Manhattan Townhouse Makeovers: Restoration or Revision?

Are most Manhattan pre-war apartments revisions or restorations?It easy to forget that when we look at a Manhattan pre-war apartment buildings, they lie to us. The majority of a historic building, including both decorative and mechanical elements, has been restored. Buildings need upkeep, and when the times comes for renovation, design choices become a question of both aesthetics and practicality. Under world-renowned architect Rafael Viñoly, this question is answered with his design to replace a 19th-century townhouse on 64th and Lexington with an extremely modernist facade as part of a conversion of the building to office and residential use. The Manhattan brownstone apartments are a historic record--and as residents and citizens, we are active participants in its composition. Given the choice, can and should we “modernize” the pre-war townhouse?

The brownstone revival movement of the 1970s, dedicated to restoring buildings to their original, 19th century origins, is the main reason why our historic buildings are charming, not decrepit. The architecture of residential townhouses does indeed largely affect the character of a neighborhood. However, unlike larger collections of residential buildings like the tenements on the Lower East Side which are considered a testament to New York City’s collective immigrant history, many Manhattan brownstone revisions are led by private enterprise. Though renovations may initially be less public since they primarily involve the owner of the property, architects, designers, other professional advisors, and the Landmark Preservation Commission (LPC) if applicable, renovations quickly expose the engrossment of a single townhouse in relation to its street and neighborhood.

Intelligent design choices are never purely practical or purely aesthetic, especially with historic buildings. Manhattan townhouses often have completely renovated, very contemporary interiors--they simply wouldn’t be marketable as luxury residences otherwise. Thanks to the LPC, many areas are protected by historic districts, but for those that are not, modernism is often an attractive option for townhouse owners. Pre-war townhouses sell extremely well in areas like Tribeca and Chelsea, but architects have transplanted contemporary trends like the glass-wall facade, which allows ample light and flexibility in design, with increasing success. Whether or not this choice is too aggressively modern is often a subjective matter.

Opinions are split--the aesthetic either contributes to the architectural history of the neighborhood, or disrupts the existing history. Ultimately, a facade is just a facade; the town house is made for living. A 19th-century town house with a currently “undistinguished” facade, according to Viñoly, would benefit the neighborhood more if it was redesigned in a relevant architectural vocabulary. Townhouses are by nature built to be flexible and modern architecture complements that. Residents determine the city’s history. If the building brings value to the neighborhood, neighbors will be content.