New York City’s new Commission Chair for City Planning, Carl Weisbrod, boasts a 40-year career as a planner and civic activist with a deep and rich diversity of experience—at a time when these attributes are most urgent. A progressive mayor like De Blasio demands action on a number of fronts, beginning with a moon-shot call for more affordable housing amidst a seemingly unceasing wave of gentrification and displacement. Millennials are increasingly rejecting the tedious disconnection of life behind the wheel and flocking to cities, a call that Weisbrod must answer.
Weisbrod cut his visionary teeth in Times Square, lifting the space from its tawdry nadir at the outset of the Ed Koch administration to the bustling atmosphere of today, in which throbbing mobs of visitors and theatergoers enjoy the ultimate thrill of people-watching by the glow of state-of-the-art signage. (These walls of advertising are still referred to in the trade as “spectaculars,” despite the fact that Pussycat neon and Camel smoke rings have been replaced by the interactive images of the Jumbotron.)
Times Square in 1988. Image via Matt Weber.
Like any public-private initiative of such complexity, the 42nd Street Redevelopment Corporation, stewarded by Weisbrod, had its ups—defeat of a ludricrous drive to zone out signs altogether—and downs—Philip Johnson’s anodyne post-modern evocation of the Rockefeller Center tower complex—leading finally to its current state as a chaotic global crossroads. Its reputation is about as far from “Disneyfication” as one can conjure, though die-hard critics cling to that put-down; it is, instead, an equal opportunity economic juggernaut worthy of its name, which, apart from the restored Amsterdam Theatre redoubt, Walt would no doubt find appalling.
Times Square today. Image via the New York Post.
One highlight of this ongoing regeneration is the newly reopened limestone and marble I. Miller Building. Located at 1552 Broadway, the building was designed by Louis H. Friedland in 1926 and now makes up part of a large retail complex, after being restored by Jonathan Marvel of Marvel Architects and Jan Hird Pokorny Associates’ principle preservationist, Richard Pieper. The restrained, newly pristine classic features four golden mosaic niches framing renditions of great American actresses in the roles that made them famous; these sculptures are the result of a public contest and were completed by Alexander Stirling Calder (senior—it was his son who stole history’s modernist spotlight). The building’s parapet still boasts—in refreshed Trajan typface—“I. Miller The Show Folks Shoe Shop Dedicated to Beauty of Footwear.”
The Broadway frontage is transformed into both elegant entry and, most thrillingly, base for a 150-foot LED billboard spectacle featuring comely Express models strutting their stuff in a fashion show for the gods. This crowning signage reveals how guidelines for historic district preservation need not constrain innovation, but instead guide it in ways that join old and new to mutual benefit. Informed memory increases delight in present application; landmarks become discordant contextualizers.
The restored I. Miller Building. Image via The New York Times.
Jane Jacobs lays out four essential ingredients for a living city neighborhood. One reads, “The district must mingle buildings that vary in age, and condition, including a goodly proportion of old ones so that they vary in the economic yield they must produce.” Besides the many Broadway theaters, there remain only two other landmark buildings (aka “old ones”) in the Square’s entire bowtie of streetscapes: the Paramount Building and the beaux-arts confection of the Knickerbocker Hotel. A few sites maintain the lower scale of their long-buried structural underpinning, but the rest is modern, tall, and glass.
The effort toward simultaneous preservation and contemporary marketplace adaptation seen in the restoration of the I. Miller Building is just what the neighborhood needed to conform to the Jacobs recipe for successful urban continuity. The effort is possible thanks, in large measure, to those like Weisbrod, who rejected short-term fixes, like resigned destruction, by keeping an eye on the past’s potential to inform the present.
Restored sculptures on the I. Miller Building. Images via The New York Times.
This project merits special attention as it demonstrates commingling at its dynamic best; in this case, that means becoming part of the booming, joyful, people-concentrated mess that befits Times Square.