"3 Columbus Circle": it ain't vinyl, but it's still siding

Untitled (Pan Am) 2009

ghosts in the night: the Pan Am Building kisses the Commodore Hotel

I had originally intended to post this virtually abstract shot as an image alone, with no commentary, like I do with many of my photographs, but then I got to thinking about some of the follies that these two barely-seen structures (the Met Life Building* reflected in the windows of the Grand Hyatt Hotel) represent, and what they continue to tell us about New York's past. Finally, during a long-anticipated visit to the new Hearst Tower last Wednesday I looked out a window in the northeast corner of one of the higher floors and I realized that some of us haven't learned a thing. I now knew how I was going to finish this post.

Almost 30 years ago the Hyatt Hotel group demonstrated that there really are second acts in New York, but they may not always be worth staying for, or even bearable. The early twentieth-century "skyscraper" which stood on the Hyatt site, adjacent to Grand Central, was until 1980 known as the Commodore Hotel. Not surprisingly, it had been named for "Commodore" Cornelius Vanderbilt, the railroad entrepreneur who built the first Grand Central Terminal in 1871.

The Hyatt corporation's architects retained the shape of its mass, and left most of the exterior bricks of the old hotel in place, merely covering everything with a highly-reflective glass skin.

Anyone who thinks this kind of philistine rape is a thing of the past might be advised to take a walk across town. An equal or even greater abomination is being committed between Eighth Avenue and Broadway in the upper fifties. I'm referring to what owner/developer Joseph Moinian calls "3 Columbus Circle". Originally known as "Columbus Tower"**, when it was finished in 1928 (Shreve & Lamb, architects), the building occupies the entire block, between 57th and 58th Streets. Some will remember It once sheltered the much-missed Coliseum Books inside its southeast corner.

Last week I saw huge sections of masonry gouged out of finely-laid brick walls every few feet of the building's surface, all destined to hold brackets for a totally-redundant glass curtain wall. I couldn't keep looking, and, inexplicably, didn't take any pictures. Maybe I couldn't imagine looking at them once I got home. For those with the stomach, here's the website devoted to the building's transformation and marketing.

The site of this commercial-developmental obscenity is cater-corner from the bold, newly-topped-out Norman Foster Hearst Tower, which shoots out of the cast-stone facade of the six completed floors of the landmark 1928 Joseph Urban-designed New York Hearst headquarters. But it will bear a dramatically closer affinity to the new facade tacked onto 2 Columbus Circle, one block north of it, a monstrous work of destruction commissioned by the institution which I mischievously continue to refer to by its original name, the "American Craft Museum" (and not just on account of its notorious architectural crime).

The Pan Am Building may not be anyone's favorite New York skyscraper, but at least it's still permitted to represent something other than a shiny siding job.

(1963) architects: Emery Roth & Sons, with Walter Gropius and Pietro Belluschi

New York Times architecture critic David Dunlap has dug back even further. In a board post [with interesting pictures] on Wired New York, he writes: "For now, a palisade of three-story Ionic columns, supporting a neo-Classical entablature, surrounds the base of the structure. This is a visible vestige of the Colonnade Building, designed by William Welles Bosworth . . . .

Shreve & Lambís brown-brick facade was far simpler than the monumental colonnade. That incongruous combination of ornate base and spartan tower still speaks subtly ó to anyone patient enough to listen ó about the rise of Automobile Row in the early 20th century. But in a few months, it will be gone; another quirky corner of Manhattan that has been scrubbed, smoothed, polished, branded and lost."

NOTE: The image is of the west wall of the Grand Hyatt, showing a few white-ish rectangular windows; the smaller, more numerous blue-ish shapes are the lighted windows in [what I normally call] the Pan Am Building, reflected on the Hyatt glass. The photo was taken from the sidewalk on the south side of 42nd Street.

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Published on April 9, 2009 2:59 PM.

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