Building uses—and names—change as time marches on. Take the iconic New York Telephone Building, later known as The Verizon Building as ownership changed. The structure was a visual landmark in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood, even if it wasn’t a historic one.
When prominent architect Ralph Walker constructed the tower in 1929 as an office building and telecommunications switching station, the 328-foot-high masonry high-rise with concrete-encased steel frame extended a full block and reflected the importance of its era’s telephone technology. Art Deco detailing, with chevron-patterned brick work and a “wedding cake” setback, made the building aesthetically noteworthy and an impressive follow-up to Walker’s Barclay-Vesey Building, considered the city’s first Art Deco skyscraper.
“I had to be dragged kicking and screaming to see it, back in 2009, when a broker called,” Stern says. “But I went up to the roof and was astonished by the unobstructed views. It was the tallest building in Chelsea, since it had been built before zoning limited heights.”
Soon after his visit, Stern bought an interest in the building through a sale lease-back and renamed the structure Walker Tower, to honor its architect. Verizon kept the ground floor and seven floors above and had its own entrance on 17th Street. Stern took the remaining 12 floors of the 20-floor structure, which opened from 18th Street, and added four residential floors and a rooftop garden. His plan was to convert the high-rise into one of the city’s finest luxury condo residences.
Though Chelsea may now be a hip residential and commercial neighborhood, back in the 1920s it hadn’t yet earned that status. Stern knew that a luxury adaptation would have to result in a spectacular destination “view” building to pull owners away from the more popular Upper East and West Side locations.
But Stern had two assets many other developers lacked.
First, the building had remained in good condition, possessing “great bones,” he says. The ground floor still had its beautiful metalwork, and on the outside Verizon hadn’t made significant changes, says architect Nancy Ruddy, partner with her husband, architect John Cetra, at Cetra Ruddy Architecture. Stern hired the New York firm for architectural and interior design work on the project.
Second, reworking the tower and making notable changes, such as reskinning the exterior brick, relocating mechanical equipment and structural beams, and moving stairways and elevator banks, would require skilled tradespeople. Stern had access to such workers through his firm’s construction arm, and he also brought on board MG Engineering D.P.C. in New York.
“We did a lot of state-of-the-art work that wasn’t available originally, such as radiant heated floors,” says engineer Peter Gerazounis, LEED AP and an MG principal.
To make the residential transformation, the developer and team members decided to carve out 55 units that would be grand and spacious. Some buyers wanted to combine units, so a total of 47 were constructed, with sizes ranging from 2,000 to 7,000 square feet.
An emphasis was placed on pre-war luxury, with large foyers, separate bedroom wings, and generous eat-in kitchens, says Ruddy. But to make the features appeal to today’s residential buyers, who crave views, light, and outdoor space, the architects gave half of them terraces (made possible because of the building’s setbacks) and enlarged the windows to 10 feet high and 5 feet wide by lowering high sills. Ceilings, too, are tall—measuring 12 to 14 feet.
Other major changes included new terrazzo lobby floors that echo the Art Deco style, and amenities such as a gym designed by New York City fitness guru Jay Wright, who also designed the gym at Robert A.M. Stern’s equally prestigious 15 Central Park West building. But Michael Stern (no relation) didn’t want any amenities that would seem “gimmicky,” he says.
“There’s no helicopter landing pad.”
There is, however, a library in the lobby, a children’s play room, cold food storage, and a landscaped rooftop, the latter designed by HM White in New York.
The conversion, albeit large, stayed on budget and came in on schedule, a longer than usual three years because of all the changes and detailed workmanship. “We tried 18 floor samples and ended up with a custom stain with a slightly ceruse and tawny beige color to match the champagne color of the windows,” Ruddy says. The main lobby and common areas, the last pieces in the project, were completed this past spring, and all units have sold. The top price: $51 million.
Along the way, lessons were mastered, as they always are. For Stern, the journey represented the “most complex residential conversion I’ve undertaken, and ever may,” he says. Architect Cetra says he and Ruddy learned they could “design beautiful apartments in an older building” while respecting its lineage but also do things they might have been unable to had the structure been designated a historic landmark.
In the end, the project became the destination view building Stern had envisioned.
“You don’t need to give its address,” says Vickey Barron, associate real estate broker with Douglas Elliman Real Estate in New York, who purchased a unit there herself. “You just say ‘Walker Tower,’ like ‘the Plaza,’ and people know what you’re referring to.”