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Love the Building's Exterior? It May Affect Your Interior

Many New York apartment hunters find it easy to fall in love with cooperatives and condominiums in buildings that have lavish turn-of-the-century exteriors. What these would-purchasers find less endearing than the intricate stone carvings and terracotta cornices are the possible complications and tremendous cost of maintaining these extreme façades.

Often, the more architecturally ornate a building, the higher the hurdles tenants face when making even interior renovations, and the more costly the assessments can be, a senior vice president at Prudential Douglas Elliman, Corinne Pulitzer, said.

Ms. Pulitzer, herself a longtime tenant in one pre-war Park Avenue cooperative, said she and other shareholders recently absorbed the $1 million cost of repairing the building's façade and elaborate cornices. "It's a privilege to buy in a building with such a history, but it's also an obligation to maintain,"she said.

Some New Yorkers drawn to apartment buildings with extensive façades have a keen appreciation of Old World architectural elements and the upkeep they require, she said.

Others don't understand how restrictive these buildings can be when it comes to making renovations, even common ones like installing through-thewall air-conditioning units or new windows, another broker, Andrew Phillips, said. "Mostly, they're not thinking about it when they're buying an apartment," Mr. Phillips, a senior vice president of Halstead Property, said.

A highly decorative exterior is generally a "selling point" for a buyer looking to make a pre-war apartment purchase, an executive vice president at Elliman, Tamir Shemesh, said. "It's obviously pretty rare, because there's a limited amount of ornate façades"he said."You need to realize that if the façade needs reappointing, it's going to cost a lot more than it would in a regular building."

If the Alwyn Court, for example, were to undergo a large-scale façade restoration, as it did in the early 1980s, it would be a mega-million project.The exterior details of that West 58th Street French Renaissance-style building appears more suited for a Loire Valley castle than a Midtown apartment building. Its intricate terracotta ornaments, covering the entire façade, make the 1909 structure eye-catching amid some more modest neighbors.

Situated off Seventh Avenue, the Alwyn Court is among Manhattan's most ornate façades. Other examples include the Ansonia, the Pythian, and the Lucerne, all on the Upper West Side; the New York Yacht Club in Midtown; the Bayard-Condict Building in NoHo, and the former Loews Theatre in Washington Heights, architectural scholars said.

Such decorative exteriors — evidence of the nation's burgeoning wealth and prosperity — finally fell out of favor following World War II, and the style was never fully revived, despite a short-lived effort to reintroduce them during the 1980s, the scholars say.

"The style endures, but not among the elite architectural practitioners," the director of technical services at the New York Landmarks Conservancy, Alexander Herrera, said. He added that the city is peppered with "failed efforts" of contemporary designers who have attempted to revive elaborate building ornaments.

"The hardest thing to get right is the proportions, and the proportional system used by traditional architects, which is very complicated and something practically nobody understands anymore," Mr. Herrera said.

Today's top architects are more interested in experimenting with new forms and materials than in reviving more classical styles, Mr. Herrera said, citing Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid. "I think they want to use their imaginations, and come up with something new, like every other generation," he said.

Mr. Herrera said city façades became progressively grander during the 19th century, through the early 20th century. He said the Art Deco movement of the 1920s and 1930s proved to be ornamental architecture's "last gasp" before a more austere form of modernism took hold.

A fellow at New York's Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America, Francis Morrone, a columnist for The New York Sun, said he rejects the notion that the cost is too high or the craftsmanship too intricate to create cost-effective buildings with façades as detailed as their counterparts from a century ago. "There's no reason why we can't do that today," he said.

According to Mr. Morrone, the Institute of Classical Architecture is one of two American schools of architecture — the other is at the University of Notre Dame — where the curricula are based on classical technique.

An architect and a real estate developer for JSS Advisors in New York, Eugene Sisco, said he knows of few contemporary developers willing to build in elaborate Old World style. "People want light, and they want air," he said, referring to the boom in glass residential construction. "They don't want punched openings, the type of windows you see when you go down Park Avenue. Modernism, not Postmodernism, remains the dominant theme in architecture today."



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