Radiantly reborn, 100 Park Ave. presents lovers of architecture with a curious aesthetic conundrum. Is this sleek and gleaming tower a new building, or is it simply an old building reclad? In the most flatfooted and literal sense of the term, it is surely the latter, since it was built back in 1949 by the once eminent firm of Kahn & Jacobs, and so has been standing there in plain view for the past 60 years.
But because this 36-story structure, rising over the ghost of the Murray Hill Hotel (1883), was largely a rectilinear shaft of glass and steel above a 16-story base, the cladding was always more important to its aesthetic mission than the actual massing. And now that that cladding has been fully reconceived by the firm of Moed de Armas & Shannon, the overwhelming effect is of an entirely new office tower on Park Avenue.
This sense is enhanced by the unlikelihood that, over the past half-century, anyone had actually looked at, or even seen, the Kahn & Jacobs building. I say the past half-century because, in the first 10 years of its six decades of existence, 100 Park Ave. attracted considerable attention. Standing a block south of Pershing Square and Grand Central, it was the first example of the sort of International Style office tower that would take over Midtown Manhattan — to such a point that, in the postwar years, that style became the defining aesthetic fact of this part of Manhattan.
For the first decade of its existence, then, 100 Park Ave. looked as though it had descended from Mars. Little more than a modular curtain wall, with vertical piers of white brick against horizontal strip windows interspersed with aluminum spandrels, this building’s base and two setbacks must have seemed fairly shocking in their total abandonment of even the pared-down Art Deco ornamentation that dominated Midtown in the years leading up to World War II.
But within a few seasons of its completion, 100 Park Ave. became indistinguishable from all those other joyless instances of the International Style that would come to overrun Midtown up to 57th Street. In time, the building suffered the most subversive purgatory to which the citizens of New York can condemn a structure: It acquired the status of simply being there, a fact of nature and act of God, no more interesting than a cloud and far less glorious than a sunset.
It is the great success of the restoration, however, to redeem the building and its entire block. Its predominant style is what one might call Neo-Modernism. It does not reintroduce ornament, as Postmodernism does, or did, nor does its harass the structure with any of the non-Euclidean distractions of deconstructivism or the so-called blob aesthetic. Instead, it embraces the modularity and the rectilinearity of the original, but in a manner far more refined and far more suited to our contemporary sensibilities. Simply put, Neo-Modernism is Modernism improved. It brings with it a greater sense of style and a greater sensitivity to the human yearnings of its inhabitants.
On the Park Avenue side, its effect is achieved through a sheer, uninflected glass curtain wall that rises up from the concrete sidewalk, through the base, up to the summit of the shaft. Despite the flawless breeding of the renovation, there is almost a radicalized statement being made here in its energetic assertion of flatness. Add to this that the glass integument is applied in such a way that part of the skeletal structure of the original building appears to be visible behind it. The result suggests a new building and a new generation, engulfing and correcting a decrepit ancestor. At the sides, 100 Park Ave. is clad in a pleasingly matte, gunmetal gray aluminum that suggests that, unlike its predecessor, it will pristinely withstand the buffets of the New York climate. Finally, at street level, the lobby has been entirely reconfigured as a pale white temple that fully bears out the pristine aesthetic of the rest of the project.
Is it possible that this latest version of 100 Park Ave. will one day become as weary and invisible as its predecessor? When 40 winters have besieged its brow — to paraphrase a line from a Shakespeare sonnet — is it possible that it and the Neo-Modern style that inform it will look as boring and as rundown as what it has replaced? By the very nature of things, we cannot know that. But I strongly suspect that it will look as good then as it does today.