The Age of Adaptive Reuse

Today’s blog contributor, Lynda Decker, is the president and creative director of Decker Design and a master’s candidate in design criticism at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

Qudoba, Starbucks, Weight Watchers, Lenny’s, Home Depot. West 23rd Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, in New York City bustles with mega-brand energy. Walk along the street and you will notice that many of the buildings have been here since the nineteenth century— the smaller ones former brownstone residences and the larger ones hotels or department stores. I am very familiar with this part of Manhattan because my graphic design firm, Decker Design, is located at 14 West 23rd Street, the birthplace and childhood home of Edith Wharton.

14 West 23rd Street circa 1880
14 West 23rd Street circa 1880

Wharton is remembered an astute observer of the social conventions of her time, and she could be a scathing critic artifice and pretense. Every day I see the plaque on our building’s façade placed by the New York City Landmarks Commission and wonder how she would view our contemporary culture. As I walk up the stairs to my office, I often hear the women in the Weight Watchers office, located one floor below me, cheer during their lunchtime meetings. How would Edith frame our post-millennial urge to share private information? Would she tweet her point of view? Would she dash off a scathing critique on the op-ed pages of the New York Times? Or would she simply turn it all into a novel or screenplay?

Were she to walk down 23rd Street today, Edith Wharton would not recognize her former home; a photo taken in 1870 shows 14 West 23rd Street as a three-story brownstone. The building is now five stories, and there is a large glass paned ground floor retail space, occupied by Starbucks. Decades after Wharton’s departure, the neighborhood transitioned from a residential community to a commercial area, and the Jones’ sold the 14 West 23rd in 1892 to James McCutcheon, a linen merchant who implemented extensive renovations.

14 West 23rd Street today
(Image courtesy of Daytonian in Manhattan)

My firm is located on the third floor, and we have adapted the space in a way that Wharton surely would have appreciated. Glorious natural light is maximized by translucent office walls, and the overall effect is modern, clean, open and airy. We designed a space based on our needs, allowing for spontaneous collaboration between designers and spaces for solitary contemplation.

Even with its more modern visual vocabulary, life in a landmark building still has its quirks. Our nine-foot windows, which needed approval from the New York City Landmarks Commission, are drafty; the wooden floor tilts downward to the west (We’ve estimated that there is about a 30-degree difference between the east side of the office and the west.). The exposed brick, likely covered with plaster when Edith’s family lived here, adds texture and character to the space.

This building is my second home, and it pains me that our lease is up in three months. I will be negotiating with our landlord next week. I can only hope that Wharton – who spent a lifetime chafing against a society that denied women education and opportunity – will smile down on a certain female business owner and bring a bit of luck to my deliberations.

Now you’ll have to excuse me, my chair is rolling westward.

Decker Design today
Decker Design today
Decker Design today
Decker Design today