501 Madison Avenue Shines Again

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[NEW YORK, Feb. 24] An imposing presence in Midtown East, 501 Madison Avenue is an excellent example of the stepped profiles and setbacks that dominated New York City’s Pre-War skyline. Designed in 1929 by the firm of Kohn, Knight and Vitolo in their signature Art Deco style, the building was commissioned by Cornelius Vanderbilt III and was a project in keeping with a family known for lavish architectural commissions.
Yet by the time the 21st century rolled around the once glamorous tower was looking rather shabby. A ground-leased building, 501 Madison was marred by dingy storefronts and unsympathetic changes that made the former showplace a drably anonymous hulk. This changed in June 2013 when the ground lease expired after 84 years and the Vanderbilt descendants took back full control of the building.
“The owners looked past the grit and grime and returned the property to a standard beyond its original incarnation,” says Kevin R. Wang of KRW Realty Advisors, 501 Madison’s Property Asset Manager. “501 Madison is a highly visible building in terms of architecture as well as location and the decision was made to capitalize on the full potential of the asset.”
The redevelopment involved a comprehensive plan to burnish the structure inside and out: the team included HLW International (the Architect of Record), who designed the lobby and infrastructure renovations, and Design Republic Partners Architects LLP (Design Architect), who designed the building’s retail zone and related exterior detailing as well as establishing the building’s common area standards.
Among HLW’s tasks was to reorient the lobby in line with the elevator vestibule to improve flow to and from the elevator core while creating a contiguous retail space. “They did a very impressive job,” Wang says. “The lobby hits a great balance between old and new – it’s not a stark white box, but it isn’t a period replica either.” HLW also lead the complete base building infrastructure upgrade, including HVAC, new elevators, electrical and security systems, bringing the buildings amenities and services to a Class A level.
Design Republic took a more historically minded approach to their renovation of the exterior, carefully studying the ornate details and lavish materials that survived before moving forward with a reinterpretation of them.
Vincent Iacobellis, IIDA, Assoc. AIA and DR’s Design Lead for the project, was glad to work with a discerning client who supported DR’s restorative approach that called for an implementation of high-end materials and artisan craftsmanship. “It’s rare for an owner to commit to a substantial capital improvement involving high level attention to bespoke detailing,” he says. “They acknowledged the importance of preserving the integrity of their asset with a desire to do it right.”
In this case this meant replicating lower façade details that had been removed or were crumbling while creating optimum window proportions. “Our approach was to design a storefront and curtain wall assembly sympathetic to the building’s ornate details as if it had always been there, while infusing elements and features that would attract prospective high-end tenants,” Iacobellis says.
DR took a classic Art Deco period approach towards material selections by specifying Indiana limestone introduced at the perimeter columns, Black Granite accentuating the column bases and knee walls, Vermont Verde stone defining capitals and lintels and bronze castings (by Wemco Casting LLC) delineating the seamless black spandrel glass reserved for tenant brand signage. “It can be challenging sourcing artisans capable of working with these materials,” Iacobellis observes. “But the end effect can’t be faked.”
Other consultants and vendors included Sterling Project Development; JRM Construction Management; Standard Waterproofing Corp, who handled masonry restoration; Tindel Lawrence Corporation, who provided window replacement; Cathedral Stone, who provided façade stonework; Aval Metal & Glass, who fabricated the storefront curtain wall; and Ellison Bronze Company, who provided the custom bronze doors. The result is an entirely refreshed presence on Madison Avenue that looks as solidly elegant as the best of the city’s classic buildings.
“I see this renovation as a way of opening up the luxury corridor. Hopefully, it will attract the attention of neighboring property owners to follow 501’s lead,” Iacobellis says, and Wang agrees, pointing out that “Space for luxury retail is at a new premium and 501 Madison is poised to become a destination as shoppers and retailers alike explore the avenue south of 57th Street.”
The investment appears to be paying off: new tenants at 501 Madison include Porsche Design and Bremont Timepieces, both of which anchor the building securely in the upscale market associated with similar locations such as the Fuller Building and Rockefeller Center. As Midtown East gears up to tackle rezoning issues again, 501 Madison Avenue stands as a reminder that the best of its present building stock can be a neighborhood-changing asset in itself.
Guest poster David V. Griffin’s articles on architecture, real estate and urbanism have appeared in Real Estate Weekly, Honest Building’s Insight, Dwell, Metropolis and the National Trust’s Preservation Magazine. He’s the Founder & CEO at Landmark Branding LLC.