A Lapidus Gem – With Revisions

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

So many poor or mediocre buildings litter Manhattan that one feels compelled, even belatedly, to acknowledge any interesting developments from the recent past. The other day I came upon a corner of Manhattan that somehow I had missed: the western end of 42nd Street at Twelfth Avenue.

There is no compelling reason to go to this particular spot. A few blocks north is the Intrepid. A few blocks south is William Nicholas Boudova’s fine new ferry terminal, which I reviewed enthusiastically last October. But here, opposite the drab and antiquated Circle Line Station, is a lull in the landscape.What finally drew me to the place was the much-advertised new Atelier residential high-rise by Costas Kondylis & Partners at 625 West 42nd Street. As it happens, the building is not quite complete, so I decided to hold off writing about it for a few weeks.

But no sooner had I come to that decision than something else caught my eye: an imposing white building facing the Hudson. Spryly contemporary, this odd structure is a 16-story reinforced concrete slab whose L-shape rises over a 4-story base. While the serried ranks of windows are canted from the façade at a 45-degree angle — so as to afford the best views of the Hudson — the limestone cladding of the monolithic base sullenly deflects and discourages the attention of passersby.

After snooping around the deserted site (on a weekend), I learned that it was the Consulate of the People’s Republic of China. But what an odd place for a consulate. Most are either huddled near the United Nations or amid the swank of the Upper East Side.

And yet, here among the seagulls and the rusting tin-can steamboats of the Circle Line, a stone’s throw from one of the city’s biggest taxi depots, sits the consulate of the world’s most populous nation.

As I made the connection, I perceived in the clean soullessness of the building — amid the strict rectilinear rhythms of the massing and the windows — that slightly eccentric embrace of Western architectural idioms that has characterized certain Eastern totalitarian regimes in recent years.

How wrong I was! It turns out that this building, far from being a new exercise in Sino-Postmodernism, is really a converted Sheraton Motor Inn, designed in 1962 by none other than Morris Lapidus. This man, most famous for Miami’s neo-Baroque Fontainebleau, left his mark on Manhattan with two of the boroughs biggest mid-century hotels, the Americana (now the Sheraton on Seventh Avenue and 53th Street) and the Summit Hotel (now the Doubletree Metropolitan) on Lexington Avenue and 51st Street.

Morris Lapidus, who died four years ago at age 98, has been enjoying of late a far friendlier reappraisal than he ever knew while he lived. I have no intention of jumping on that particular bandwagon, but I will say this for the structure: Something is going on here that you do not find in the great preponderance of modern or contemporary architecture around the world. The authority with which it occupies its corner, where the canted windows rise up along 42nd Street and the L-shaped mass opens out to the river, shows an architectonic tact and intelligence that are precisely what one misses in the work of most journeyman architects.

Before moving in, however, the Chinese made some changes to the structure.The four-story base, once a garage with two rows of discreet square windows, has now become a monolith clad with vaguely contextual limestone. It has string coursings in a somewhat rougher stone that do not sort entirely well with the modernist vocabulary of the rest of the building. Beyond that, the new owners have put carceral bars across the windows of the base and punctuated it with large swaths of that metal mesh that is much in fashion lately. They have also fitted the façade with an imposing metal canopy and a blue glass panel that rises three floors above it before terminating in a bright red flag. Finally, at the top of the building is an airy metal filagree that initially led me to think that the whole structure was recent. Though fully in keeping with contemporary architectural taste, it — like most of the other changes to the building — appears to have been dictated by the security concerns of a very nervous regime.

***

It is a great pleasure to announce that the Literary Walk, which leads up to the Bandshell area in the Mall of Central Park, has just reopened and has never looked better. If the Bandshell and Bethesda Terrace represent the culminating points of Olmstead and Vaux’s meticulous stagecraft, the Literary Walk is the royal road leading up to them. During the nine months that the path was closed, the Central Park Conservancy modernized the draining system and repaved the entire place. Perhaps more importantly, however, they redesigned it to appear closer to what it was in the 1860s. Most conspicuously, the Robert Moses-era concrete has been replaced by gravel and textured asphalt. Concrete benches from the same period have now yielded to less obtrusive affairs of metal and wood.The fences and the lamps feel positivelyVictorian. No one seems happier than the statues of poets on the path, most notably those of a swooning Robbie Burns and the indispensible Fitz Greene Halleck, whose bronze brain is surely teaming with couplets to commemorate this auspicious occasion.

jgardner@nysun.com


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