The Villard Houses are also home to the cities best Architectural Book Store.
December 21, 2003
STREETSCAPES | MADISON AVENUE BETWEEN 50TH AND 51ST STREET
A Landmark 6-Home Complex in Dark Brownstone
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY
Last edited by Edward; February 15th, 2012 at 06:07 PM. Reason: Full text by Christopher Gray deleted
The Villard Houses are also home to the cities best Architectural Book Store.
^ Which is now unfortunately closing .
Urban Center Draws Its Curtains Closed
By A. G. SULZBERGER
January 14, 2010
Urban Center Books, which is about to close,
was among the draws at the center.
Three decades ago, the Urban Center opened with two exhibits that projected dueling visions of the brick and mortar future of the city.
In one, an elaborate plastic model of Grand Central Terminal was designed to crumble to pieces repeatedly. The other celebrated six prominent planned additions to the New York City skyline, including what became the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center.
Conceived as a gathering place for the architecturally inclined and civic minded, the Urban Center was a place where architects, designers, planners, developers and advocates met — replacing the exclusive confines of lunch tables and cocktail parties with a public space in a building itself imbued with architectural significance — to discuss, among other things, how to keep some landmarks from falling, while encouraging others to grow.
On Friday, this space will end its run as a gathering place for exhibits, lectures, design presentations and panel discussions — attracting more then 50,000 people annually — as the Municipal Art Society, which has run the Urban Center in the three ground-floor rooms in a wing of the historic Villard Houses since 1980, moves to a more modest home on West 57th Street.
“Many of the big debates over urban design and planning in New York were talked about and advanced here at the Urban Center,” said Vin Cipolla, president of the Municipal Art Society.
The home has been appropriately symbolic. The art society led the push to save the 1884 Villard Houses at Madison Avenue and 51st Street, which were designed by McKim, Mead & White, from being torn down to make way for the New York Palace Hotel.
Margot Wellington, who was executive director of the art society at the time, said that after the hotel’s developer, Harry B. Helmsley, agreed to keep the buildings intact adjacent to his hotel, he suggested that the art society become one of the new tenants. The organization accepted — signing a favorable long-term lease — and filled the rest of the north wing of the U-shaped Renaissance Revival brownstones with like-minded groups like the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture League and the Parks Council. The shared space downstairs became known as the Urban Center.
“It was kind of a crossroads,” Ms. Wellington said in an interview. “It made all of us so much stronger than any of us had ever been. It was all possible because of the Urban Center.”
Also closing, on Jan. 23, is Urban Center Books, perhaps the city’s best-known architecture and design bookstore, which will remain online as the art society searches for a new location. Jerold S. Kayden, a professor of urban planning and design at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, said the store was a dream for browsers and a good spot to run into friends and colleagues. “The substitution from brick to click is sad,” he said.
Those involved with the center said it played a key role in high-profile efforts like pushing to have the theaters in Times Square declared landmarks and fighting the construction of a huge tower in Columbus Circle.
“Most of the great campaigns, whether it was preserving a landmark, protecting the waterfront, saving a park or supporting affordable housing, it all happened in this building,” said Kent Barwick, a former longtime president of the art society.
In recent years, however, there have been persistent questions about the effectiveness of the organization.
Regardless, the loss of the gathering spot has been mourned in the architecture and design field. “That’s a good run, a 30-year run — one can only celebrate the fact that this wonderful building remained intact and was put to good use,” said Randall Bourscheidt, president of the Alliance for the Arts. “The reality is, even in the age of the Internet, there is really no substitute for bringing people together to the same place to talk.”
The art society is planning to search for a permanent meeting space, hoping to secure something by the middle of next year, Mr. Cipolla said.
In the meantime, Rick Bell, the executive director of the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects, which left the Villard Houses years ago, said that in recent years a number of nonprofit groups, including his own organization’s Center for Architecture, had created other spaces where the public could meet to discuss issues of urban development. “The urban center became our model,” he said. “From the outset, it was a place where people could collaborate and strive to make a better city.”
Can the Center Hold?
Diaspora of bookstore, MAS and Arch League continues
As of Saturday, Urban Center Books will close its doors as it seeks a new home.
