, because it was designed to be partly an industrial building, with a printing plant at the base, and partly an office building, with workspace for various McGraw-Hill divisions above and office floors that set back toward the top.
Higgins said the combination of moderne and International Style influences makes this tower different from others that Hood designed even a few years before, and helps it stand out today.
“I think it’s kind of remarkable that, even surrounded by the tall buildings that have grown up around it since it was originally built, the McGraw-Hill building is still such a powerful and unique presence on the skyline,” he said.
Unlike some office buildings that are being converted to residences, said Higgins, this will be a multi-tenant office building, with retail space at street level, and it will be identified by its address: 330 West 42nd Street.
In general, he said, the vision is to create a building that is modernized for the 21st century but “very much has the power and presence and character that it has always had.”
Part of the change in function, Higgins said, is that the building no longer needs to devote lower-level space to printing presses and that space can be converted to other uses. Part of the proposed changes involve adding windows on the building’s 41st Street-facing facade to replace some of the roll-down loading dock doors and allow passersby to see activity inside.
Much of the discussion at the hearing centered on the design and installation of new signs that will be created in conjunction with the building’s name change and potential new tenants.
Even though the building is no longer officially called the McGraw-Hill building, said Higgins, the team agreed that the original signage is still an integral part of the building’s design and history and ought to remain.
After preservationists raised concerns about the lobby, Carroll gave the design team a chance to respond.
Higgins and MdeAS partner Dan Shannon said any renderings that might be posted online don’t represent a final design for the McGraw-Hill lobby because that aspect of the project isn’t that far along.
Higgins said the design team has made every effort to be sensitive to Hood’s work in its proposed changes to the exterior and intends to be sensitive to the lobby as well.
“We certainly recognize the character and quality of the lobby, although it has been changed to a degree rather greater than has been discussed today,” he told the commissioners.
“But still there is a great amount of original character and original fabric there. And although we do not have a landmark [designation] on the interior, we are cognizant of that. What we are trying to achieve[…] is a harmonious combination of new and old, both in terms of actual fabric that is kept in place and in terms of the language of the new fabric and the new design for portions of the lobby in order to meet contemporary use and circulation.
“So what we are looking to do here is to have a valid and productive conversation between new and old fabric. We are not proposing a restorative approach. But we are proposing one in which historic fabric, historic vocabulary and contemporary fabric and vocabulary interact in a harmonious way. This is not intended to be get-rid-of-the-old-and-do-something-corporate, as someone said. That is not where we are aiming to go with this.”
Shannon of MdeAS Architects, managing partner in charge of the project, also stressed that any images circulating online do not represent the final lobby design. He said the images are not on his company’s website but were “in our servers, so I’m not sure how they were released.”
“The design for the interior of this building, the lobby in particular, is currently in progress, and any images that are shown on Twitter or have been looked at are merely early design sketches and they do not represent the current design, the progressing design or the approved design,” he added.
Shannon said the design team has “great admiration” for the building and Hood’s work on it. For now, he said, “we are progressing by incorporating both original material that is there and designs that are referential or incorporating the building design[…]in material, in color and in profile.”
Shannon said his firm has extensive experience in renovating other noteworthy office building interiors in Manhattan, including Gordon Bunshaft’s sloped W. R. Grace building on West 42nd Street and the General Motors building on Fifth Avenue.
“We’re very proud of the work we’re doing in transforming important buildings in New York City to create interior spaces that both respect and respond to the original and transform them a bit toward the current tenancy requirements.”
The commissioners voted 11-to-0 to approve the proposed changes for the exterior, with several praising the team’s decision to retain the McGraw-Hill name on top.
Acknowledging that they don’t have authority to weigh in on the lobby, the comission nevertheless urged the team to be sensitive with it.
Commissioner Michael Goldblum said he believes interior landmark designation of the lobby is worth the consideration.
“I would echo the sentiment of the testimony,” he said. “The lobby, even though it has Bizarro lights, is remarkably intact, and I think that it certainly is of the level that would merit designation.”
Goldblum added that he knows the designers have worked extensively with landmark-quality interiors as well as exteriors. “I hope and pray that they do preserve the historic interior so that it can be landmarked either before their work, during it or after,” he said.
Calling the lobby “an incredible space, a one-of-a-kind space,” commissioner Anne Holford-Smith encouraged the owner and architects “to preserve as much of the interior as possible.” Commissioner Adi Shamir-Baron suggested that the team bring in Stephen Doyle of Doyle Partners, the graphic designer working on the exterior, and ask him to apply his “interpretive sensibility” to the lobby.
“I want to echo my fellow commissioners’ hope that the work on the interior is approached in a very sensitive manner,” Carroll said.
The LPC’s last interior designation, Collins noted, came in 2017 when the Rose Main Reading Room of the New York Public Library’s building on Fifth Avenue was added. Interior landmark designation means that owners cannot alter the designated areas until the plans are reviewed and approved by the preservation commission.
The McGraw-Hill lobby renovation is only one of the latest of several controversies involving lobbies and other interiors in New York City. In some cases, disputes have arisen over spaces that do have interior landmark designation, such as the debate over changes proposed for the former Four Seasons restaurant space in the Seagram Building.
“There are many, many outstanding examples of unprotected interior landmarks, and this is absolutely one of them,” Colling told the commissioners. “This is really just the tip of the iceberg.”
Architecturally significant midtown lobbies and public interiors “are being demolished left and right, and no one is really talking about this,” he added. “I understand the agency has many other priorities, and that’s fine. But the demolition of any interior of this stature ought to serve as a wakeup call, and I would sincerely hope that LPC will move forward and consider reviewing this interior space for future designation.”