When Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux set about designing Central Park, they never imagined that the day would come when it would be fringed with such tall buildings. At a time when elevators had barely been invented and their implications for building heights were still unknown, Olmsted and Vaux had every reason to believe that, except for the occasional church spire, nothing higher than six stories would ever disturb the bucolic illusion they had so studiously contrived.
By the 1920s, of course, it was impossible to stand in Central Park and look in any direction except north toward 110th Street without seeing buildings rising above the trees. But there has been one place where New Yorkers could always go to gain some sense of how architecture originally interacted with Central Park: the 20-acre Mount Morris Park (now officially Marcus Garvey Park), which has a square footprint that extends from 120th to 124th streets on either side of Fifth Avenue.
Because of this area’s generally depressed economic circumstances over much of the past century, there was little incentive for major development, and in recent years the Beaux-Arts buildings that surround the park have been lovingly restored.
Now that occupancy at a new building, Fifth on the Park at 1496 Fifth Avenue, is scheduled for this winter and its exterior largely complete, it is already possible to judge the effect the new building will have on its surroundings. In one fell swoop, the building, at 120th Street, has largely ruined the scale and the gallantly Edwardian effect of the place.
A blockish, 30-story mass, it can be seen from every point in the park and from far beyond it. If you imagine taking something larger and only slightly less Modernist than the new Lucida at 151 East 86th on Lexington Avenue, and setting it down along Gramercy Park, you will have some idea of the effect that this new arrival has on the area.
Rising up 310 feet, this development contains 147 condos and 47 rental apartments, together with a 55-foot swimming pool and, built into the south side, a four-story church sanctuary that can seat as many as 1,800 worshipers. But beyond the pews, one suspects that few Harlem residents will be celebrating this new arrival.
The first problem with the design of Fifth on the Park is that it is a hybrid, with no sense of, or faith in, it own identity. Like many of the more recent structures built in Harlem, this new arrival makes abundant use of red brick facing, in a nod to the historical fabric of the area. But whatever force that contextualism might have is belied by strip windows that are sufficient to overpower their brick infill, but not powerful enough to attain the status of the modernist curtainwall to which they otherwise aspire. The brickwork is asserted most forcefully where it is needed least, as a covering for the mechanical core of the building, all the way at the top. On its southern façade, starting 10 stories up, the building’s upper floors recede from the street line in a series of incremental set-backs with balconies. But to the north, where it overlooks the park, the building takes on the impregnable solidity of a fortress, as though it were challenging or defying the park. The design is weakest, however, in the shift from the approximate contextualism of the northern side to a rather more modernist tone to the south. And that modernism is of the most entrenched and unimaginative sort. It seems to have been born of the same spirit that brought us all those white brick structures along First and Second avenues. The strong horizontal element of the windows to the south clash with the more modest fenestration to the north.
In recent years, the firm that designed Fifth on the Park, FXFowle, has been responsible for a number of projects around the city, with varying degrees of success. While he was still part of Fox & Fowle, Bruce Fowle was responsible for such daring composite structures as the Condé Nast and Reuters buildings in Times Square. The argument has been made that these buildings, and others like them, had an effect on Times Square similar to that of Fifth on the Park: they fundamentally altered the scale of the place. But Times Square is obviously very different from Mount Morris Park: even the giddy, gaudy excess of its new skyscrapers can be assimilated to the frantic spirit of the “crossroads of the world.” The same cannot be said for Mount Morris Park.
Of the residential projects that Fowle has worked on, the Onyx at 261 West 28th Street in Chelsea is a little more spirited in its design than the projected Archstone Clinton mixed-use development or the Helena apartment building on West 57th Street. Even if it feels somewhat cheaply made — the façade cries out value engineering — nevertheless, there is a certain grace to its slate-gray façade, with paler accents in metal and stone.
The same cannot be said for Fifth on the Park. How did such a building come to be built in the first place? Developed by Phoenix Realty Group together with Artimus Construction and Uptown Partners, it was built “as of right” because the developers purchased the rights to a full square block of land that was owned by Bethel Gospel Assembly Church next door. Although zoning for the area was intended to encourage medium-density structures, higher density is allowed for churches and doctors’ offices, and an exception is made to encourage high-rises on large open plots. In addition, the developers were able to use the open space around the church in calculating the amount of open space. This loophole gave them the right to build much higher than would otherwise have been permitted, even though, as should be obvious to anyone, the project, and the legal maneuverings by which it came about, thoroughly betrayed the spirit and the point of the zoning regulations.
For its part, the Bethel Gospel Assembly Church has what looks initially like a great deal. It gets a brand new auditorium, with an exterior along Fifth Avenue that is marked by a series of undulating walls — the design’s one attempt at drama. In addition, the developers paid $12 million for a playground owned by the church, together with all of the air rights to the entire lot, and promised the church, in addition to the auditorium, 47 rental units with which to raise revenue. But even if all of that was hard to resist, it is beginning to look like a Faustian bargain. Already the area has changed for the worse and that’s only the beginning.
James Gardner, formerly the architecture critic of the New York Sun, writes on the visual arts for several publications.