Developer in Chelsea Honors a Great Architect While Redesigning His Work

The New York TimesJune 26, 2012
The legacy of Ralph Walker, the great 20th-century architect whose Art Deco towers brought muscle to the New York skyline, is having a very mixed year.

One developer has named a residential conversion in Walker's honor, has invested large sums of money during the conversion to replicate building materials Walker would have used, has opened an exhibit about Walker on the ground floor and has supported a handsome new monograph, "Ralph Walker: Architect of the Century," published by Rizzoli International.

One developer has taken an 82-year-old Walker building in Chelsea and is rearranging its distinctive setback profile, has stripped its principal north and south facades of brickwork that he intends to replace with ornamental stainless bronze that Walker never envisioned, has created windows in a facade that Walker left solid because it housed elevator shafts, and plans to crown the building with spires unlike those Walker once imagined.

They are the same developer, Michael Stern, managing partner of the JDS Development Group, and the same building, an old New York Telephone Company switching building at 212 West 18th Street. Mr. Stern and Property Markets Group, a development firm, are turning the building into Walker Tower, a condominium project with 50 apartments. (Or "residences," as apartments are called by real estate brokers, who were invited to Walker Tower on Tuesday evening to see a model unit. The New York Post reported in April that the penthouse may sell for $50 million.) The $200 million project is to be completed by next June.

"We tried to respect what we could of the original design while doing what we could to make it a modern residential building," Mr. Stern said. Where new elements were introduced, he said, they were based on existing decorative motifs found in the building entrance and lobby or on archival drawings showing how Walker's design evolved.

The renovation architects, CetraRuddy, were not bound by a landmark designation and had significant latitude to alter the facade. "Changes can be made to a building if they're done sensitively, in a way that respects the integrity of the building," said John Cetra, a principal in the firm.

But the key aesthetic gesture of the renovation, replacing the central brick bays at the top and bottom of the building with ornamental metal panels, was chiefly inspired not by anything at the 18th Street building, or on Walker's résumé, or even in New York. Instead, it is a reinterpretation of the historical Bullock's Wilshire in Los Angeles.

Crowning the renovation, JDS and CetraRuddy plan to install four 40-foot needlelike spires of cast bronze at each corner of the elevator tower. Mr. Stern and Mr. Cetra found a precedent in an early drawing of the telephone building by Walker's firm, Voorhees, Gmelin & Walker, which showed four spires reaching to the sky. The spires were more elaborate than those now proposed and were never erected.

Apart from the new spires, the building's height of 328 feet will be maintained, as will its existing square footage, Mr. Stern said.

But there is an asterisk. JDS took the position, which the New York City Buildings Department accepted, that four mechanical floors should be counted as existing floor area, even though they were not covered by the certificate of occupancy, which recognized 212 West 18th Street as having 19 stories, not 23. The Buildings Department also agreed to count some of the rooftop setbacks as existing floor area. By those calculations, the building had and continues to have just over 302,000 square feet.

JDS and Cetra shifted that floor area to create more spacious (and expensive) apartments in the upper reaches of the building. Floors two through seven continue to be owned and used by Verizon, the successor to New York Telephone. In Walker's day, the building served the CHelsea and WAtkins exchanges.

Walker's masterpieces from the 1920s and '30s include official landmarks like 1 Wall Street, the former headquarters of the Irving Trust Company (designation report as a pdf from the Neighborhood Preservation Center); the Barclay-Vesey Building at 140 West Street, which is the current headquarters of Verizon (pdf); and the former Western Union headquarters at 60 Hudson Street (pdf).

JDS and CetraRuddy have gone to great lengths to preserve those areas of Walker's building at 212 West 18th Street that they are not removing. "We're working very hard to put back a lot of decorative details that were destroyed over the years," Mr. Stern said.

For instance, intricately angled coping stones and bricks have been recast. Mr. Stern said that to be true to Walker's original design, bricks were needed in five different colors and nine different shapes, none of which could be purchased off-the-shelf, though some were salvaged from other parts of the building. He also said all of the original ornamental metalwork in the lobby would be restored.

Given this dual approach - exacting restoration and liberal reinterpretation - Mr. Cetra was asked whether the final result would be a Ralph Walker building or a CetraRuddy building.

"I'm going to let history answer that question," he said.

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