Tensions between public and private uses reverberate throughout this elegant through block arcade connecting West 56th and 57th Streets between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. While some buildings disown their public space by segregating it, geographically and administratively, from the private entrances and activities, this private hotel by design and management has so masterfully integrated the though block arcade into its own functional orbit that it is difficult to tell where private ends and public begins. Like a tuning fork, the basic layout includes two legs from West 56th Street converging mid-block at a three-story atrium, and a single corridor stretching north from the atrium to West 57th Street. The blurring of private and public is especially pronounced in the western leg, entered from West 56th Street past a strip of plaza. Here, the through block arcade literally doubles as the hotel lobby, complete with check-in desk and support services. It would be impossible for any member of the public to discern that this is part of the public space without being told, as here, that it is. At least the doorway to the eastern leg off West 56th Street is identified on its glass window as an entrance to public space.
Inside here is a richly trimmed two-story corridor featuring polished patterned marble floor and walls of pastel pink and beige columns, arches, and mirrors. Seating that appears, disappears, and reappears in this corridor has led to a series of legal disputes between the City and building owner. The 1979 special permit requiring the through block arcade also mandated 54 movable chairs and 18 movable tables, allocated to this corridor and the mid-block atrium by plans approved as part of the special permit action. In 1991, following reported thefts from hotel guests that the owner attributed to perpetrators using the chairs, the owner applied to the City Planning Commission to reduce the amount and change the configuration of required seating. Although the application was never completed, the owner nonetheless removed the chairs.
Visitors to the space who enjoyed the chairs, including dancers from the Joffrey Ballet who rehearsed nearby, were unhappy. On October 13, 1992, the City’s Department of Buildings issued a notice of violation for failure to maintain the movable chairs in this part of the through block arcade. An administrative law judge dismissed the notice on January 21, 1993, finding that the chairs were “not a point of emphasis” in the original 1979 special permit and that the chairs did not serve what he understood as the essential purpose of substantially improved pedestrian circulation. On appeal, the City’s Environmental Control Board reversed, concluding that the chairs did indeed provide “an important amenity” and that there was no proof that seating was an insignificant part of the conditions set forth in the special permit. The owner was fined $475 for its violation of the Zoning Resolution. The owner next brought its own action in a New York state trial court, claiming that the decision of the Environmental Control Board was arbitrary and capricious and requesting that the decision be annulled. On October 7, 1994, the state court judge dismissed the owner’s petition and upheld the Board’s determination.
The legal saga did not end there, however. Shortly after the judge’s decision, the Buildings Department filed another notice of violation for failure to provide required chairs and tables. This time, an administrative law judge on April 11, 1995 concluded that the apparently reduced number of movable chairs, benches, and a desk present at the time of the latest Building’s Department inspection were in substantial compliance with the original 1979 special permit.
The owner has recently stated that the chairs have been replaced with eight benches accommodating two-to-three people each, and twelve additional chairs, five tables, and a desk. Recent site visits have confirmed this arrangement, showing blond wood benches in the eastern corridor and additional large chairs and tables in the atrium. That adds up to at most 36 places to sit and five tables, short of the originally mandated 54 chairs and 18 tables. Additional discussions between the City and owner will be forthcoming.
In the middle of the arcade is the multistory skylit rectangular atrium surrounded by an upper-level loggia. The atrium appears to serve principally as a gathering space for hotel and restaurant guests and a crossing lane from the lobby to the private restrooms. The northern portion of through block arcade continues the postmodern design motif with decorative ceiling. Without seats and retail frontage, however, the corridor is quiet, serving strictly as a passageway to and from West 57th Street. Passersby on West 57th Street would have a hard time knowing that this is a public space. The multistory façade is a compressed mixture of columns, pilasters, and pediment presented in pastel shades of pink and beige that simply looks like a private entrance. Le Parker Meridien Hotel’s through block arcade is one of three choices, although not the most convenient one, for completing the six-block run of mid-block spaces from West 51st Street. For a further discussion of this profusion of choice, see the profile of the through block connection at Metropolitan Tower.