Tug of war over New York skyscraper

Lever House. The imposing green-and-blue crystalline 24-story building was heralded as the beginning of a new wave of American skyscrapers when it was completed 31 years ago.

Now, however, Park Avenue, where Lever House sits serenely between 53rd and 54th Streets, is lined with other examples of the so-called International Style. And Lever House has become an official landmark in Manhattan along with the Carnegie Mansion and Morgan Library.

Last week, amid a storm of controversy focusing largely on whether Lever House was entitled to be classified with such illustrious company, city officials upheld an earlier Landmarks Preservation Commission decision declaring Lever House a landmark.

In one sense, the question of Lever House's survival is highly parochial, sparking heated debate only in New York City. But the issues here are representative of the continuing tug of war across the United States between architectural preservationists and developers. And despite some exceptions, such as the recent destruction of two famous old Times Square theaters, preservationists appear to be slowly gaining the upper hand.

''Lever House is a landmark in every sense,'' said Mayor Edward I. Koch's representative on New York City's Board of Estimate, which upheld the landmark status. ''It introduced many innovations into skyscraper design that were . . . emulated, not only in New York, but in cities throughout the world.''

Those who opposed landmark status for Lever House, including a number of prominent city officials, argued the structure doesn't measure up to the architectural standards of many subsequent skyscrapers. Their arguments, however , were often mingled with calculations on how much more tax revenue a taller skyscraper on the Lever House site would yield. Manhattan Borough President Andrew Stein estimated that a proposed new 40-story structure would mean an additional $9 million for city coffers.

Ironically, the matter of more taxes was also used as the cornerstone of arguments for tearing down some of the venerable apartment houses along Park Avenue in the 1950s. Only one such apartment house, rich in architectural detail , still stands on this stretch from 57th to 46th Street.

But some experts says the fact that Mayor Koch and other officials resisted the allure of increased revenue is a signal that artistic merit has intrinsic value, and shouldn't be considered a hindrance to the city's economic development.

Attorneys for Fisher Brothers, a construction firm that wanted the Lever House's landmark status overturned, say they will continue to press for development of either part or all of the land. A landmarks designation in New York may be circumvented if plaintiffs prove that serious economic hardship to the developer or the owner of the property may result if the landmark retains its designation.

Recently, ''the tide has turned toward preservation,'' says Beverly Reece of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Although reasons for this trend vary considerably, one of the biggest boons to preservation was included in the 1981 federal tax law. This law provides major tax incentives - as much as a 25 percent investment tax credit in some cases - for restoring and renovating older buildings.

Preservation activists also seem to be much more organized now. And there is a growing awareness that restoration projects often mean more jobs than new construction.

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