AIG'S HQ NEEDS A RESCUE, TOO
UNPROTECTED: Iconic 70 Pine Street has been a presence in lower Manhattan since 1932.
June 9, 2009
WHOEVER'S negotiating to buy AIG's magnificent 70 Pine St. headquarters tower along with 72 Wall St. from the bailed-out insurer should know that people are watching: namely, the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Surprisingly, the iconic 70 Pine St., steeped in Art Deco detail and a commanding skyline presence since 1932, is not a designated city landmark; thus, it enjoys no protection from demolition or ruinous changes.
But with the prospect that the majestic but antiquated skyscraper likely faces conversion to residential and other uses, architects and preservationists are keeping a close eye on the situation.
David Childs, designer of the new 1 World Trade Center and the new chairman of the Municipal Art Society, called 70 Pine "one of the prides of the city. It needs whatever protection it can have.
"The powers that be should do something now to see that it's recharged, reactivated, but saved for all the important architectural aspects."
Yesterday, Peg Breen, president of the private, preservation-minded Landmarks Conservancy, wrote to city Landmarks Preservation Commission Chairman Robert Tierney asking to consider 70 Pine St. for designation.
The tower, designed by architectural firms Clinton & Russell and Holton & George, is "one of the iconic buildings of New York," Breen told The Post. "I'd hope a new owner would understand that that's the value of it to them."
In fact, commission spokeswoman Elisabeth de Bourbon said Tierney and his staff "have been looking at it for some time. It is meritorious, but it's a matter of taking the next step, which would be to have a conversation with the new owners."
Along with Donald Trump's 40 Wall St. (which is landmarked), the 66-story AIG tower -- at 952 feet in height, downtown's tallest -- defines Lower Manhattan's "wedding-cake" profile that's still perceptible amid the area's profusion of flat-topped, boxy structures.
Originally built for Cities Service, it's a masterpiece of detail, especially at its base and crown. It also is home to some of Manhattan's most glorious interior spaces -- including a private, top-floor observatory that architectural historian and former Post real estate editor Carter B. Horsley has called "the greatest room in the world."
I was privileged to visit the terraced aerie with Horsley 20 years ago, and can attest to its singular capacity to awe. It's illustrated in Daniel M. Abramson's magnificent book on the tower's history and contribution to downtown's development, "Skyscraper Rivals: The AIG Building and the Architecture of Wall Street," published in 2001.
Those who love 70 Pine St. fear that although demolition is highly unlikely, a new owner could ruinously alter its appearance.
My colleague Lois Weiss has reported that the unidentified buyers, possibly Russian or Asian, might turn 70 Pine and 72 Wall -- a 16-story building linked to it by a skybridge -- into a mixed-use development including residential and retail.
We have no more idea than anyone else who's talking to AIG. So far, only one name has reached us as a possible participant, and strictly as a rumor: Young Woo, founder of New York-based Youngwoo & Associates, which has developed numerous projects.
Woo did not respond to a message left on his voicemail.
Although some classic old downtown office buildings were successfully converted to apartments without ruining their facades, some brokers said that 70 Pine can't be adapted with out significantly altering it, especially on the lower floors.
"The base is much too wide and deep for apartments," one insider said. "You could use it for retail, but only by replacing the masonry and brick skin with glass."
Childs said, "I'm all in favor of it being reused, to keep it vibrant and not dead. But at the same time, what makes 70 Pine so great is its great profile and detail."
The Landmarks Commission's de Bourbon said, "Our next move would be to let a new owner know of our interest. We have authority to designate a building without an owner's consent. But we believe preservation works best when there's a dialogue and productive relationship with an owner."