What’s Been Lost

by Don Friedman on November 20, 2017

The green glass-walled building straight ahead is 2 Broadway. It’s as close to a generic circa-1960 office high-rise as you can get. There’s nothing about it that’s inherently bad…except….it was built on the site formerly occupied by the Produce Exchange. Here’s the Exchange, designed in the 1880s by George Post:

In short, we lost a great building and got a generic office tower. There’s an issue that people involved with historic preservation are reluctant to discuss because it’s seen as weakening our field, but that is the comparison of new and old. At the foot of Broadway we lost a great building and got back nothing much, and that’s why the great building is mourned. That doesn’t have to be the case.

There’s a site with an interesting history at the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street. In the mid-1800s, two members of the Astor family had mansions facing the Fifth Avenue blockfront. In 1893, William Astor tore down his house and built the 13-story Waldorf Hotel. The accounts of the house suggest that it was not particularly interesting in terms of its architecture. In 1897, William’s cousin John J. Astor IV tore down his mother’s house and built the 16-story Astoria Hotel, with the intent from the beginning that the two hotels would be physically and operationally integrated. The combined Waldorf-Astoria Hotel was a success and a part of the upper-class New York social circle.

The Waldorf-Astoria was eventually doomed by the uptown movement of high society and by various functionally-obsolete aspects to its original design. It was closed and the new Waldorf-Astoria opened on Park Avenue and 50th Street in 1931. The old site at Fifth and 34th was sold to a developer who built a spec office building.

The Empire State Building is famous and beautiful, but it was built as generic office space to make money for its developers, the same as 2 Broadway.

At the 34th Street site, we lost two mansions of famous people and no one I’ve ever spoken to cares. They were replaced by the Waldorf-Astoria, which was much more interesting. We lost the old Waldorf-Astoria, and again no one I’ve spoken to cares. It was replaced by the Empire State, which is beloved. In short, New York real estate isn’t a museum, and the loss of an old building may be acceptable if it’s replaced by something of equal or better quality. The problem is that it so rarely works that way. Most of the time, what we get is what happened at the Broadway site: a beautiful and historic building is demolished for nothing worth talking about. Sometimes beautiful and historic buildings are demolished for vacant lots, or for junk that everyone involved should be embarrassed for having been present. Maybe we shouldn’t care what came before or comes after a building we’re looking at, but it’s hard not.

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