Just Off Fifth: 16 E. 41st Street
While the focus of this blog is the architecture of Fifth Avenue, we’ll also be visiting notable sites on the adjacent blocks. We’d planned an entry on 16 E. 41st Street for a future date, located as it is in Midtown, but have decided in light of recent events to launch this series with this article.
The American Encaustic Tile Building at 16 E. 41st Street (the small building at the left-hand side of this view) is a major masterpiece of encaustic tile in New York City, cited by the Historic Districts Council as “one of the most important buildings in the history of American ceramics.” Designed in 1922 by Rich & Mathesius with the oversight and input of architect and writer Leon Victor Solon, the project was a façade replacement for a previously existing townhouse. Intended to showcase the talents of the company’s artisans and designers, the resulting building was a unique arabesque of brilliantly colored tiles that drew upon interpretations of Greek and Byzantine architecture.
Attempts by preservationists to prevent an unsympathetic conversion of the ground floor into a pizza restaurant failed in 1993 and the first story of the façade was partially destroyed; a later owner carried out a program of partial restoration in 1996-97 and the remaining original façade was cleaned, bringing it back to an eye-catching mélange of lustrous blues, greens and golds that historian Christopher Gray called “a virtuoso rendition of the tilemaker’s art.”
In late March/early April of this year scaffolding was erected: many assumed the building was being cleaned. Instead the tiles have been removed and all of the decorative elements have been pried off save for a stylized chimera’s head, which remains above the front door.
According to the permit, there is no planned change in egress, use or occupancy; the buildings to either side are owned by different entities (12 East 41st is the property of Berkeley College and is being cleaned; 18-20 East 41st has been recently restored).
A request for information on the project made to Vanguard Investors, who are listed as the building’s managers, has gone unreturned as of this writing. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that this is a restoration attempt, but it seems unlikely. Assuming restoration is not on the agenda, why the owner should choose to destroy a structure of this significance is a mystery; but the real puzzle is why the attempt to preserve the building failed 20 years ago.
We’ll be updating this story: any information on the building’s status or plans for the site can be emailed to moc.c1539863776yn-sr1539863776d.gni1539863776dnarb1539863776kramd1539863776nal@o1539863776fni1539863776.