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Towering Landmark Battle Looms Over Philip Johnson Building

A planned $300 million renovation of a Midtown Manhattan office tower designed by star architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee suffered a setback when the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission voted to consider the building for landmark status
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Keiko Morris

A planned $300 million overhaul of a Midtown Manhattan office tower designed by star architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee suffered a setback Tuesday when the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission voted to consider the building for landmark status.

The commission now will begin the formal designation process for 550 Madison Ave., a 41-story office building completed in 1984 to serve as the headquarters of AT&T Inc. and later housed the offices of Sony Corp.

After a review and public hearing, the commission will decide whether the building, which is now vacant, merits a landmark designation.

The move comes about a month after the tower’s owner, Olayan America, and its development partner unveiled renovation plans that included the replacement of the lower part of the building’s granite facade with glass. The redesign sparked fierce criticism from a vocal group of preservationists and historians of architecture and art who say the proposal runs contrary to the original intent of the building’s designers and would deface an important postmodern tower.

In an interview, Mr. Burgee, now retired in Santa Barbara, Calif., called the redesign of the building’s base a “disfigurement.” Mr. Johnson died in 2005.

Architect Philip Johnson is shown in 1978 with a model of the proposed office building at 550 Madison Ave. in Manhattan. The building was completed in 1984 to serve as the headquarters of AT&T Inc.Photo: ASSOCIATED PRESS

An online petition against the makeover has drawn more than 2,000 signatures, said filmmaker Nathan Eddy, who started the petition and is working on a film about Mr. Johnson. Mr. Eddy organized a protest outside the tower on Nov. 3 that drew the support of noted architect, author and former dean of the Yale School of Architecture Robert A.M. Stern, who described the building as a “masterpiece of the period.”

“It’s a talisman of an important turning point in architecture away from the glass corporate buildings that dominated the scene in the 1970s and the 60s,” Mr. Stern said in an interview, and “a return to the idea that buildings represent something, that they have a narrative, that they are not just abstract containers for rows of desks of people.”

Despite preservationists’ hopes that a landmark designation would prevent the tower’s owner from making the facade changes, David Laurie, managing director at Chelsfield America, Olayan’s development partner, said in a statement that the team supports the commission’s decision to consider the possible landmark designation and recognizes that the tower is an “important part of architectural heritage.”

Mr. Laurie also pointed out that the project’s goals are part of the city’s broader push to revitalize the East Midtown business district. This year, the city approved a rezoning of the area, hoping to spur 13.4 million square feet of new and redeveloped office space in the coming decades.

The upgrades to 550 Madison Ave. would enable the team to attract upscale office tenants to the vacant building and bring more than 3,000 jobs to the area, Mr. Laurie has said.

“We are committed to creating a rejuvenated 550 Madison that retains its important presence, works for future tenants and realizes the long-promised public amenities to the larger Midtown community,” Mr. Laurie said.

Olayan America, the U.S. investment arm of private Saudi Arabian conglomerate Olayan Group, acquired the 850,000-square-foot building for $1.4 billion from the Chetrit Group in 2016.

Olayan tapped architecture firm Snøhetta for the redesign and embraced a plan to replace the building’s lower granite facade with scalloped glass, exposing steel cross beams and revealing the lobby and two levels of tenant amenity space. The revamp also calls for replacing a part of the tower’s rear facade with glass, providing views from the interior and from Madison Avenue of the garden in the back.

Members of the team overseeing the redesign view the base of the building as heavy and problematic in the way it meets the sidewalk and meshes with street life. In October, Craig Dykers, a founding partner at Snøhetta, described the building at ground level as “inward-looking,” emphasizing the team’s goal of creating “lightness and interaction with New York City streets.”

But Thomas Collins, a preservation advocate and art historian who sent letters requesting the commission consider landmarking both the building’s lobby interior and its exterior structure, noted that the tower has features that interact with the city’s streetscape, such as a columned arcade that had been open to the public for about a decade but later was filled in with retail space.

Replacing the granite facade at the base with glass would destroy the building’s identity, Mr. Burgee said.

Olayan America and its development partner unveiled renovation plans that include replacing part of the granite facade with glass at the 41-story office tower at 550 Madison Ave. in Manhattan. Photo: Alexander Cohn/The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Johnson and Mr. Burgee caused a stir in 1978 when their designs for the building were revealed. The architects wanted to move away from the prevalent and often indistinguishable glass box buildings of the International Style, Mr. Burgee said.

Instead, they chose granite from the same quarry that produced the stone at the base of the Statue of Liberty and drew on classical and baroque references, designing the top as a broken pediment. Many say it resembles the top of Chippendale-style furniture. Mr. Burgee said he wasn’t inspired by the furniture design and guesses that both he and the furniture maker were influenced by similar past styles.

The granite facade is crucial, he said. “Once you strip all that off and put in this glass they are proposing, it’s lost, it’s gone,” Mr. Burgee said. “I would rather see the building torn down than see this disfigurement.”

Write to Keiko Morris at Keiko.Morris@wsj.com

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