The truth behind the building Anna Delvey coveted [A Byte Out of the Big Apple]
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It started with real estate, as stories so often do in New York. An incongruously ornate property with a medieval-inspired facade at 281 Park Avenue South, a National Register of Historic Places landmark in Gramercy Park….
I’m reinventing Jessica Pressler’s opening lines new York narrative feature about Anna “Delvey” Sorokin, a 27-year-old woman who tried to buy the building but was instead convicted of grand larceny because, like her cover story, I have a special bond with 281 Park Avenue South—the real star of the blow Netflix show invent Anna.
When I was watching the Shonda Rhimes series, I didn’t know the property by its address, but when it flashed across the screen I recognized it as the building I’d taken my wedding photos in front of.
So what is behind this architectural gem – and what can the industry learn from it?
A walk down Charity Row
Gramercy derives its name from the Dutch word “Krom Moerasje‘, meaning ‘little crooked swamp,’ which is what the area was until developer Samuel B. Ruggles bought the 5-acre park here in the 1830s, drained it, and planned what John B. Pine called “one of the earliest attempts at ‘town planning’ in this country.”
Another form of urban planning began here in the late 20th century, when charities settled there to guide New York’s social policies. Three blocks from Gramercy became known as Charity Row when the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the Xavier Society for the Blind, and the Russell Sage Foundation, among others, established their headquarters there.
Although its rich design might suggest otherwise, 281 Park Avenue South was part of Charity Row. When the Episcopal Church wanted to build headquarters for its various committees, it chose the East 22 propertynd Street and Park Avenue South. However, like some of the contemporary and notorious figures who ran out of funding, the church also needed to raise money financing for the property. It needed benefactors J Pierpont Morgan and Cornelius Vanderbilt to pay the bill.
Thirty years after the idea ignited, the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society moved to new headquarters in 1894. The sprawling property was referred to as the Church Missions House.
In 1963 the Federation of Evangelical Welfare Organizations (FPWA) bought the property. For decades the building remained in the hands of a charity.
However, when the FPWA moved out, the building was bought by RFR Holdingin a joint venture with Real Estate Capital Partners, in 2015. In 2019, the lessee, Fotografiska New York, opened its doors to a new kind of mission: the Swedish Museum of Photography serves as “An immersive environment where art, culture and food are all in one container.”
Considering that the building originally cost $500,000 to construct and that the asking price in 2014 was $50 million, the Wall Street Journalis Douglas Feiden writes: “The story of the building tells the story of rising real estate prices in New York.”
Perhaps another way of looking at the shift in property ownership is to reflect New York City‘s changing economic powerhouses, changing values, and more innovative approach to service. As Feiden revealed through interviews in one previous article for the Wall Street Journal, Instead of stationing themselves at a central point where those in need have to come to them, social workers now work in the field; Videoconferencing eliminates the need for a fine facility where funds are solicited; and charities care less about preserving buildings and more about preserving lives.
One by one, the charities began moving out, albeit some to larger properties, and RFR, the Great brothersand the Omnia group started moving in. FPWA was the last significant charity to leave Charity Row.
Why everyone wants a piece of 281 Park Avenue South
281 Park Avenue South stands out despite being in a neighborhood known for its architecture. As is typical of the small island of Manhattan, the 36,749-square-foot building is flanked by skyscrapers. It also exists at the entrance of a subway station. The Flemish-style building nevertheless attracts attention.
In fact, this is how it became the home of Fotografiska New York: Jan Broman, who founded the museum with his brother Per, was in a taxi with his wife, who pointed out the building how they drove down Park Avenue. Its impressive design caught their attention.
The old Church Missions House has an ecclesiastical aesthetic. The two-door entrance is embedded in an archway. Above it is a triangular tympanum with a bas-relief of the sick being blessed.
The tourelles at each corner of the six-story building lead the eye upwards to the pediment. Along the way, on the second floor, are large arched windows. The two floors above feature rectangular windows before the floor above returns to rounded windows, albeit narrower this time. (See photos and sketches here.)
Old meets new
Protected by its landmark status, the Church Missions House has been renovated over the years to maintain its integrity. Its exterior has remained the same, but its interior has been reinvented. It is an example for the industry how to bridge the gap between preserving the past and innovating for the future. For the futurist, the history of the building illustrates how to take customers on a journey of evolving thought and design.
Delvey presented 281 Park Avenue South as an exclusive multi-purpose arts club and restaurant. That’s not far off, as Geoffrey Newman, general partner and owner of Fotografiska New York, referred to: “a space for social and cultural interactions.”
In a press release, Fotografiska New York detailed plans for its interior design and restaurant, saying, “Technology consulting firm Linq will develop a tech-enhanced, multi-sensory journey for visitors to experience throughout the space.”
Today it hosts art exhibitions, music festivals, sound bath meditations, poetry events and more. It is website encourages people to come to the photography museum to: “Have fun. stay long get deep Spill your drink.”
281 Park Avenue South is a surreal dance between the old and the new, between the medieval and the technologically advanced, between reality and imagination.
Image source: ajay_suresh/Wikimedia.org