The New York Times said this parking lot, across 40th Street from the
New York Public Library, is "perhaps the most elegant one in Manhattan."
The reassuring iron fence and stone wall force drivers to use the back
entrance (where they belong), save the pedestrians on the near side from
having to dodge out of the way of moving vehicles, and partially hide
the view of the parked cars. But the fence exists only because it was
required by the City Planning Commission, and still, it borders a
parking lot — the most wasteful and inappropriate use of space in the
city center. The story of how this lot came to replace a much beloved
and heavily used building is a sad tale of a city deteriorating and a
preservation apparatus that didn't reach a building in time to save it.
A nine-story Flemish-style clubhouse designed by Henry J. Hardenbergh
was built here in 1907 as the home for the New York Club. The building
had a limestone base on the ground floors and a brick facade with carved
stonework on the upper floors. Arched windows were framed by four pairs
of Doric columns between the second and fifth floors. The club, adjacent
to the Republican Club and the Engineers Club, formed a little row of
clubs across the street from Bryant Park. When the New York Club
withered, the building was purchased in 1945 by supporters of Freedom
House, a nonprofit organization "devoted to strenghtening free
societies," in The Times's words. Freedom House named the building in
honor of the 1940 Republican presidential candidate, Wendell Willkie,
and used the building for its offices and to provide low-cost space to
numerous other nonprofit organizations. By the mid-1980s, ownership of
the building been handed down to the Willkie Foundation, which shared
all its directors with Freedom House. Late in 1984 or early in 1985, the
Willkie Foundation sold the building to the Republic National Bank of
New York for $5.7 million with the understanding that the bank would
assume ownership on July 1, 1985. The organization sold its building in
part, it said, because it could not keep up with the costs imposed by
Local Law 10, a law passed by the City Council in 1980 after a Barnard
College student was killed by falling masonry. The law required owners
of buildings more than six stories high to have their buildings
inspected every five years and make prompt repairs if needed.
As early as 1979, it had been suggested in a citywide survey that the
building be put on the list of buildings under consideration for
landmark status. It is forbidden to alter the structure or facade of any
landmarked building, or even one on the list to be considered a
landmark. Owning a landmarked building is often viewed as a burden by
landlords, who must comply with heightened upkeep regulations and most
importantly, are generally unable to build a larger building on site or
enlarge the landmark. Contrary to what one might think, landlords often
lobby strenuously against landmark status for their own buildings.
Perpetual preservation loomed over the Willkie Memorial Building in
early 1985, when, shortly after completing the deal to buy the building,
but before even taking ownership, Republic National Bank offered to
perform the work necessary to, er, keep the building up to code. In
1983, the bank had completed construction of its new $55 million
skyscraper headquarters at 452 Fifth Avenue, two doors down from the
Willkie Memorial Building. The bank had plans for this nearby site that
didn't include preserving a 1907 clubhouse, no matter how
On the frigid evening of Feb. 15, 1985, a crew of workers took
jackhammers to the facade, stripping balustrades and stone carvings
around the windows and chipping into the four pairs of Doric columns. A
spokeswoman for Freedom House said the work was needed to comply with
Local Law 10, but the City Building Commissioner, Charles M. Smith Jr.,
said the work on the facade "had gone beyond safety-compliance
procedures," as The Times paraphrased. But they had a permit for daytime
work, so there was nothing the commissioner could do aside from
temporarily halting nighttime work. The Landmarks Preservation
Commission hadn't acted quickly enough, and preservationists were
furious that the building hadn't formally been listed. "We have a small
staff of 50 persons, and we're not able to move quickly to protect all
buildings identified as significant," Lenore Norman, the commission's
executive director, told The Times.
Preservationists noted that by vandalizing the facade, the workers had
ruined the chances that the building would be landmarked. Perhaps that
was the point of all that haste. Even before the destruction of the
facade, Freedom House had asked tenants in the building, which included
the Public Education Association, the New York City School Volunteer
Program, the Citizen's Housing and Planning Council and American
Movement for World Government, to vacate by mid-June. The tenants sued
Freedom House later that year. The suit was settled out of court,
probably with Freedom House putting money into a housing fund for the
nonprofits it made homeless. Meanwhile, the building stood vacant and
shrouded by scaffolding. Not long afterward, it was demolished, leaving
only the parking lot and a nine-story outline where it had stood against
the adjacent building.
Public word of Republic National Bank's plans for the lot first surfaced
in 1991. Eventually, we learned that they intended to build a 16- or
17-story tower that would have been connected to the building at the
rear, which is or was the bank's data center at 1 West 39th Street. The
tower, to cost a reported $2.6 million in 1994, was to have been desiged
by Fox & Fowle and have had "a limestone facade, recessed flanks, a
two-story entry and a pyramid top," as The Times described it. But the
effort to build that tower seems to have stalled before December 1999,
when Edmond Safra, the 67-year-old billionaire owner of Republic
National Bank, was killed in a fire set by his nurse, and Republic was
bought by HSBC for $9.8 billion. The parking lot's new corporate owner
seems not to be in a hurry to develop this site, as a temporary permit
for the parking lot has been extended for some years now. The Willkie
Building will never return, but one would be happy to see something fill
this void in the city's fabric.
"The New York Club's Projected Building." Architectural Record, April
1906, v. 19, p. 324.
Berger, Joseph. "Crew Removes Historic Details of 1905 Facade." The New
York Times, Feb. 16, 1985; Sec. 1, p. 26.
"Managers of Historic Building Say Facade Work Is Required by Law." The
New York Times, Feb. 17, 1985; Sec. 1, Part 1, p. 42.
Oreskes, Michael. "On 20th Anniversary, Landmarks Panel Is Strong but
Controversial Force in City." The New York Times, April 24, 1985; p. B1.
McCain, Mark. "Nonprofits turn property to cash, but inexperience can
sour 'sweet' deals." Crain's New York Business, Jan. 6, 1986; p. 16.
"Pulse: Plans: New York." Engineering News-Record, Feb. 4, 1991; p. 28.
Grant, Peter. "Republic seeks approval for even bigger expansion."
Crain's New York Business, Aug. 2, 1993; p. 12.
Howe, Marvine. "Esthetics vs. 500 Jobs." The New York Times, Sept. 26,
1993; Sec. 13, p. 7.
Grant, Peter. "City set to fast-track Republic Bank addition." Crain's
New York Business, May 2, 1994; p. 14.
Gray, Christopher. "Streetscapes: 40th Street Between Fifth Avenue and
the Avenue of the Americas; Across From Bryant Park, a Block With
Personality." The New York Times, August 4, 2002; Sec. 11, p. 7.