Urban Center Books will close its doors on January 23, leaving New York—temporarily, at least—without a bookstore wholly devoted to books and journals on architecture and urbanism. The shop will continue to sell books online while it looks for a new home near the Municipal Art Society’s (MAS) new offices in the Steinway Building on 57th Street.
The move comes as the New York Palace hotel reclaims the spaces in the Villard House that have long held offices as well as galleries and lecture space for various groups relating to the built environment, collectively known as the Urban Center.
A patron browses the shelves.
While Urban Center Books (UCB) says its online business is growing, it remains committed to a physical space. “Shopping online is not a substitute for browsing the shelf. It’s a curated collection that’s heavily edited,” said Jo Steffens, UCB’s director. UCB is a nonprofit store owned by MAS, and is itself considering space in the Steinway building.
Steffens is also looking at two other spaces near 57th Street. The Steinway building space, she said, is larger than they would like, lacks a street presence, needs to be brought up to ADA standards, and does not have a permit for public assembly (necessary for lectures and book parties). She hopes the UCB will reopen in the summer or fall, and may open a temporary space at the Center for Architecture in the spring.
The Urban Center's long-time tenants—the bookstore, MAS, and the Architectural League—
are all decamping for new homes from the Villard house on 57th street.
In September, after a long tenancy next to MAS, the Architectural League decamped for new offices in Soho, gaining a considerable amount of desk and meeting space but losing the shared lecture and gallery space. Their lecture programming is being held in a variety of venues, including the New Museum, the Cooper Union, the Trespa showroom, and Parsons the New School for Design.
The exhibition program will also likely be mobile, possibly including vacant retail spaces. “We’re inhabiting the city,” said Anne Reiselbach, program director at the League. “Having our center of gravity downtown made more sense.”
Alan G. Brake
Why have I never heard of this bookstore before?? Is it mentioned anywhere else on WNY? I can't believe I've walked by there dozens of times without the slightest clue.
^ I can't believe it, either, kz; you're so interested in architecture and well-informed. And now, I'm sorry to say, it's too late. If I'd known, I'd have informed you. Now it's just cause for regret until something springs up to replace it.
I imagine Jaap Rietman is long gone too ... right, lofter?
New Leaf for Beloved Urban Center Books
Van Alen Institute's pop-up bookstore to reincarnate much-missed architecture hub
Julie V. Iovine
Van Alen's storefront on West 22nd Street, seen here with a mural designed by Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo
of Lead Pencil Studio, will be home to a bookstore and event space.
When Urban Center Books closed last January, architects lost more than the ability to shop for the latest design tomes. The dressing room–sized bookstore was meeting place, research incubator, perfect stopover between errands, and essential repository of the books, academic journals, and magazines that architects depended on to stay current.
It is not too much to say that its closure stymied the flow of intellectual discourse across the city. And so it is very good news that the Van Alen Institute has announced plans to incarnate an equally generous go-to source in the shape of a pop-up bookshop and event space at its own storefront on 22nd Street in Chelsea. The six-month experiment, scheduled to open in November and perhaps take root in a permanent interactive bookstore, will be supported by $25,000 from the JMKaplan Fund, the very same foundation that launched the original Urban Center Books.
“It is vitally important that New York have a place where architectural books and journals can be seen, touched, perused, and purchased,” said Rick Bell, president of the AIA’s New York Chapter.
The effort to resuscitate Urban Center Books goes back to almost the day it closed, with many (including The Architect’s Newspaper) taking part in the discussion. The Municipal Art Society, which managed Urban Center Books in its three decades at the Vuillard Houses on Madison Avenue, will be offering some of the inventory of books it has held in storage, and will be offering consulting services on how to run the place. Publishers will be sought to supply their newest titles.
But the pop-up won’t be just about books. Olympia Kazi, executive director of the Van Alen Institute, has much bigger plans: “There’s an opportunity for a huge synergy, and I would be blind not to see it,” she said. The institute recently launched the Reading Room, a space within its offices where the public can go to read, research, attend lectures, and access some of the impressive design archive dating to 1894. Kazi plans to move these activities to the storefront pop-up to engage more of the public. In May, she also plans to sponsor an “architecture publishing summit” to discuss with all stakeholders—whether publishers, writers, editors, and book sellers—where architecture content is going and where best it will be found in the future.
“It’s not just about a store but an installation, a curated selection of volumes and other media, too,” Kazi said. “Just imagining the possible collaborations is very exciting.”