Developers Closing in on Reopening Landmark Former AT&T Lobby
By Matt Dunning
It has been nearly 30 years since the owners of 195 Broadway have allowed everyday folks to walk among the grove of imposing, burnished marble columns inside their Lower Manhattan building’s landmark lobby.
Built in 1916 as the headquarters of AT&T, the 29-story building’s yawning, gilded ground floor space was once a hive of commercial and retail activity, with several small vendors tucked into its corners and a service desk for AT&T customers. But it has been closed to the public since 1983, when the telephone giant moved its wares to midtown. The building’s current owners, L&L Holding Co., intend to draw people—and their shopping dollars—back to the lobby by outfitting it with a small lineup of high-end retail operators.
Earlier this week, the company’s team of architects and preservation consultants presented the latest batch of changes they’d like to make to the lobby to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.
“This once-vibrant lobby has become dormant and devoid of the very activity it was conceived to host,” said project architect Michael Gabellini.
The cavernous lobby, with its 30-foot-high ceilings and bronze-and-alabaster chandeliers, is really a landmark within a landmark. Both the great hall and the building itself were given protection under the city’s historic preservation laws in 2006. The following year, the Landmarks Preservation Commission approved the first set of changes—ceiling-height glass partitions and escalators, as well as renovations for the adjoining lobby servicing the office tenants on the building’s upper floors—the ownership group plans to implement in the lobby in order to convert it to a retail galleria.
On Jan. 18, the group returned to the Commission for a second round of proposed changes to the lobby, including the establishment of a “master plan” intended to guide the aesthetic choices available to a maximum of three retail tenants, which Gabellini said could range from jewelers and restaurants to upscale clothing and accessory lines.
“In short, the purpose here is to revitalize this historic space,” Gabellini said. “Whatever it is that we do here is firmly rooted in the past.”
The “master plan” consisted of 11-foot, sheer cloth banners hanging above window display boxes along the perimeter of the building and illuminated cloth box signs dangling above the sidewalk-facing store entrances, as well as small bronze-and-glass signs mounted to the tops of the exterior doorways and window bays—for a grand total of 14 banners and four illuminated boxes. The tenants themselves would ultimately determine exactly what color, image and wording could appear on the banners and box signs, Gabellini said.
Inside the lobby, the group proposed bisecting the public space with a glass-walled promenade stretching from an entrance on Dey Street to a matching one on Fulton, lined with entries and window displays—also to be outfitted with bronze-and-glass signage—for the divided retail spaces. Narrow tracts of small, adjustable spotlights would be installed in the non-decorative plaster sections of the hall’s ceiling.
A high-end restaurant could be among the tenants selected
to occupy the renovated lobby of 195 Broadway, formerly the
headquarters of AT&T.
The developers also proposed a significant change to their previously approved set of alterations to the lobby. The escalators that the Commission reluctantly approved in 2007—when it was though that the retail spaces would extend belowground by as many as three stories—have been eliminated in favor of a menu of fixed staircases from which tenants could choose the design best matching their décor. Gabellini said the escalators were no longer necessary because his latest design calls for just one underground floor for retail.
An interior link to the concourse connecting the Fulton Street Transit Center and the World Trade Center transportation hub, which will run underneath 195 Broadway, had also been part of the developers original plans for the lobby in 2007. A spokesman for the MTA, which is building both the Fulton Transit Center and the underground concourse, said the link might still be possible, but that the agency has had little contact with the developers since last year.
Following the developers’ hour-long presentation, members of the Landmarks Preservation Commission were generally supportive of the proposal, but expressed reservations about the multiple staircase options and the proliferation of the cloth signage around the building’s perimeter, echoing comments made by Community Board 1’s Landmarks Committee the week prior.
“I think this is an incredibly sensitive approach to repurposing a gorgeous interior space, and being so careful about every existing architectural element,” commission Margery Perlmutter said. “I do wish that they’d just pick one staircase and run with it.”
“There’s nothing that’s particularly wrong with it, bit there is a little too much signage,” commissioner Frederick Bland said. “The use of the [materials] is beautiful and brilliant, and a good solution. I just think there’s a little too much of it.”
Gabellini said he and the other designers would work with Landmarks Preservation staff to fine tune elements of the design.
“It’s all going in the right direction,” commissioner Joan Gerner said, noting that she was one of the few remaining commissioners from the 2007 panel that approved the developers’ original application. “The space really needs to have a new life. I see a lot of positive things in this.”