How to make your own starchitect: Walker Tower draws buzz with book

Apr.April 01, 2012 07:00 AM

From left: Core's Emily Beare, Shaun Osher and Vickey Barron

“In Manhattan real estate, there are no rules,” says Alec Baldwin’s character on the NBC sitcom “30 Rock.”

Perhaps that’s what developers Michael Stern and Elliott Joseph were thinking when they formulated an unconventional marketing strategy for Walker Tower, a newly renovated condo conversion at 212 West 18th Street.

Stern and Joseph bought the building from Verizon for $25 million in 2009. That’s when they started learning more about the building’s long-forgotten architect, Ralph Walker. Walker built a number of notable commercial buildings in the 1920s, including the Art Deco skyscraper 1 Wall Street, and Frank Lloyd Wright was reportedly a fan. But a falling-out with the American Institute of Architects made Walker a pariah, and he died in obscurity.

“We started delving into what we thought was this great untold story,” Stern said.

Armed with this compelling narrative, the developers decided on an unusual marketing strategy. Instead of “the typical, canned campaign,” Stern said, they approached architectural historian Kathryn Holliday and asked her to write a book about Walker. Building buzz about the architect, they felt, would help sell the building’s 51 condos. The book, titled “Ralph Walker: Architect of the Century,” will be published by Rizzoli in September, and last month, the developers installed a temporary exhibit honoring the architect on the ground floor of the under-construction Walker Tower.

This build-your-own-starchitect strategy is “very bold,” acknowledged Shaun Osher, head of Core, which is handling sales at the project. But at any project, he noted, “marketing and selling is about educating the consumer.”

As for Holliday, a professor at the University of Texas, Arlington, she recalls being “very surprised” when she was asked to pen the tome, and “curious about why real estate developers were interested in the history of the building.”

It may seem like a lot of trouble to go through to sell condos, even though the penthouses will have asking prices nearing $10,000 per square foot, Core said. But Stern said: “Our attitude is, if we build the right product” — starchitect and all — “the sales will take care of themselves.”

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