Landmarks Lost and Found

Architect Morris Adjmi at the Sterling Mason
Architect Morris Adjmi at the Sterling Mason

Passers-by can be seen to stop and smile, taken in by the 19th century charm of the Sterling Mason  condominium development in Tribeca. – by Louis Postel for Aspire Metro, Fall 2015

Here is a new building added to one much older in the familiar way two generations of closely-related New Yorkers might sit together on bench or outdoor café.

Father and son, (or mother and daughter?) look uncannily alike in every feature, though in the case of the Sterling Mason, the older one wears stucco and the other is clad all in metal. What deepens the smile is to think how pretty this warehouse district was to begin with, given its elaborate outward detailing — gifts to the street unthinkable for warehouses today.

Recently featured in this summer’s “Saving Place” exhibit at the Museum of the City of New in celebration the fiftieth anniversary of the Landmarks Law, the twinned buildings of the Sterling Mason was thirty-three units of proof that critics of the law were wrong. Rather than inhibiting growth, the law created an energetic tension between New York’s great architectural history and its dynamic, forward-looking culture, helping to drive its renaissance.

The Sterling-Mason past and present
The Sterling-Mason past and present

“We liked the idea of replicating the original historic building in scale and form, but making it contemporary by using new material.” Said “Saving Place” curator Donald Albrecht.

Architect Morris Adjmi has a reputation for creating new architecture in historic districts like Tribeca. The New Orleans native earned this in part working in Milan and the States over a period of thirteen years with one of the chief theorist/practitioners of architecture that relates to its context, Aldo Rossi (1931-1997).

True to form, the architectural statement Adjmi made with the Sterling Mason has less do with creating a heroic, one of a kind gesture than a knowing, smile-provoking riff on the passage of time itself. “One of my inspirations is the Grand Shrine of Ise in Japan. They rebuilt it every twenty years, taking pieces of the  old building to make the new building, and in the process they have the old building next to the new building, an acknowledgement that everything will ultimately age and transform.

While many may now agree that respecting history and context is a good thing, one might wonder if  it is ethically and aesthetically kosher to replicate the details of another building only in different material the way Adjmi did? In Renaissance Florence no one batted an eye. Lives were too short and projects too long to worry about it. There, for example, Filippo Brunelleschi created the great arcade of its Foundling Hospital, whose details later “starchitects” used freely in adjacent structures without suffering irreparable ego damage.

“The new metal-clad structure refers to the cast-iron structures that predominate in Tribeca,” said Adjmi. “They were painted to look like stone but all the elaborate cornices, moldings and dentils are actually cast iron. Because of computer-aided manufacturing that has come along in the last ten years we were able to replicate these 19th century features in the new building.”

Thank modern technology for making such a link to the past physically possible, thank Morris Adjmi for making his particular gift to the street provoke so many knowing smiles, and thank The  Landmarks Law for fostering this level of ingenuity (not to mention the rescue in May of many a lunch date at the no-longer-endangered landmark The Four Seasons by the master architect Mies van der Rohe).

Paul Rudolph’s deep-shadowed, Gothic structure could be replaced by a soulless glass box.


The law itself was born out of the wanton destruction of Mckim, Mead and White’s magnificent, Roman bath-inspired Pennsylvania Station in 1963 and the protests that followed. Unfortunately, the law does not extend to Goshen, New York, where another icon has been set for demolition — Paul Rudolph’s Orange County Government Center.

Organized like Adjmi’s Sterling building around a central court, Rudolph’s corrugated concrete and glass structure rates right up there on the global watch list of The World Monuments Fund, along with Machu Picchu and the Great Wall of China.

The Center’s destruction would represent merely a coup de grace following a long period of abuse. Why did Paul Rudolph fall into such disfavor, and why have the Orange County administrators rejected every proposal and financial offer to save it?

People don’t get the building’s poetry, its deep shadings and juxtaposed volumes. This kind of high drama is most reminiscent of Gothic Cathedrals, predating the Renaissance of Brunelleschi by hundreds of years. Perhaps that’s what’s threatening rather than energy-producing and awe-inspiring. This is too bad because Rudolph embodied many of the ideals of his immediate predecessors such as Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe,  and the architects of the Weimer Republic between the wars in Germany. For them and for Rudolph all the arts and all the crafts were interrelated and sources for inspiration. All was to be celebrated and used — auto design, flatware design, glass and metal craftsman and concrete crafts, as well.

Idealistic buildings such as this drive innovation, drive the desire to cross-pollinate disciplines, while at the same time creating a bridge between past triumphs and future hopes.

What better property-value enhancing economic engine could Orange County officials possibly hope for?