The Real Deal New York

The inside man

With 135 East 79th, interior designer William Sofield breaks into exterior architecture with force

December 01, 2012
By James Gardner

For most the past four decades, the entire block along 79th Street between Park and Lexington avenues has been blighted by the Hunter College School of Social Work. But the building, which was erected in 1972, was razed two years ago to make way for a luxury condominium: 135 East 79th Street.

The main problem with the Hunter building was its woeful inadequacy to its context: amid the Upper East Side’s turn-of-the-century gentility of Georgian classicism, Art Deco and a few surviving townhouses, here was a sudden (and clamorous) barrage of 1970s Modernism. The building might have made a bit more sense in Midtown, but here on East 79th Street, it radiated a tremor of menace, even sleaze, in all directions.

If that was the problem, the new building that’s rising quickly on the site, and that should be ready for occupancy in September 2013, is surely the solution.

The nearly topped out condo, which is 19 stories tall, is being developed by the Brodsky Organization. It will include 32 two- to five-bedroom units, ranging in price from $8.125 million to $23 million. A typical unit is a half-floor with a private elevator landing, while some are duplexes.

Although earlier reports had listed SLCE Architects as the designer, with William Sofield of Sofield Architects as the creator of the interior spaces, a spokesman for the Brodsky Corporation confirmed that Sofield is now the architect of the entire project.

This fact is striking because 135 East 79th Street is the first building that Sofield, usually known as an interior designer, has designed from the ground up — with the possible exception of a few boutiques abroad. Mostly, he’s known for his services to the fashion industry: He has designed an astonishing 400 boutiques for Gucci, in addition to stores for brands like Yves Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta and Boucheron, which were acquired by the Gucci Group.

Before this, his biggest project in New York had been the Soho Grand Hotel, whose interiors he designed in 1996.

However, Sofield’s credentials as an interior designer seem to have been put to good use in the creation of this latest project.

According to the Brodsky Organization’s website, the building’s exterior will boast “carved stone, custom-pigmented hand-laid brick, hand-cast ironwork and oversized, fully customized window systems.” The interiors, meanwhile, will have “solid herringbone patterned wood floors” and “ bespoke millwork kitchens.”

Viewed in the context of Sofield’s previous career, the entirely pleasant exterior of 135 East 79th Street makes perfect sense: It seems to have been conceived less in architectonic terms — with bold volumes and setbacks and such — than in terms of interior décor turned inside out until the aims of that discipline came to dominate its exterior. Although the East 79th Street building has setbacks and shallow terraces on its 14th and 18th floors, it presents to the world a strikingly planar façade. According to the rendering, the building will be dominated by five bays of single or double windows, the second and fourth bays being slightly recessed from the street wall.

It appears that the bulk of the building will be clad in gray brick, accented along the sides with pale granite or limestone that continues up into the fifth floor, after which the gray brick takes over. At ground level, the building looks especially promising. It’s a kind of homage to the great prewar buildings surrounding Central Park. Clearly it has been inspired in part by Robert A.M. Stern’s legendary 15 Central Park West, completed in 2009, but even more by 927 Fifth Avenue, designed by Warren & Wetmore in 1917, as well as 956 Fifth Avenue, designed by I. N. Phelps Stokes in 1926.

In this new building, as in those earlier examples, the grand entrance, punctiliously centered, is announced by a soaring two-story arch with a mullioned window on the second floor. Flanking the entrance at the ends on either side are two slightly narrower arches of a similar height.

I believe that a further echo of 15 Central Park West can be seen in the handling of the building’s summit, which, starting at the 14th floor, becomes decidedly more varied — and, in a slightly hesitant way, more experimental in its use of volumes, including balconies, recessions and beveled corners. In this respect it resembles the top floors of the taller, recessed half of 15 Central Park West that aligns Broadway, with the key difference that it avoids the jarring asymmetries that mar the summit of that building.

However, a key difference between 135 East 79th and its aesthetic antecedents on the Upper East and Upper West sides of Manhattan is that, whereas they occupy either an entire block or a corner of their own blocks, this newcomer is a mid-block building. As such, it must address issues of compatibility that are not present — or that are less present — in the others.

Specifically, it has Georgian structures on either side: the 15-story 139 East 79th to the east and a townhouse two plots wide at 123 East 79th Street to the west — both brick with limestone accents.

Although the new arrival is of a slightly different palette, it fits in perfectly with its neighbors because of the general similarity of its architectural language, certainly in comparison with the now-demolished Hunter College building. For example, the stone accents at street level rise to the base of the third floor, where they are perfectly flush with the similar articulation of 139 East 79th Street. The effect is entirely graceful and harmonious.

As a consequence of this building’s projected completion in less than a year, East 79th Street will look decidedly better than it ever has before, especially when one factors in the recent completion of two other condo buildings: 300 East 79th Street and 200 East 79th Street, at the southeast corners of Second and Third avenues.

In the meantime, the Hunter School of Social Work — now known as the Lois V. and Samuel J. Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College — has relocated to Third Avenue between 118th and 119th streets, where it inhabits a slightly more contextual building designed by Cooper, Robertson & Partners.

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