This past week-end, during my 40th college reunion, I spent several wonderful hours in the newly reconfigured Yale Art Gallery, where I spent a lot of time as an undergraduate. In addition to the extraordinary collection, beautifully displayed, I was struck by the seamless way in which the new, Louis Kahn building and the older original Gothic structure had been integrated into seamless and complimentary interior spaces. Would that I always saw a similar level of forethought and respect for architectural integrity in the renovations of homes in Manhattan!
I feel a particular antipathy towards the word “gut.” New Yorkers sometimes throw it around as if it is the most natural thing in the world to walk into a property with great bones and immediately tear it to shreds, in order to rebuild it in some new and frequently less attractive and desirable configuration. I like the word “renovate;” I like the word “restore.” In the Yale Galleries they knew they had beautiful spaces designed by master architects. Gutting was not the point. The spaces were rethought but their bones were respected.
I always yearn to suggest to those who feel they have “got to gut” that they buy apartments from the architectural bad years. Most apartments in buildings from the 50s and 60s respond well to reorganization. The spatial flow tends to be lackluster to begin with, so improving on it is a public benefit. In particular, those worthy individuals who have purchased two or three apartments in featureless white brick buildings, stripped them down to the studs, and rebuilt them as modern, spacious, how-we-live-now homes have done a service to the many buyers in search of the scope of the big old prewar apartments at more reasonable prices.
Don’t get me wrong: I like a renovated kitchen and bathroom as much as the next guy, even though it would never occur to me to tear out either if it was less than five years old! And I am all for reconfiguring the service spaces of older apartments, since most people today do not have live-in help but do spend a lot of time in their own kitchens (even those who rarely cook in them!) But the classic arrangements in older apartments can rarely be improved upon. Even the B+ architects – Schwartz & Gross or Sugarman & Berger (not to mention the wonderfully paired Harde & Short!) – did a beautiful job arranging living and entertaining spaces in their buildings like 101 Central Park West and 40 East 88th Street. When we sell these grand old apartments I find myself quaking when I hear people suggesting that they need to “gut” them. Because it is not just the exteriors which exemplify what is best about our local urban architecture. The spacious foyers, the enfilades of rooms opening into one another, the placement of doors to give balance as you enter or exit – these too are a part of the cultural heritage of the city.
Increasingly co-op buildings in particular pay greater attention to the renovation plans of purchasers. Boards want to determine not just how long the work will take, and how noisy it will be, but also whether the plan respects the integrity of the original architect and builder. I am sympathetic to this. New and old can exist in wonderful harmony, but these interiors by Candela and Carpenter should not be stripped away. They are both historical and sociological treasures.