Preservationists Clear Huge Hurdle as Bergdorf Goodman Slated for Designation Hearing

The Bergdorf-Goodman building at 754 Fifth Avenue at 58th Street. | MICHAEL SHIREY
The Bergdorf Goodman building at 754 Fifth Avenue at 58th Street. | MICHAEL SHIREY

BY JACKSON CHEN | In clearing its decades-old backlog, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) has earmarked the building housing the renowned luxury department store Bergdorf Goodman for a much-anticipated designation hearing for landmark status.

The building, which still retains its exterior bone-white hue, first stepped onto Fifth Avenue at 58th Street in 1928 and replaced a 45-year-old mansion that was home to a widow of the Vanderbilt family. With years serving as a high-end department store that tourists and locals flocked to, there were several efforts to landmark the Bergdorf Goodman building dating back to 1970. However, with action repeatedly put off, the building fell into designation limbo and earned a place on the LPC’s sagging shelf of unaddressed items.

After tackling its reserve of 95 unresolved properties, the commission’s February 23 decision to give the Bergdorf building, located at 754 Fifth Avenue, a designation hearing sent a strong message to preservationists.

For Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, the commission voting to schedule a hearing was a victory for preservationists interested in retaining the history of Midtown’s most exclusive shopping district.

“Fifth Avenue is world-renowned as one of the premiere shopping streets on the planet,” Bankoff said. “The Bergdorf Goodman building is very much one of the character-defining buildings of the department stores of Fifth Avenue.”

Bankoff said he believes the LPC is favorably inclined toward making a landmark designation, which he expects to follow the hearing. Despite several opportunities to simply reject the Bergdorf’s landmarking in the past, Bankoff said, the commission kicked the can down the road and is now granting a hearing nearly 46 years after the question first surfaced.

In addressing the many historic properties on its backlog, the LPC chose not to offer a designation hearing for some others because doing so may have been “politically infeasible,” Bankoff said. Yet, the Bergdorf Goodman building, sitting near some of the most expensive properties in the nation, was assigned a designation hearing.

In remarks to Manhattan Express last fall, Bankoff noted that the Crown Building across the street from Bergdorf Goodman sold for roughly $1.75 billion in December 2014, and he expressed concern about the pressures on the LPC in considering landmark status for the exclusive retailer’s building. He greeted the commission’s action this week with considerable optimism.

“For them to say we are prioritizing Bergdorf Goodman for designation, I don’t require precognition that they’re feeling strongly about wanting to make this into a landmark,” Bankoff said.

However, the landmarking of the property is certainly not without opposition. During its special hearing in November, the owners of the building –– 754 Fifth Avenue Associates, L.P., identified in New York State records as a foreign limited partnership –– as well as Linda Fargo, a senior vice president at Bergdorf Goodman, and a descendant of the Goodman family all spoke in opposition to a landmark designation.

After receiving public testimony from dozens of people, the LPC made a decision that surprised some preservationists and left them hopeful about an eventual landmark designation.

Thomas Collins, a preservation advocate, said he was relieved that the LPC decided to give the property a designation hearing, which is a public discussion among commission members without any further public input.

“I didn’t think that they would move forward when there was such owner opposition to this property,” Collins said.

For Collins, it wasn’t just a matter of historic preservation. With the trend of super tall towers beginning to litter 57th Street — which has now become known as the city’s Billionaire’s Row — Collins said he was afraid the Bergdorf Goodman building would be demolished for a new development with considerably less character.

“If we lose this building, it’ll be a banal glass building,” Collins said of any likely replacement. “It won’t relate well, and it’ll just destroy the historic feeling.”

Now that the LPC has decided on a designation hearing, Collins and other preservationists expect the commission to follow through by approving the landmarking of the Bergdorf Goodman building.

The commission announced that the first of the designation hearings for Backlog Initiative items would be April 12, but the specific properties scheduled for that date were not confirmed. With special hearings with public comment already completed on all the items approved for designation hearings, no further public participation is required –– or allowed –– on any of them.

Should the Bergdorf Goodman building be recommended for landmarking designation by the LPC, the matter would then move to the city’s Planning Commission before ultimately landing at the City Council.