Preservation Issues

Philip Johnson’s Iconic AT&T Building Now Landmarked

-AT&T Building at 550 Madison Avenue

-Philip Johnson holding a model of the AT&T building for Time Magazine

UPDATE: July 31, 2018

The New York Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the former AT&T Headquarters at 550 Madison Avenue as an individual landmark today. Designed by Philip Johnson and John Burgee, the building marked a turning point in the history of 20th century architecture. It ushered in the era of postmodernism by drawing on classical references and caused a firestorm of criticism from adherents of modern architecture.

The Conservancy supported designation (read testimony) as recognition of the building’s iconic role as the first of its kind. It’s large broken pediment top has long been a significant feature of the City skyline.

Designation became especially important after the building’s current owners proposed major changes to the pink granite exterior. The owners ultimately supported designation and are revising their plans.

June 2018
AT&T Building One Step Closer to Designation

New York’s most prominent post-modern building is one step closer to landmark designation. The Conservancy joined with the owners of 550 Madison Avenue (former AT&T Headquarters Building), architects, preservationists, and elected officials to support the designation at a Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) hearing on June 19. Over 30 speakers voiced support for the designation, with none opposed.

Philip Johnson’s design for the Midtown tower broke away from decades of unadorned glass-clad modernism, shocking the architectural community of the late 1970s. Johnson’s scheme recalled the classical form of a column, with a delineated base, shaft, and capital. His use of granite, and the Chippendale-inspired broken pediment at the roof signaled the arrival of post-modernism in New York. Over the last three decades, the tower has become an icon of the City skyline.

Plans, revealed late last year, to install an undulating glass façade at the base triggered a call for landmark designation to protect the storied tower. At the hearing, the owners dismissed the earlier proposal, but asked the LPC to consider their intention to create a public garden at the site of an annex and covered walkway. The annex and walkway were part of public space that AT&T, the original owners, promised in exchange for zoning bonuses.

At the end of the two-hour hearing, the Commissioners did not ask questions or take a vote, but will likely make a decision later in the summer.

Read Our Testimony

UPDATE: January 2018
AT&T Building Gets Additional Support

Advocates for preserving Philip Johnson’s iconic AT&T Building gained additional support this past week when the New York State Historic Preservation Office (NYSHPO) determined that the former AT&T Headquarters Building at 550 Madison Avenue meets the criteria for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The determination noted: “Postmodernism is an important chapter in American architecture and the AT&T Building contributes to this legacy.” This eligibility evaluation resulted from a request made by the Conservancy and is the first step to listing on the National Registers, underscoring the national importance of this significant structure.

Following efforts led by Robert A.M. Stern, the Conservancy and others, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) has calendared the AT&T Building for individual landmark designation which will be bolstered by the NYSHPO determination of eligibility.

November 2017
LPC Calendars Philip Johnson’s AT&T Building

The Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) calendared Philip Johnson’s famous AT&T Building on Madison Avenue after the Conservancy and other preservationists demanded quick action to save the building from drastic changes proposed for its exterior.

In a November 6 letter to LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan, the Conservancy noted that the building “is one of the first and best known symbols of the post-modern movement and is the only major example in the City.” (read full letter) Architect Robert A.M. Stern helped galvanize opposition to the proposed changes and demand for preserving the building.

Johnson and his partner John Burgee designed the building in 1978. It was completed in 1984. The classicist design, known for its “Chippendale” top, was a rebuke to the stark functionalism of modernist orthodoxy. It was all the more startling because Johnson was a seminal figure in modernism and had promoted the work of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe.

The current owners, Olayan America, proposed replacing the lower portion of the rose-gray granite exterior with a glass curtain wall to highlight the ground floor retail area. Architectural critics have praised the “power” of the original design, with the granite extending to the ground. The re-design proposal by Snohetta would also take down a back annex and create a public garden.

The building’s 660-foot tower, surmounted by its distinctive broken pediment, and entered through a spectacular seven-story arch, was at a cutting edge of architectural theory and design. It earned Johnson a Time Magazine cover picturing the architect holding a model of the building. It also generated controversy from modernist architects who denounced the building as “an outrage.”

The Conservancy feels that landmark designation would allow the LPC to guide any future alterations to the building while protecting the integrity of Johnson’s design.