"Condos Break Glass to Try Classic Style"

Wall Street Journal


Craig Karmin

The owners of a 1925 building on upper Fifth Avenue are finishing a gut renovation while preserving the brick and limestone facade, the latest example of a developer trying to attract wealthy buyers with the allure of early 20th-century architecture.

The recent property boom saw a surge in the popularity of luxury condos built as modern glass towers. What began with sleek downtown projects from architects like Richard Meier and Jean Nouvel was followed by boxier glass residential buildings that sprouted like weeds along midtown’s West Side.

Now, there is a budding trend of turning back the clock to the 1920s and ’30s through pricey restorations or new construction meant to emulate the period.

“The upper-market buyer is getting a bit weary of a glass building,” says Vishaan Chakrabarti, director of the real estate program at Columbia University. “Architecturally, Americans tend to be more conservative than most Europeans or Asians, and some people who lived in the glass tower felt like they were living in a fish bowl.”

Manhattan’s most lucrative condominium is 15 Central Park West, a Robert A. M. Stern building that paid homage to Rosario Candela buildings on Park and Fifth Avenues. It quickly sold out $2 billion worth of apartments shortly before the market collapsed.

Two of the Upper West Side’s priciest new condo buildings, the Laureate and 535 West End Avenue, are both modeled after pre-war construction. A Candela condo conversion project on East 66th street has sold 25 units at an average of $2,637 a square foot, according to Streeteasy.com. Next up: a 16-story building known as 1212 Fifth, at 102nd Street and Fifth Avenue, overlooking the Central Park Conservancy.

Developer Durst Fetner Residential bought the property for $42 million in September 2009 from Mount Sinai Medical Center, which used some of the units for its employees and rented the rest. Durst spent an additional $47 million on top-to-bottom renovations.

“We knocked down the walls, poured new concrete on metal where the floors are, enlarged the windows and put in new elevators,” says Harold Fetner, president and chief executive for Durst Fetner.

The 57-unit building begins its pre-marketing next week after receiving state approval to discuss pricing with brokers and the public. The developer says the project expects to begin formal sales by June.

The developer is trying to evoke New York’s golden age of architecture—installing new marble in the lobby, and refurbishing the brick exterior—while adding better light, contemporary fixtures and more efficient use of space than the floor plans of 86 years ago.

The classic route of brick and mortar doesn’t necessarily provide the cost savings it used to, developers say. New technologies allow faster and less expensive construction of glass buildings, but the cost of imported limestone remains expensive. In restoration projects, adding mortar to every brick crevice, as the developers of 1212 Fifth are doing, can inflate a renovation bill by millions of dollars.

Some developers say the decisions also come down to neighborhood and context. A glass-walled condo at 1055 Park Avenue, a block of staid red-bricked buildings, has struggled to sell units, while many believe that a Candela-inspired building would be equally lost downtown.

Gary Barnett, president of Extell Development Co., has built glass towers but also converted the 1927 Stanhope hotel on Fifth Avenue to apartments and built 535 West End Avenue. He says the style of architecture on a block is a consideration, but developers shouldn’t fear classically designed buildings in nontraditional locations. “We would consider another prewar style uptown, but also in TriBeCa,” he says. “I could see utilizing brick or limestone there.”