When it emerged a little over a week ago that Rizzoli’s iconic 57th Street store was to be demolished to make way for luxury towers, the inevitable nostalgia was almost immediately tempered by calls for the preservation of the historic structure. Constructed in 1920, the former Sohmer Piano Company building at 31 West 57th Street — whose gracious windowed arch has fronted Rizzoli’s flagship for 29 years — is not merely the (self-professed) “most beautiful bookstore in New York.” Though 57th Street is no longer the beacon of high-cultural commerce it once was — Steinway & Sons finalized the sale of their storied showroom there in June — Jon Michaud, a Rizzoli employee in the early 1990s, writes in The New Yorker that it’s the most notable bookseller left in an area of Manhattan that was once a vital foothold for literary retail:
Once the preserve of the big bookstore, the grid between Bryant Park and Central Park is now left with only Posman, the wonderful, pocket-sized bookseller in Grand Central Terminal; a single Barnes & Noble near Rockefeller Center; and Kinokuniya, whose stock is mostly in Japanese.
Many feel Michaud’s melancholy — nearly 5,000, the number of signatories to a petition taking up the building’s cause that launched on January 19. The document, which aims to grant “interior and exterior” landmark status to the building, targets the refusal on January 18 of the city’s landmarks commission to grant the structure such protections. According to the International Business Times, the office of Robert B. Tierney, chairman of the commission, argued that 31 West 57th “lacks the architectural significance necessary to meet the criteria for designation as an individual landmark.” This determination came in the face of a Community Board resolution unanimously urging that the building be landmarked.
It’s unclear whether the petition has any standing to reverse the Landmarks Conservancy decision, though the document quotes Peg Breen, President of The New York Landmarks Conservancy, suggesting that public outcry could be a factor in revisiting the earlier determination. A statement from Rizzoli, which first opened on Fifth Avenue in 1964, reminds patrons that “The Rizzoli Bookstore is, and will remain, open for business at its current location for the time being, though the company is actively seeking new space.” (The Times coverage of Rizzoli’s 1985 opening party for the 57th Street location, which was attended by the artists Robert Haas and Stephen Edlich, is an amusing read.)
A demolition date has not yet been set; the property is being developed jointly by the LeFrak family and Vornado Realty Trust. Rizzoli is owned by RCS Media Group, a publicly-held Italian company with a market capitalization exceeding $1 billion, though the stock appears to be trading at all-time lows.