Exceptions such as the Chrysler Building and other iconic skyscrapers aside, New York City’s office buildings are often mudane while many the Private Owned Public Spaces (POPS), a city zoning regulation, are equally if not even more uninspired. Melvyn Kaufman, developer of many Midtown and Financial District skyscrapers actively sought to diverge from standard design practices. The New York Times called him an “oddball,” while others saw him as a “sly urban prankster.” Kaufman hated the International Style office lobbies, calling them “marble and travertine mausoleums” which were not just boring but also “bad for the living and terrific for the dead.” He wanted more than that and with a famous hands-on approach with his architects, he made it happen.
1. 77 Water Street
77 Water street is arguably Kaufman-style at its very best. The best part is hidden from ground-level pedestrians. On the roof of the building is a full-size model of a World War I era warplane. This replica fighter plane is made out of stainless steel and positioned to take off (or arrive) on an Astroturf runway complete with landing lights.
Why? At 26 floors, 77 Water Street was surrounded by taller office buildings filled with people looking down out of their windows. As far as Kaufman was concerned, with so many people glancing out of their offices, they deserved to see more than industrial-size air-conditioners. He instead caused countless office workers to wonder whether or not this plane ever really took off and landed on the roof of 77 Water Street. Sadly however, the faux grass runway and the plane appear to be deteriorating due to the elements, with the above photographs taken in August 2015. The plane is now under netting, which was not the case originally.
To the right of the lobby (again sunken down and to the back of a plaza) is a playful Wild West-style candy store:
2. 767 Third Avenue
767 Third Avenue was unusual for its era, not just for the wall holding up the world’s largest chessboard, but the use of wood and and brick as construction materials rather than the more popular glass and steel. The curves of the walkway counteract the grid system. In the same plaza, there’s also a vintage stagecoach and a 1929 Ford truck. More information on the chessboard and other easter eggs are here.
3. 777 Third Avenue
Aptly titled Big Red Swing, a bench both gently sways and is stable enough to hold several people having lunch outside. A small grove of trees stands in front of the bench, contrasting with the bustle of Third Avenue. The trees clearly violated city law requiring sidewalk trees be spaced at least 25-feet apart, the “combustible” Kaufman roared “left ’em fine me $25.” So, they did. And he gladly paid.
4. 747 Third Avenue
When passing through the doors at747 Third Avenue, take a peek to your right and you’ll see a life-size, revolving statue of a naked woman. In signature Kaufman style, the piece itself isn’t as important as the element of surprise evoked.
Many original designs were removed during subsequent renovations of this building however. The current pathway once used bricks that encouraged people to “follow the yellow (and red) brick road.” Once again, Kaufman encouraged public use, with a wooden bench like those found on front porches. These were later replaced along with the red brick road. According to our chat with the security guards, people kept falling on the bricks and injuring themselves and suing the building.
However, two features remain: a giraffe munching away and a horse-drawn carriage. These images also have changed over time so it’s always worth a look to see what’s presently there:
5. 200 Water Street
The facade of 200 Water Street owes everything to its holdout neighbor. After Kaufman refused the asking price, they still needed to cover up the unsightly and much shorter holdout. Kaufman commissioned artist Rudolph De Karak to solve this. The three-story clock uses 72 individual squares to display the hour, minute and second. It’s eye-catching. It’s also a sly dig at dawdling workers, reminding them to get back to work.
Around the corner on Fulton street, the plaza contains brightly covered chairs, intended to reference Lewis Carroll:
And a pun on the building’s street address, a fish hangs from the ceiling while an image of a merman and mermaid adorn the side:
One of its’ most notable designs was Kaufman’s least lobby-like lobby. Visitors entered through a neon-blue tunnel with two giant toy soldiers standing on either side. Sadly these have since been removed. Pictures of the since-renovated lobby can be seen here.
See 9 other holdout buildings that refused to move in the face of oncoming development.
6. 17 State Street
At first it seems less flamboyant than the usual fare but 17 State Street has a larger theme. Facing the harbor, the building’s take advantage of the curved building site, offering views from every floor from reflective glass, creating an iconclast Jetsons-like, space age lighthouse compared to its neighbors. At the very top, there’s a small tower projecting a light beam.
Ultimately, Kaufman’s building received mixed reviews from architectural critics though Paul Goldberger of The New York Times called it his most daring building yet. Some saw the additions as kitschy ornamentation while others appreciated a lighthearted whimsy.
Kaufman died in 2012 at the age of 87. We can only hope that New York City may find another developer who is willing to put it all out there for those elements of surprise in everyday life.
Next, check out NYC’s Holdouts, Buildings that Stood in the Way of Development.