Great Streets: Astor Place is changing

March 5, 2012

One of the city's great streets, Astor Place is the nexus between Greenwich Village, the East Village and NoLiTa. Only three short blocks long, it intersects with Broadway, Lafayette Street, Stuyvesant Street, Fourth Avenue and The Bowery.

With the completion of Astor Place at 445 Lafayette Street, designed by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates, in 2004, it now has a very prominent landmark marker, notable for its curved, reflective-glass, mid-section and its starchitect-studded history.

Now, the neighborhood has just lost an eyesore, the pale-yellow brick 1961 Engineering Building designed by Voorhees, Walker, Smith, Smith & Haines at 51 Astor Place that has been demolished by Minskoff Equities for a new office building designed by Fumiko Maki. The Minskoff building will have a dark glass facade along Fourth Avenue in bold contrast with its lower, lighter-colored, angled section along Third Avenue at Stuyvesant Street.

And in the not distant future, the city is likely to proceed with the planned reconfiguration of the small traffic island that hosts the black cube 1956 sculpture by Tony Rosenthal known as the "Alamo" and some unusual bike racks just to the north of Astor Place at 445 Lafayette Street.

That reconfiguration will close Astor Place to automobile traffic between Lafayette Street and Cooper Square in an attempt to make the area more pedestrian friendly, which is important because of the recent nearby construction of two stunning new towers: the eye-catching Arthur Nerken Engineering Building designed by Thom Mayne of Morphosis and Gruzen Samton for Cooper Union on the southeast corner of 7th Street and Cooper Square, and the recent taking over by Andre Balzacs of the extremely attractive and slanted, white Cooper Square Hotel designed by Carlos Zapata at East 5th Street and The Bowery.

The Astor Place neighborhood abounds in history.

The brownstone, skylit, 1853-9 Foundation Building of the Cooper Union was designed by Frederick A. Peterson as the nation's earliest building framed with steel beams. It has a large, curved "Great Hall" in its basement where Abraham Lincoln gave his "Right Makes Might" speech about slavery in 1860.

Just south of the free-standing Astor Place at 445 Lafayette Street apartment building on Lafayette Street is the New York Shakespeare Theater that was originally the 1853-1881 Astor Library named after John Jacob Astor, the fur trader who bought a large tract of land at this location in 1803.

Just south of Astor Place at 445 Lafayette Street on Cooper Square is the Carl Fisher Building, a 1926 building at 62 Cooper Square that was converted to 26 loft condominium apartments in 2001.

The very handsome, 11-story, beige-brick, Romanesque Revival Mercantile Library Building at 21 Astor Place was designed by George E. Harney in 1890 and subsequently was converted by the Elad Group to a condominium apartment building in 2003 with about 50 apartments.

One Astor Place is a very handsome, Victorian-style, red-brick and terracotta, 7-story apartment building designed in 1881 by Starkweather & Gibbs. The building has three glass marquees and about 175 rental apartments.

In 1956, the former A. T. Stewart Store on Broadway between 9th and 10th Streets that had been sold to John Wanamaker & Sons, burnt down.

When the department store's full-block site was rebuilt in 1960 as the 21-story, 368 cooperative apartment Stewart House, the neighborhood was relatively drab and dominated by loft properties. The new building surrounded itself with gardens and was one of the first apartment buildings to have a large, curved driveway.

A few years later, at the foot of Astor Place at Broadway, the 31-story, 389-unit condop building known as Georgetown Plaza was erected at 60 East 8th Street. It was followed in 1976 by an almost identical building just to the south, Hilary Gardens at 300 Mercer Street, a 35-story building with 483 cooperative apartments.

The Astor Place at 445 Lafayette Street project went through a long gestation with several of the world's most famous architects before it was finally designed by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates.

In 1999, Cooper Union, which owned the lot, leased it for 99 years to Ian Schrager and the Related Cos., and, on the advice of Charles Gwathmey, the head of Cooper Union's architectural advisory committee, it commissioned Rem Koolhaus of the Office of Metropolitan History to design a hotel for the site with Herzog & de Meuron.

The Koolhaus hotel design was startling as its slightly slanted facades were punctuated with irregularly framed, inset windows that were characterized by some as a cheese-grater and which looked to others like a concrete wall used for target practice by a howitzer. The base of the metal-clad tower was indented and hovered over a public plaza.

Unfortunately, Koolhaus and Herzog & de Meuron reportedly did not get along well and Koolhaas's truncated obelisk hotel project was abandoned and Mr. Schrager decided to replace him and Herzon & de Meuron in 2002 with Frank O. Gehry, who had designed the highly influential and celebrated Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

Gehry came up with three great and spectacular hotel designs for the site. The plans, alas, were not cheap and were set aside and Related then asked Gwathmey to come up with a residential design for the site.

Gwathmey's design was a stack of four modules with different treatments and sizes. The largest module, which "floated" above a larger two-story base, was a sinuously curved glass facade that recalled the magnificent sultriness of Lake Point Tower in Chicago, the country's most beautiful skyscraper, designed by Shipporeit Associates.

Carter B. Horsley

March 5, 2012


Also in Carter's View: