Sunday, August 21, 2011

Park Avenue Prewar

Park Avenue is lined with buildings which, at first blush, look pretty much alike. 521 Park, on the northeast corner of 60th St., is only a block from my office, which is probably why I began to notice how fine it was. My pal, Chris Gray, who is an authority on New York architects and architecture, thinks 521 is just another apartment house. The same architect, a man with the unfortunate name of William A. Boring, designed 540 Park across the street, which Chris says is far more interesting. Alas, 540 succumbed to the wreckers' ball 40 years ago and a cement colored box housing the Regency Hotel occupies the site today.

I have a taste for traditional design, scholarly detail and first class craftsmanship. The stone work on 521, if you look at it closely, is head and shoulders above almost everything else on the avenue.

A great deal of sophisticated thought went into the design of this facade - from the grandly scaled granite blocks on the basement, to the stylized ocean wave border that separates it from the upper floors, to the textural articulation of the fenestration, to the well scaled brackets beneath the balconies and the ironwork above them.

To me, 521 Park is an apotheosis of a confident, elegant, properly proportioned early 20th century apartment house. Boring (1859-1937) designed it in 1910 and the Edward Corning Construction Co. built it in 1911. That was early for Park Avenue. Back then a vast open air railroad yard still extended from Grand Central to the mid-50s and the tracks to the north were only partly covered. Modest apartment houses and factory buildings would continue to dominate Park Avenue until a huge building boom in the 1920s replaced them with the big rental buildings that would eventually become today's swank coops.

Here's a closeup of the limestone facade showing the contrast between smooth and textured - or "tooled" - stone that gives the facade subtle interest and character.

Boring was a graduate of the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, and a former employee of McKim Mead and White in New York.

The ironwork on the facade of this building must hold its own with substantial stone work, and it does.

I don't know if every one of these granite blocks is actually as massive as the corner blocks seem. The point is that they don't look skimpy. The basement floor seems quite able to support the building above.

Even the moats and the basement windows have been carefully thought out. These are the little things - even when they're not fully noticed by passersby - that make walking in the city a special pleasure.

When 521 Park was built - and it was one of the few built as a coop from the start - each floor constituted a single superbly luxurious apartment. It's hard to tell exactly how many of these have survived, but if consistency of curtains and blinds visible from the street is any measure, it looks like a lot - maybe even the great majority - are still in one piece. Take a look at this plan, designed to tempt a market heretofore focused on private houses. A 36' gallery, or "foyer" as it's called on the plan, stretches from the front entrance, and is lit by big doors to the principal rooms. From the south wall of the living room to the north wall of the dining room is a distance of over 60' down a grand enfilade of public rooms. The master bedroom is located on the corner, overlooking of 60th St., then a quiet brownstone block. The corner location takes advantage of maximum cross ventilation.

There is a beautiful separation of function in this plan: the staff quarters are contained in a wing with 4 servants' rooms, a servants' hall, kitchen and pantry; the grand public rooms overlook Park Avneue; and the family quarters are tucked away in a private bedroom wing overlooking 60th Street.

Boring went on to become director of the Columbia School of Architecture in 1919, and Dean of Architecture Columbia in 1931. One might not suspect it to look at this plan, but toward the end of his career he became a notable force in modernist architecture and town planning.

A colleague in my firm currently is representing an apartment at 521 Park that occupies about half of the third floor. It looks absolutely beautiful - and absolutely none of it is original. You may enjoy, as I did, comparing this plan to the original above. Here's the link to the online listing.

Here's another "cutoff," as we call them in the business, on another floor, a $1.5 million one-bedroom created from former servants' rooms, servants' hall and an original kitchen.


  1. I never alloted for the maids' rooms! No wonder my apartment looks the way it does. Seriously, this is a great look at a classical building, and I really appreciate your including the floor plans.

    We also got a taste of the way these old apartments were broken up in the book (and later movie) Rosemary's Baby.
    --Road to Parnassus

  2. I too think this building is exceptional. Thank you for writing this piece on it.


  3. Irrrve never alloted for the maids' areas! No surprise our condo seems the actual way it will. Severely, a great consider a established building, and I actually many thanks for like the floor strategies.
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  4. I stayed in one of these flats. It covers the entire floor. In the end of the 20th century minor changes took place in the area of the maids. The four maids' rooms have been converted to two; one is used as a guest room and the other one still is a maid's room. The entire flat is well balances and the energy flow is great and peaceful. The floor plan and design of William Boring is absolutely great and this building is a valuable legacy to the architectural history of NYC and the world.