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417 Park Avenue, elegant holdout in Midtown

417 Park Avenue is a residential survivor in Midtown East

In the shadow of some of the biggest real estate deals in Manhattan stands 417 Park Avenue, a luxury residence that Emery Roth designed a century ago. It is the last of 13 high-end apartment houses that once lined the blocks of Park Avenue between 46th and 57th streets. Now, corporate towers dominate that stretch of the avenue, and residents to the north may soon face lucrative buyout offers from developers.

Thankfully, little of this development news means much at 417 Park, where generations of residents have watched the area slowly transform from an upscale medium-rise residential neighborhood into an avenue of glass and steel. The 13-story limestone holdout provides the perfect vantage point for considering both the history and future of Midtown East.

Supertall at 432 Park marks return of residential to Midtown Park Avenue

In 2015, the completion of a 96-floor condominium at 432 Park Avenue, just two blocks north of 417 Park, broke a nearly 90-year hiatus in Midtown East residential construction, A unit in this building sold last year for $87.7 million.  It was the most expensive New York City home sold in 2016.

417 Park Avenue is a residential survivor in Midtown East

Upzoning map for Midtown East

And we can expect more skyscrapers to come. The City Council recently approved a controversial Greater East Midtown Rezoning proposal that will allow construction of “modern office buildings” along Park Avenue between 39th and 57th Streets.

When the subway was a railroad

In the late 19th century, New York City’s upper class migrated north from Gramercy Park to 40th and 55th Streets around Park Avenue. There they built mansions and townhouses on the western side of the thoroughfare, mostly south of 42nd Street.

Across from the railway tracks by the old Grand Central Depot stood the flats and brownstones of the middle and lower classes.

For several decades, residents endured the soot and smoke generated by the street-level trains. But in the 1870s, the railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt began a large project to move the trains underground.

By 1875, most of the railway tracks, tucked away in partially submerged tunnels, vented to the open air along the middle of Park Avenue between 56th and 96th Streets. Further south from 56th to 49th Streets, workers built the tracks two feet below road level, leaving them exposed to the street. Pedestrians crossed the railroad via iron foot bridges at every street intersection.

Yet even with these improvements, the steam-run railroad still disturbed the neighborhood. The passengers were no happier, now mostly confined to hot, sooty tunnels during their commutes.

From steam to electricity

In 1899, William Wilgus, a civil engineer for the New York Central Railroad, proposed electrifying the trains and tracks and covering the rail yard. But it took a fatal train crash in 1902 in the Park Avenue tunnel at 56th Street for the state to turn his proposal into a mandate.  And by 1908, Wilgus had completely submerged the rail yards surrounding a new station, the Grand Central Terminal.

The land covering the two levels of rail tracks would eventually become the broad, two-lane roadway and grassy, flower-bedded meridian of today’s Park Avenue. By selling parts of the newly constructed land, New York Central was able to finance Grand Central Terminal. As a result, the area became known as Terminal City, housing luxurious hotels such as the Biltmore.

Developers built other new structures as “apartment hotels” with ground-floor kitchen and dining areas. But they avoided this term to keep their hotels from being labeled tenements. (That could have happened under New York City’s new multi-unit housing regulation, the tenement law.) They obviously did not care for the association “tenement” might have for the moneyed and well-to-do New Yorkers they hoped to attract.

417 Park Avenue is a residential survivor in Midtown East

417 Park Avenue, at E. 55th Street

Pied-à-terres for suburban commuters

The apartment hotels catered to a commuter class wanting a posh pied-à-terre in the city to complement their suburban manses out on Long Island.

Images of Park Avenue near Grand Central Terminal before the 1940s show a wide street with a uniform line of residential buildings all resembling 417 Park. But developers tore down these buildings one by one, starting with the Mayfair in 1946.  The region’s first office tower, the Universal Pictures Building at 445 Park Avenue, replaced it.

After the first office tower went up, the developers of 417 Park saw the future and wanted to evict its residents in favor of commercial use, The New York Times reported in 1946. But the tenants waged a legal counteroffensive and challenged the eviction application at the New York District Office of Price Administration.

