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Plan for Site of ’06 Blast on East Side Is Criticized

Plan for Site of ’06 Blast on East Side Is Criticized

New York Times 8/18/2007

By David W. Dunlap

The Links Club usually whispers. This week, it growled.

“These design plans bear no resemblance to any building feature on our block,” said John S. Pyne, the president of the private club, referring to the understated block of East 62nd Street between Madison and Park Avenues. (You will not find the club’s name on the door at No. 36, just ornamental L’s and C’s in the window grilles.) Mr. Pyne was referring to plans for a contemporary, limestone-clad, five-story, single-family town house next door to the Links.

“We do not think that the design of 34 East 62nd is appropriate to our block,” Mr. Pyne said in a letter to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, “and I would argue rather subjectively that the personality does not fit either.”

The vacant lot where the town house would rise was occupied by a Victorian-era brownstone that blew up on July 10, 2006. The owner, Dr. Nicholas Bartha, was suspected of causing the explosion by tampering with the gas line as an act of vengeance against his former wife. He was badly injured in the blast and died five days later.

Rather than try to recreate a 19th-century brownstone, the new owner of the property, Janna Bullock, a real estate developer, and her architect, Preston T. Phillips, have proposed a wholly modern approach. It was considered on Tuesday in a hearing by the landmarks commission, whose finding of appropriateness will be needed for any project on the site, which is within the Upper East Side Historic District.

Robert B. Tierney, the chairman of the commission, said in an interview yesterday that the commission sought refinements in the design. In a separate interview, Mr. Phillips said his office was already exploring modifications, which he hopes to present to the commission next month.

But Mr. Tierney was clearly not closing the door on the general idea.

“I think in very specific — and perhaps limited — circumstances, in a historic district of this kind or other historic districts, a striking contemporary/modern approach or solution is and can be found appropriate; more than appropriate, that it should be encouraged.”

He added that he was confident that the historic district would get “a landmark for the future,” that people would see as being “of its time, of the 21st century.”

The 91-year-old Links Club, Community Board 8 and several leading preservation groups are less sure. Playing an advisory role, the Upper East Side community board voted 27 to 5 last month to disapprove the plan on the ground that it is “not in keeping” with the historic district.

Specific elements that came in for criticism at the landmarks commission hearing included the windowless central bay, which “gives the false appearance of housing an elevator shaft or an emergency stairway,” said Roger P. Lang of the New York Landmarks Conservancy.

A canopy over the fifth-floor balcony was described in a statement by the Historic Districts Council as a feature that “looms over the rest of the building like a high-dive platform.”

The Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts said in a statement that it was most troubled by the “treatment of the entryway as a shadowed void, instead of a more clearly identified and celebrated element as seen on most buildings in the historic district.”

Actually, the treatment of the entryway was intended to complement that of the Links Club, which is also recessed, said Mr. Phillips, the architect. The town house would be set back five feet from the property line in deference to the club, he said, and its fifth floor would be set back more than eight feet so as not to hem in the club’s adjoining mansard roof.

Though the town house interiors are outside the commission’s charge, the floor plans that were shown on Tuesday gave some sense of how extravagant Ms. Bullock means the place to be, with four bedrooms, an indoor swimming pool, a rooftop garden, a waterfall in the backyard, a conservatory, a wine cave, a spa and a butler’s pantry.

Last month, Ms. Bullock said the house might go on the market for $30 million to $40 million.

Mr. Phillips said the project would seek certification under Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) guidelines. Water in the waterfall would be recirculated from rain-collecting cisterns. Geothermal wells would be drilled to provide natural heat. Building materials would be shipped no farther than 500 miles. That led the architects to Ontario in search of limestone.

But limestone is just the problem for the red-brick Links Club. “The use of limestone is jarring and overbearing,” Mr. Pyne, the club president, said in his letter to the commission. He cited a 1917 article in The Architectural Record in which the clubhouse design, by Cross & Cross, was described as appealing to those “who like the effects of quiet breeding, traditional elegance, of considered good taste.”

Last year’s deadly and dramatic explosion still hangs over the project, though it is usually referred to obliquely. But Mr. Tierney saw a certain advantage in inheriting a vacant lot. “The decks are clear,” he said, “for a fresh look at the space and the building.”