Unearthing the Past to Create New York’s Buildings of Tomorrow
Cherubs danced at the feet of muses as they plucked lyres on the domed ceiling of the old Steinway Hall on West 57th Street in Manhattan. Their joy was reflected in the face of Marci Clark, who stood below them last week, expounding on the grandeur of the 91-year-old room.
“Done in the neo-Classical style, with marble columns, pilasters and cornice in a range of hues, this double-height octagonal space was the work of Walter L. Hopkins, who did some of Warren & Wetmore’s most distinguished work,” Ms. Clark explained, referring to the building’s architects. “The painting is believed to be mimicking the 18th-century Austrian painter Angelica Kauffman.”
As an architectural historian, Ms. Clark, 30, has studied buildings throughout New York City in pursuit of her doctorate. Yet her research at Steinway Hall has a very different end: selling apartments. As she spoke, buzz saws and blowtorches growled in the background, preparing the foundations for a 1,428-foot tower to rise from what was once one of the world’s finest piano shops.
Just over two years ago, Ms. Clark traded her mortarboard for a hard hat to work in the marketing department of JDS Development Group, where she is now a director. Her job involves putting together sales brochures, managing brokers and publicizing projects, but she prefers to spend her time in libraries and the dusty archives of architectural firms. There she unearths the blueprints, photos, maps and documents that guide JDS projects, whether or not they involve historical buildings. Old topographies might lead to better engineering; a salvaged grille could become a motif in a new kitchen.
“It’s not just a token gesture or marketing ploy,” Ms. Clark said. “It offers information to our designers and brokers on what to do with the projects, with the interiors and detailing. It’s a means of inspiration.”
Whereas other developers might prefer to bulldoze the past, JDS has found that embracing it can be lucrative in a city built on both progress and nostalgia.
“People really seem to value the authenticity of the work,” JDS’s founder, Michael Stern, said in an interview. “That often starts with Marci’s research and guidance.”
In 2011, Ms. Clark was “a poor grad student,” as she put it, when she spotted an advertisement for a researcher on a bulletin board in the art history department at Columbia. The task was to help create an exhibition about the architect Ralph Walker, a master of the Art Deco style who was little known even in architectural circles because his principal works were telephone exchanges around Manhattan.
JDS had recently bought the upper floors of one of these exchanges from Verizon on West 18th Street. With commanding views of the West Village and the Hudson River and a regal lobby hidden to all but phone technicians, the property offered a chance to effectively create a prewar apartment building from scratch.
The lot at 626 First Avenue, highlighted in red, superimposed on part of an 1865 map of the city. David Rumsey Historical Map Collection
To establish the tower’s pedigree, Ms. Clark helped assemble an exhibition about Mr. Walker, highlighting his role as president of the American Institute of Architects and creator of such landmarks as 1 Wall Street and the Barclay-Vesey Building opposite the World Trade Center.
The exhibition opened in the lobby of the building in 2012, a year before sales began. Mr. Stern saw it as a commitment to showcasing the site’s history, though it was also a canny move because the resurrection of Mr. Walker succeeded. (He had fallen out of favor in part for his rejection of modernist architecture.) A once-dowdy building suddenly contained apartments worth millions of dollars, including the $50.9 million penthouse, briefly the most expensive unit ever sold downtown.
“It’s an interesting twist, and it’s marketing, but there’s also a real respect for the city you don’t often see,” said Francis Morrone, an architectural historian and author. “I wish more developers paid as much attention.”
Ms. Clark worked with JDS on another Walker building, on West 50th Street. Among her contributions: uncovering drawings of Deco roof ornaments that had been removed, and which JDS recreated.
By then, she was working on her doctorate at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Her thesis focuses on another major New York developer, William Zeckendorf, and his work on urban renewal projects with I. M. Pei.
Her academic and extracurricular interests made sense, as a daughter and granddaughter of contractors in Salt Lake City. Working for JDS, Ms. Clark felt she could have more than a theoretical effect on architectural history. “I think real estate in many ways is the story of New York, how the city grows and changes,” she said.
Left, a rendering shows a recital hall on the eighth floor of a condominium tower being built in the former Steinway Hall on West 57th Street. Archival photographs of the original, which was destroyed decades ago, right, are guiding construction of the near replica. Left: HayesDavidson/Studio Sofield; Right: Steinway & Sons Archives
Ms. Clark was hired as a marketing manager at JDS in 2013, and has quickly become one of the firm’s leaders. As soon as JDS considers acquiring a property, she heads to the archives at the Municipal Building, the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library at Columbia or wherever else she might turn up tidbits, to start developing a case for or against the project.
Even buildings with no deep connection to the past can reveal secrets, such as 626 First Avenue. There, a former Consolidated Edison site is becoming home to 800 units in a pair of cantilevered towers joined by a skybridge. Ms. Clark found old maps showing that the property was once in the East River, which not only informed its foundation work but could also be seen as an echo of the pool that will exist atop the skybridge, 29 stories over Manhattan, and the river below.
And near the High Line, a 14-unit condominium designed by Roman and Williams is taking shape. “Since everything is so modern there, we thought it would be fun to do something a little different,” Ms. Clark said. The designers came up with a green terra cotta facade as textured as that of the Woolworth Building, giving the impression the 10-story project dates to a time when trains still ran along the elevated tracks.
Stephen Alesch, principal of Roman and Williams, said it was six months before he learned about Ms. Clark’s background, which suddenly explained everything. “When we talk about our approach, we get a lot of funny looks, or the developers go white,” Mr. Alesch said. “With Marci, her eyes would light up.”
On the more obviously historical projects, like the Steinway Hall conversion — developed with Property Markets Group — the new elements recall the past. The jagged setback of the tower, designed by SHoP Architects, evokes Jazz Age skyscrapers, while an old recital hall will be rebuilt on the eighth floor almost exactly as it was, thanks to photos Ms. Clark found.
Once projects are underway, they are carefully cataloged with photography and videos for JDS’s growing archives — and for social media, of course.
“It’s amazing to see the impact she is having now, which students will be studying someday just like she is,” said Marta Gutman, a professor at City College and one of Ms. Clark’s mentors. “I just wish she would finish her thesis already.”
Ms. Clark says that is what weekends are for.
By Matt A. V. Chaban, The New York Times
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