Architecture review: Contextualist addition mends lower Fifth Avenue

Alta Indelman’s tower bests its hulking next-door neighbor

TRD New York /
November 07, 2012 04:00 PM

Allow me to refer readers to the November issue of The Real Deal if they wish to have my bilious assessment of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill’s New School University Center at 65 Fifth Avenue. On a far happier note, the present article concerns the building that is nearing completion one door down at 61 Fifth Avenue, on the southeast corner of 13th Street.

A svelte sliver of pale brick with limestone detailing, it could hardly be more emphatically different from the dark and brutish bully across the street. Rising to 10 stories, it is built for commercial use at street level, while the upper floors contain four units, three duplexes and one triplex. Each of these condominiums will occupy the entirety of its floor plate.

The new building, which is topped out and substantially clad, will be entered on 13thStreet. In its general feel it is contextualist. As the architect Alta Indelman writes on her website, “The building’s custom detailed limestone and brick exterior has been carefully designed to respect the lower 5th Avenue neighborhood.”

It was designed, however, before the New School’s building went up across the street, and so its valiant efforts to fit in with the Beaux Arts vocabulary of this part of Fifth Avenue are largely wasted. That said, it is a graceful and serious building consisting of four bays of double-height mullioned windows on 13thStreet and one similar bay that dominates the Fifth Avenue facade. The bays rise above a base that, according to the rendering, promises to be fashioned from rusticated limestone.

Formerly of Davis, Brody & Associates (now Davis Brody Bond, LLP), Ms. Indelman would not seem to have been the obvious choice for this latest project. Previous projects have been tasteful interiors, as well as work she has done for the city, such as the Department of Sanitation’s vehicular testing and analysis facility in Flushing, Queens and the Red Hook Community Justice Center in Brooklyn. Though the Sanitation Department project, which consisted in revamping an existing structure, was boldly modernist in conception, the results were as elegant in their way as those now coming into view of Fifth Avenue.

With this new addition to lower Fifth Avenue, the area seems to have come full circle. Once the center of New York fashion and society, by the mid-century (and until recently) this part of Manhattan had become almost depressed. Now, notwithstanding the New School’s latest addition, this part of Fifth Avenue appears to be on the mend.

James Gardner is The Real Deal’s architecture critic 

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