The Real Deal New York

James Gardner — A mythic Upper West Side

The elegant 535 West End is a creature of the avenue

September 01, 2010 07:00AM
By James Gardner

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535 West End Avenue

Lucien Lagrange, the respected Chicago architect, has just completed his first project in New York, at 535 West End Avenue — and by the look of things, it will also be his last.

The French-born architect filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy this summer and declared his intention to retire, according to Crain’s.

This is a remarkable turn of events. Lagrange is a mere 69 years old; for architects, whose careers are typically just getting started around 55, that is scarcely even adolescence. However, the Chicago real estate market appears to have been hit even harder by the recession than the New York market, and that — combined with a rather public divorce written up in the Chicago Sun-Times — may explain Lagrange’s disenchantment with the profession.

In Chicago, where he opened his firm 25 years ago, Lagrange has become identified with the historicist and contextual style most often associated with postmodernists like Robert A.M. Stern. Among Lagrange’s better-known works in Chicago are the Elysian Hotel and Residences; the Park Tower Hotel, which also contains condos; and 840 Lake Shore Drive, a condo building.

His newly completed project at 535 West End, built by Extell Development Company, is a good example of his skills. Lagrange is not interested in originality, but rather in elegance, and the ability to set a building harmoniously into its context.

In fact, in New York no less than in Chicago, he is acutely respectful of architectural context.

For example, it is hard to imagine a structure more typical of Chicago architecture than the luxury condo he designed at 65 East Goethe. Though its limestone façade and mansard roof recall Paris and the Second Empire, the verticality of the window work, and especially the apertures of the balconies, will immediately suggest to Chicagoans — who take their architecture seriously — such local monuments as the Louis Sullivan-designed Carson Pirie Scott department store on State Street.

And while Lagrange is not from New York, he seems, at 535 West End, to have understood the spirit of the Upper West Side every bit as well as he understands Chicago.

Like 65 East Goethe, and like good historicist architecture in general, the building exhibits a certain dreamlike or mirage effect, in that it succeeds in being effortlessly contextual in fully exemplifying the mood and feeling of West End Avenue, while also being fundamentally different from anything that has been built in those parts.

If memory serves, it is the only building on its avenue that curves so boldly around its corner, after the fashion of the Ansonia on Broadway and 74th. At ground level, at that critical corner that joins the avenue to 86th Street, the new building is distinguished by a sequence of four generous arches to the right of the entranceway. A pedestrian is apt to appreciate, even subliminally, how well this group of arches harmonizes with the presiding spirit of the Upper West Side — even though, as far as I know, there are no other arches quite like this on West End Avenue.

Together with the limestone facing, which covers the first and second floors of the building, and elegantly frames the windows on the third floor, such arches present New Yorkers with a grander entranceway than they are used to seeing in the city.

The bulk of the building, which extends to the streetline, rises 14 stories. Most of this is an expanse of redbrick cladding with generous windows opening onto nine-and-a-half-foot ceilings, and at the top two floors of this section, a recapitulation of the limestone cladding that is found at the base of the building. This part of the development is equal in height to the contiguous buildings, as well as to most of the other structures along the avenue, the mandated uniformity of whose skyline rivals that of Park Avenue.

Above this structure, however, rises a six-story setback that resembles the much larger base, not only in its curving shape, but also in the use of red brick with white stone accents. In fact, it is a rare, if not unparalleled, example of a kind of Mini-Me building, so closely does it mimic the parent building upon whose broad shoulders it sits.

In purely architectural terms, the effect might seem odd or forced, especially if it were encountered in another city. But here in New York, our habits of viewing buildings have been altered, even perverted, by the demands of the real estate market, the vagaries of zoning regulations, and a sense of having too many people in too small a place.

At the entrance, a wrought-iron gate is flanked by stately bronze lanterns that would risk appearing to be over-the-top, were it not for the aptness of their total effect.

The building has 24 units, which, in a bold marketing move, are all either half- or full-floor units, with the exception of the two-story penthouse. Of these, some are already inhabited. According to the web page for Corcoran Sunshine, the building’s marketer, “a limited number” are still available.

While some of the units in the building have sold for far less than their asking prices (40 percent in one case), according to news reports others have fetched more than what they were listed for. And the price points at 535 are high. According to StreetEasy, of the nine active listings and listings in contract, prices range from $8.7 million to $25 million — with more in the eight-figure range than in the seven.

Still, the building — which also has an indoor swimming pool, a fitness center and, as real estate website Curbed.com has pointed out, even kosher kitchens — has been referred to in the press as the “poor man’s 15 Central Park West,” the now fabled historicist pile designed so ably by Stern. This assessment is imprecise. The building is equally historicist, but in a different way, and is just as good architecturally.

In keeping with Lagrange’s traditional architectural practice, 535 does not strive for revolutionary boldness, but rather for refinement and decorum. In the fulfillment of those ambitions, it can certainly be considered a success.

But then, the real estate market, especially in New York, is always pretending to sell you a fantasy. The contextualist style, as practiced by Lagrange, seeks to sell you the fantasy of living in a mythological New York or Chicago.

That this is easier to accomplish in theory than in practice is proved by how many such projects have gestated in the five boroughs since the 1980s, and how few of them really achieve the effect they seek. What distinguishes the buildings of Lagrange, and especially of Stern, the dean of this style, is a deep knowledge of and respect for the history of architecture, which enables the creators to design spatial and contextual effects that embody the spirit, even if they are flexible with the letter, of classical architecture.

The result is an experiential richness that you simply don’t find in the work of their imitators.

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