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Decades Later, a Critic’s Disapproval Still Rings True

The architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable died last week at age 91, with a Pulitzer Prize and many decades of lively reviews for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal behind her. She wrote about libraries and skyscrapers, art museums and corporate headquarters, and this being New York, she also did battle over the city’s twinkling residential buildings.

And not every apartment house was to her liking.

“The result is a pitiful compendium of watered-down mannerisms that are supposed to maintain the integrity of the avenue,” she wrote of a building on Fifth Avenue, “but speak more clearly of the inflation of costs and the impoverishment of crafts in our time.”

“It does not help,” she continued of a building nearby, “that the moldings look like sliced-off Tootsie Rolls.”

These two descriptions came from the same article, “The ‘Pathetic Fallacy,’ or Wishful Thinking at Work,” published in The Times in February 1979. In it, Ms. Huxtable appraised two buildings on Fifth Avenue that were new at the time, 800 Fifth Avenue and 1001 Fifth Avenue, and she found them both to be pretty dreadful.

Both towered above their older, more dignified neighbors, while making unconvincing references to prewar materials and details, Ms. Huxtable said, like a smarmy tip of the hat. Thirty years later, it appears that both buildings have aged much as her criticism suggested they would. They might be moneymakers, but they are still, it is generally agreed, awful to look at.

“You can see why she was so upset,” Jorge Otero-Pailos, an associate professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, said of 800 Fifth Avenue. “All you have to do is look at the building.”

Take 1001 Fifth Avenue — a 23-story building with a facade designed by Johnson/Burgee, firm of the famed architect Philip Johnson — which stands opposite the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Solid lines of black bay windows stretch along its length, dark gashes slicing through its limestone facade. (It is on this facade that Ms. Huxtable’s Tootsie Roll moldings reside.)

Perhaps the most unusual element is at the top, where the limestone facade extends beyond the roof for an additional story or so, just a lonely slab visibly propped up from behind, which lends it the look of a budget movie set, or perhaps a toupee.

“This sort of thing does not age well,” Peter Pennoyer, of Peter Pennoyer Architects, said.

Apparently, buyers agree. Compared with most of the universe, the prices found at 1001 Fifth Avenue are frighteningly expensive. But compared with its Fifth Avenue neighbors, mostly prewar co-ops on one of the most extravagant stretches of the city, 1001 Fifth has not appreciated especially well.

According to Jonathan Miller, president of the Miller Samuel appraisal firm, the average sale price last year for a one-bedroom apartment on Fifth Avenue between 77th and 86th Streets was $3.56 million, while the average three-bedroom sold for $6.375 million.

But in December, a three-bedroom apartment on the 16th floor of 1001 Fifth Avenue, which came with Central Park views, was taken off the market after languishing for a year at sale prices hovering around $4 million. The last sale in the building, according to the Web site StreetEasy, was a three-bedroom on the 22nd floor that sold for $4.5 million in 2011.

“The prices are less, and the sales are much, much more difficult there,” said Kathryn Steinberg, a managing director at Brown Harris Stevens, comparing 1001 with its neighbors. “It’s not a coveted building.”

Reached by telephone on Monday, John Burgee, one of the architects, recalled immediately that Ms. Huxtable was not fond of the building, feeling its nods to both past and present made it confusing. But he was gracious toward the longtime critic all the same.

“I wish she would’ve liked it, but in this case we differed,” Mr. Burgee said, adding that his partner, Mr. Johnson, liked the building so much that he lived there for a time after its completion. “But I must say, even in that difference, I very much appreciated what she had to say. And there was no question that what she said affected what you did the next time.”

Whether the building is to one’s taste or not, few would dispute that the views can be spectacular, and even Ms. Huxtable had some more positive things to say about the entrance. And the infrequency with which apartments come up for sale can be a sign that people do not want to leave a building.

“I have amazing views of the West Side, the park and the reservoir,” said Anne Camuto, a 19th-floor resident who bought an apartment at 1001 Fifth Avenue when the building was brand new. But she described the interior architecture of the building as “pretty cheap.”

That said, Ms. Camuto loves her apartment, and she likes the facade well enough, greatly preferring it to the brick buildings that are its contemporaries, she said. Though she is not entirely sure about the top.

“There’s no reason architecturally for there to be that kind of facade,” Ms. Camuto said. The architect, she added, “was definitely making a statement.”

The statement made by 800 Fifth Avenue, designed by Ulrich Franzen & Associates, is even more pronounced. Or, as Ms. Huxtable described the effect: “If there is any achievement here, it is making the bland grotesque.”

This building stands at the corner of 61st Street with the Knickerbocker Club to its north and the Pierre hotel to its south, and is the only rental building on Fifth Avenue between 59th and 72nd Streets. Plopped into this grand setting is 800, a brick affair about the color of yellow mustard gone bad with a conspicuously false limestone facade slapped onto the bottom five stories — only on the Fifth Avenue side.

“It is appalling from the side approaches and would have been considerably better if it had been honestly faked,” Ms. Huxtable wrote.

“See the hotel Pierre’s urn-topped, carved balustrades,” she said elsewhere in the article, “and the ‘balustrade’ of holes in the stone with metal rods that are supposed to recall it.”

This building came up in her writing a few times, including in an article called “A Building That Looks Like a Loser.” Even the designation report for the area’s historic district, a document that can generally be counted upon for its vanilla civility, calls the stubby limestone facade “peculiar.”

Nonetheless, the rents in the building are enormous.

The average price for a one-bedroom at 800 Fifth Avenue for new leases last year was $6,784, said Mr. Miller of Miller Samuel, and the average two-bedroom was just over $15,000.

“There is a whole different set of expectations for a rental,” Ms. Steinberg, of Brown Harris Stevens, said. Renters, she explained, are interested in the views and location; they do not care if the construction quality is relatively poor.

Ms. Huxtable was unimpressed by the insincere tributes 800 and 1001 Fifth Avenue paid to their prewar neighbors, not just because of their aesthetics, but also because they served as an excuse to cram large buildings into cherished streets where they would be out of scale. But perhaps most of all, her bone to pick was with the officials who, desperate for revenue, let the developers get away with it.

“When you read between the lines, she’s actually criticizing city government,” Mr. Otero-Pailos, the Columbia professor, said. “For her, it was a series of really bad compromises,” he said about 800 Fifth Avenue. “And the building attests to that.”

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