Has Tom Wolfe Blown It?

In the author's latest foray into combat, it's his fame he's fighting to preserve

"She's young," says Wolfe. "She represents a whole new generation. It's not just the old ladies with nine-cubic-inch heels on their shoes any longer. Although they should not be underestimated."

All the while, Wolfe says, he was keeping an eye on the landmarks commission, sizing up its weaknesses and waiting for the opportunity to let loose. The right moment, says Wolfe, finally arrived back in October when news began circulating around town that a developer was proposing a mixed-use development in the Upper East Side Historic District. Wolfe saw in the unfolding saga all the makings for a Tom Wolfe polemic.

"For me," says Wolfe, "in a way, 980 Madison Avenue presented an opportunity to give the little history of the commission that I gave."

Tom Wolfe's right stuff
Tom Wolfe's right stuff


Tune in: Has Tom Wolfe Blown It?

Tom Wolfe lives in an apartment building on East 79th Street, a half-block from Central Park and alongside Mayor Bloomberg's townhouse on the north side of the street. If you were to walk out his front door, pass the line of black town cars idling outside, turn the corner onto Madison Avenue, head south past La Maison du Chocolat and Alex Gordon Jewelers, you would arrive roughly three minutes later at 980 Madison Avenue.

There, a five-story building stretches out on the west side of the block all the way from the corner of 76th Street up to the corner of 77th. Above the building's entrance, midblock, hangs a sculpture of two bare-chested reclining figures—a woman with a torch and a man in a loincloth. Nearby, an American flag reaches out over the sidewalk. Rows of square windows run across the pale-limestone front. A mix of art galleries and commercial spaces—a Citibank, an Alain Mikli boutique, a Prudential Douglas Elliman office—occupy the first floor.

Wolfe professes no particular love for the structure. Until I mention their names, Wolfe says he was unaware of the architects who designed 980 Madison Avenue as an art auction house in 1949.

"I have no great feelings about that building," Wolfe insists. "It's by no means a remarkable building."

Despite its seemingly tranquil appearance, 980 Madison Avenue is at the center of a heated battle that continues to divide neighbors across the Upper East Side. And despite Wolfe's ambivalence, the building played a central role in his decision to add one more chapter to his oeuvre.

Along with many other New Yorkers, Wolfe first took an interest in 980 Madison Avenue back in October. At the time, the New York developer Aby Rosen had just recently announced that he was working with the British architect Norman Foster on plans to redevelop the building.

On a Tuesday toward the end of October, Rosen and Foster appeared before the 11 members of the Landmarks Preservation Commission to present their plans. Along the way, they explained to the commission that they would like to restore the base of the building to its original design, replant a long-since-vanished rooftop garden, and build on top of the existing structure a nuzzling pair of roughly 30-story elliptical glass towers reaching into the sky. The base would serve as some sort of public art space, and the towers would house a multitude of swank apartments.

The building, however, falls within the boundaries of the Upper East Side Historic District. And so before they can move forward, Rosen and Foster must first gain the approval of the commission—an arduous, nail-biting experience, if you ask developers; a foregone conclusion, if you ask Wolfe.

Throughout the course of the night, various preservation groups testified against the proposal, arguing that it created an undesirable precedent for glass-tower developments in the area, thus undermining the sanctity of the historic district. Alternately, various famous friends of the developer, including the artist Jeff Koons and billionaire executive Ron Perelman, spoke on behalf of the proposed building, comparing it to Foster's much lauded redevelopment of the Hearst Building at Eighth Avenue and West 57th Street.

By the end of November, hundreds of letters were piling up in the commission's mailbox from neighbors on both sides of the project—opponents who saw it as a potential outsize eyesore and supporters intrigued by the idea of adding a singular architectural icon to the neighborhood's skyline.

"My wife, Betty, and I reside at 21 East 79th Street looking straight south," wrote one of Wolfe's upstairs neighbors, William S. Beinecke, former president and chairman of the Sperry & Hutchinson Company. "Actually our apartment has the best view, for we live in the penthouse. We have long enjoyed the uninterrupted view in that southerly direction. . . . This proposal is completely out of line with the area."

Supporters include the sort of boldface names that one associates with Wolfe but who were siding with Rosen's plan because of their admiration for his work as a developer and Foster's work as an architect.

"This city is home to some of the most iconic buildings in the world, to which 980 Madison would surely be an excellent addition," wrote Vogue magazine editor Anna Wintour. "I reside at the Carlyle Hotel, directly across the street. . . . From what I've seen of Lord Foster's plan it will be a fine and reinvigorating addition to the Upper East Side," wrote media titan Barry Diller. "I feel compelled to urge you to take into consideration the brilliance of this development and the positive effect it will have on the Upper East Side residential and commercial community," wrote Richard Meier, the architect.

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