A Pre-War Apartment Building Goes Green
by mike olson
Prewar apartments usually come with prewar problems. From cramped kitchens and antiquated bathrooms to drafty windows that send energy bills through the roof, living in a classic building is too often an exercise in frustration. But that couldn’t be further from the case at 1212 Fifth Avenue. Located at the corner of 102nd Street, this Romanesque building has been painstakingly rebuilt to create the ultimate blend of modern convenience and classic charm—and buyers have taken notice.
“We did a total gut renovation,” says Damon Pazzaglini, chief operating officer of Durst Fetner Residential, the developer that bought this 15-story building from Mount Sinai Medical Center with the goal of recapturing—if not surpassing—the glory days. “The whole theory of the building was [the] best of both worlds. We wanted to retain the character of a prewar building, but also give people homes that have all the conveniences of a modern one.”
That undertaking called for equal parts effort and imagination. For starters, Durst took 1212 Fifth’s original 1926 blueprint, which called for five apartments per floor, and pared that down to four, with almost all of the three-bedroom units (and many of the two bedrooms) facing west to Central Park. Then, to further open up the floor plans, they added extra windows to the living rooms. “In a typical prewar building there was less emphasis on views,” Pazzaglini explains. “For the Central Park–facing living rooms, we actually took out the brick separating the two windows and joined them with a big picture window in the middle.”
Likewise, those dreaded spaces that are usually the bane of any prewar buyer—the kitchens and the bathrooms—received much-needed updates. In the kitchens, Italian cabinetry, stainless-steel appliances, and solid-surface countertops were added. In the bathroom, antiquated tubs were replaced, and the developers added walk-in showers with solid-marble finishes—though, in a nod to the past, they maintain a black and white aesthetic that harkens back to traditional designs.
With careful appreciation of the history of the building, Durst’s team chose to restore the buildings façade by repointing every brick and replaster (not drywall) the ceilings in each home. The lobby was meticulously restored in “a labor of love,” says Pazzaglini. “The lobby ceiling had been layered with paint, so we basically scraped it down, repaired it, and brought back the character of that prewar craftsmanship.”
Buyers at 1212 Fifth Avenue don’t just get a classic prewar with modern trappings. The building also achieved the US Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold certification—the third time Durst has accomplished this feat with a residential building, but the first time a classic prewar building in New York has earned this distinction. “It’s part of our corporate ethos to build green,” Pazzaglini explains. “We believe that a building should be built with sustainability in mind.”
Russell Unger, executive director of the Urban Green Council, the New York chapter of the US Green Building Council, agrees: “It’s great to see a prominent green developer like Durst take a masonry building and make it a signature building. If you look at the city’s benchmarking data, that stock of buildings from the 1920s is some of the best performing we have in the city.”
By using such a high percentage of the existing structure, the new development should go a long way toward preventing the solar heat gain and loss so common in new construction with floor-to-ceiling windows. “I think that’s one of the critical features of this project,” adds Tiffany Broyles Yost, director of programs at the Urban Green Council. “There’s already so much embodied energy in existing buildings that it’s important to work with the fabric we have now.”
Still, Durst went above and beyond to ensure they would take home the gold, updating the heating, air conditioning, plumbing, and electrical systems; replacing the roof; upgrading the insulation; and modernizing the elevators. Likewise, each of the 55 units sports new casement windows, plus cabinets finished in paint and stains low in harmful VOCs that get released in off-gassing. By taking these cutting-edge innovations and implementing them on such a large scale, Durst has set a new standard. “It’s fantastic to see a prewar building of this caliber take these steps because it shows it can be done,” says Broyles Yost. “Hopefully, this will be a great example for other developers.”
With buyers already opting in to 1212 Fifth Avenue, it’s clearly discernible that New Yorkers have been won over. “Our typical buyers tend to be very sophisticated,” says Pazzaglini. “They understand they’re doing the right thing by purchasing in a green building and at the same time living in a healthier environment.” Of course, maybe they’re just tempted by stunning modern layouts and common spaces, top-flight amenities, and the chance to have Central Park as a front lawn. No one needs to know.