Residents at 417 Park fight eviction

The lawyer representing the residents “read letters from tenants who said they had their families’ families living with them.” He also noted that 14 of the tenants were veterans, according to the New York Herald. By December, the tenants had negotiated to buy their rented apartments from the developer, thereby turning their building into a cooperative.

As a co-op, a board approves new residents, rules on structural changes, and fields offers from developers. There have been at least five in the past 24 years, some in the 12-figure range, said Nikola Dusovic, the resident manager.  Every time so far, the answer has been no.

“This building,” he said, “is going to stay where it is for a very long time.”

Why 417 is very unlikely to become a commercial address

To turn 417 Park into a commercial property, a developer would need to get every single resident to approve the decision to sell and the sale price. “That’s probably impossible,” said Janet Roman, the building’s manager.

‘This building,’ he said, ‘is going to stay where it is for a very long time.’

Architectural historian Andrew Alpern said that to reach a buyout agreement, developers would have to pay a premium over the market value. That would result in an astronomical price tag per unit, which have recently sold for at least several million dollars. So it’s not surprising that offer after offer, first $32 million in 1981 and most recently $140 million in 2006, have all fallen through.

Beloved by generations of residents, famous and not

“It’s a refuge in midtown,” said Georgia Raysman, who lives on the second floor. “ I’m not saying we wouldn’t want to sell, but it would not be something we would do with a happy heart,” he said.

Former 417 Park resident Peter Primont said he subsequently spent about six years in a post-war, white brick apartment building across from the Frick Museum on East 70th Street. “It was a very nice apartment, and the building was a very nice building, but it was just plain,” he said. “You wouldn’t walk in and go ‘Wow,’ whereas this apartment you would walk in and go ‘wow!’”

this apartment you would walk in and go ‘wow!’

The past occupants of 417 include many famous people. William Friedkin, who won an academy award for best director in 1972 for “The French Connection,” had an apartment in the building from the mid 1970s until the early 1990s. Martin Bregman, who produced “Serpico,” and his wife have lived in the building since the 1980s.

Al Pacino sometimes visited, a former resident, Hjordis Gunnarsdottir, told me. Gunnarsdottir and her husband, then-Icelandic ambassador Tomas A. Tomasson, moved into the building in 1978 and lived there until the mid 1990s.

Other co-op boards had turned them down. “Diplomats were considered undesirable!,” she said. “Go figure.”

The haunting of 417 Park

The doormen say 417 Park is haunted. But don’t take only their word for it. Rubin Quinones, a retired police officer who has worked there since 2007, has heard the same from residents. Residents whisper tales of ghosts riding the elevators during the holidays up to the empty 11th floor.

Legend has it that other unseen beings have nearly suffocated two night doormen by putting pressure on their chests. Quinones, 56, said one doorman could only free himself by crying out to God. He scraped his shoes against the foyer rug, imitating the shuffling noises he hears in the basement. “Doors are closing when no one’s down there,” he said.

Despite its history and legacy design, 417 Park has not been landmarked.

417 Park Avenue is a residential survivor in Midtown East

Rubin Quinones watches the door at 417 Park Avenue

Preserved but not landmarked

When a proposal to rezone East Midtown for office tower development first emerged in 2012, the Historic Districts Council put 417 Park on a list of 78 significant buildings threatened by the plan. But the city has taken little action to formalize an official status for any of these buildings.

The building does adhere to guidelines to retain its historic look. Today, the light fixtures, facade and lobby interior are close renderings of the original. Some residents have even retained the 1920s intercom units inside their apartments.

Even with East Midtown rezoning approved, 417 will likely retain its current status. Perhaps it can also influence a return to more residential life in Midtown East.

Guarding the ‘holdout house’

Today, 417 stands serenely, its limestone facade still a dirty gray despite a cleaning in 2006. Few pass in or out, but the doormen are there, guarding the “holdout house,” as historians put it. Ellen Devens, an agent with Brown Harris Stevens, said the new projects would raise the building’s value. But even after 10 more years of development, “Park Avenue will always be Park Avenue,” she says. Deven’s prediction? “It will be more residential.”

And the “holdout house” at 417 Park, one can be sure, will still be holding out.

Evelyn Cheng

Evelyn Cheng

Evelyn Cheng covers financial markets for
Evelyn Cheng