The AT&T Building Is Officially New York City’s Youngest Landmark

Completed in 1984, the 37-story tower is considered a benchmark of Postmodernism as the first commercial skyscraper of that style.
AT&T Building Postmodernist Landmark New York

The building’s exterior, as of last November. Courtesy Anna Fixsen

[8/7/2018 Editor’s Note: This article has been updated with a more recent statement from 550 Madison’s ownership group.]

Despite having no shortage of critics, the AT&T Building officially became the city’s youngest landmark this past Tuesday. The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) designated the Philip Johnson and John Burgee–designed building, also known as Sony Plaza and 550 Madison Avenue, as a protected landmark.

Completed in 1984, the 37-story tower is considered a benchmark of Postmodernism as the first commercial skyscraper of that style. Located on Madison Avenue between East 55th and 56th Streets, the tower’s “Chippendale” roofline and pinkish-gray granite stand out among its Midtown Manhattan neighbors.

The landmarking announcement culminates years of uncertainty surrounding the building’s future. Saudi conglomerate Olayan Group acquired the AT&T Building in 2016. With Chelsfield acting as developer, plans were unveiled last fall for a Snøhetta-designed reimagination of the skyscraper with a glass base. The proposal sparked public outcry; the movement to preserve the building grew after its lobby was dismantled in January.

AT&T Building Postmodernist Landmark New York

The existing building and Snøhetta’s proposed design. Courtesy DBOX

The landmark designation largely applies to the structure’s facades only. Any future proposed alterations to the exterior, as well as interior work that requires a Department of Buildings permit and might affect the exterior, will need review and approval by the LPC.

The objective of architectural preservation groups wasn’t to force a restoration of the original design, said Liz Waytkus, executive director of the nonprofit preservationist group Docomomo US. Rather, Waytkus says the group wants better communication between the building’s ownership, the local community, and preservation advocates.

AT&T Building Postmodernist Landmark New York

A protest to the building’s proposed redesign held on November 3rd, 2017. Courtesy Anna Fixsen

“We’re looking for thoughtful design that takes into consideration the original fabric and original intent of the [architects], expressed in a contemporary fashion,” says Waytkus. “We look forward to having dialogue with ownership and giving feedback on next round of planning for the building.”

The ownership group, which includes Chelsfield, Olayan, and RXR Realty, seems ready for dialogue as well. In a statement released after the designation, the group says:

We are proud that 550 Madison is now an official New York City landmark, claiming its place in our city’s architectural heritage. Ownership strongly supports designation of the iconic office tower and applauds the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s decision. Since acquiring the building, we have taken our role as stewards of this important building very seriously. We look forward to an ongoing dialogue with the LPC and other stakeholders to preserve 550 Madison’s legacy as a commercial Class A destination in East Midtown, with smart and sensitive modifications to serve modern tenants.

The state of the building’s formerly public arcades, converted to enclosed retail spaces in 2002, is still up for debate. A number of commissioners on Tuesday expressed wanting to see the arcades opened to the street again, according to Waytkus. She believes the building’s future depends on whoever becomes LPC chairperson next. Former chair Meenakshi Srinivasan’s final day was June 1st, and Fred Bland, LPC’s Vice Chair, is interim chair.

“This is the building that established Postmodernism as a legitimate architectural movement,” said Bland in a statement. “It deserves to be preserved for future generations.”

You may also enjoy “Why the AT&T Building Matters.”

Categories: Cultural Architecture