Photographer: Craig Warga

An Obituary for the Brownstone Beneath Manhattan's Tallest Luxury Condos

The colorful life of a five-story, 19th-century survivor that couldn't last in a giant's shadow.

Rising like a slim, silvery Lego tower, 432 Park Avenue will be the tallest residential building in the Western Hemisphere upon completion. Right next to it, until very recently, was a brownstone that was just 24 feet wide and five stories tall. The vacant, locked building, hidden behind scaffolding and stripped of ornamentation, with forlorn white curtains visible in the top-floor windows, was a vestige of an older New York. Now it's gone. It was torn down last spring by the owners of 432 Park Avenue for purposes that have not been made clear.

This is an obituary for 36 East 57th Street, although it's an incomplete one because most of the people who knew the building in its prime are gone now. In its day, the humble brownstone housed the New York outlet of couturier Christian Lacroix and may have been co-owned by a Hollywood kingpin. New York City records list 1930 as the year that 36 East 57th Street was built, but the records are probably wrong. By that year nobody was building short, narrow brownstones on the high-toned block between Park Avenue and Madison Avenue. 

A view of 36 East 57th Street poking out from behind scaffolding in February 2015.
A view of 36 East 57th Street poking out from behind scaffolding in February 2015.
Photographer: Peter Coy/Bloomberg

It's more likely that the building was erected in the 19th century, during the building boom that blanketed acres of Manhattan with the narrow, sandstone row houses known as brownstones. The 1879 edition of Bromley's Atlas of the City of New York was the first to show a townhouse with a stone facade at 36 East 57th Street, according to researchers at the New York Public Library Map Division. That's consistent with what Christopher Gray, a historian of New York City architecture, wrote in 1988 in the New York Times: "In 1877, a speculative developer, Duggin & Crossman, put up a row of brownstones at 32-50 East 57th Street." Gray wrote that the poet Emma Lazarus—"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses ..."—lived for a time at 32 East 57th Street. She died at age 38 in 1887.

The building pops up in the Commercial Record of 1919-20, listing among its occupants a Miss Rose Gruening, a Bradish J. Carroll, and one Frank B. Taggart, whose occupation is listed as vice-president at 60 Broadway in Lower Manhattan. By then, the block had begun its transition from residential to commercial. Wrote Gray:

"Gradually, the row became sandwiched between the giant Fuller Building (1929) at Madison Avenue and 460 Park Avenue (1954). As the last vestiges of the residential character of the 50's just east of Fifth Avenue began to disappear in the 1950's, the 57th Street row came to represent a sort of symbolic demilitarized zone between the midtown skyscrapers and the Upper East Side residential district."

The next appearance of 36 East 57th Street in the public records is as a retail establishment. Montblanc, Piaget, and Oxford Clothes occupied the ground floor over the years. Ownership changed hands several times, at one point in the 1980s belonging to a group that included somebody named Lew Wasserman. Circumstances point to this being the same Lew Wasserman who built up the MCA talent agency and bought Universal Studios and Decca Records. He died in 2002.

Architect Maurice Medcalfe worked in the building during the 1960s. His firm, Hills & Medcalfe, was inspired by the Apollo program to design a building on East 71st Street that was pink and had bulging ovals for windows. It stood out in its block of brownstones like a Martian invader and was quickly dubbed, not affectionately, the Bubble Brownstone.

The last blaze of glory for 36 East 57th Street came in 2007, when it became the home of Christian Lacroix's first shop in the city. New York magazine gave it a Critics' Pick: "Joining the high-fashion parade along 57th Street, Lacroix’s two-story store eschews the minimalism of nearby neighbors like Dior and Yves Saint Laurent, presenting instead a sensory overload of lights, textures, and ornamentation. Part pomp, part disco, a mirrored front wall gives way to an array of tinseled stilettos, embellished handbags, and op-art bangles." The fun didn't last long. Christian Lacroix filed for bankruptcy just two years later, and the decor was hauled away.

In its final years, according to city records, the building housed such establishments as World Wide Visa Service, Syd Levethan Shoes, New Horizons Beauty Salon, and Bryant Enterprises design services. Next to the front door, until the demolition, was a sign for Federico, a hair salon and spa that was one of the building's final occupants.

The structure's fate was sealed when 432 Park Avenue began to rise, and rise, and rise, to 96 stories. The luxury condo building—separated by a foot of space from 36 East 57th Street—is taller than the Empire State Building. It's also taller than the Freedom Tower would be without its spire. Prices for apartments in it begin at $17 million. Its owners are powerful enough that they managed to get a Park Avenue address for it, even though it isn't on Park Avenue. The first residents should move in "this fall," said Joey Arak, who handles public relations for the residences.

Last August, 36 East 57th Street was sold for $65 million, a lot for a structure covering 0.06 acre. At that rate, a full acre would cost $1.2 billion. The sum was no indication of the value of the building, which was nothing but an inconvenience. The new owner has the right to put up a building on the site approximately four times as big as the one that's there. Robert Zirinsky is listed as the new owner. According to the website Real Deal, the demolition permit was filed by New York Medical Investors, which shares an address with Zirinsky, and by Macklowe Properties.

Macklowe is refusing to say what it has in mind for 36 East 57th Street. The building permit that's posted on a fence in front of the lot is for a retail building consisting of one story plus a cellar, but it's hard to believe that such a small project is all that Macklowe has in mind. Arak has heard the space would be used for a lobby to reach the office floors of 432 Park Avenue, but he wasn't sure and wasn't authorized to speak about it. Representatives of Macklowe did not return phone calls.

There was no good reason to save 36 East 57th Street. It was not architecturally distinguished and no president ever lived there. It was built in the era of Boss Tweed, mutton-chop sideburns, and horse-drawn carriages, and it had clearly outlived its usefulness. Spare a thought, though, for the passing of an era.

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