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It began with real estate, as stories so often do in New York. An incongruously ornate property with a medieval-inspired façade at 281 Park Avenue South, a landmark on the National Register of Historic Places in Gramercy Park….

I’m reinventing the opening lines of Jessica Pressler’s New York narrative feature on Anna “Delvey” Sorokin, a 27-year-old woman who tried to purchase the building but was instead convicted of grand larceny, because like her titular subject, I too have a special bond with 281 Park Avenue South — the real star of the hit Netflix show Inventing Anna.

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 in front of which I took my wedding photos.

So what is the story behind this architectural gem — and what can industry learn from it?

Gramercy derives its name from the Dutch word “Krom Moerasje,” which means “little crooked swamp,” which is what the area was until developer Samuel B. Ruggles bought the 2-acre park here in the 1830s, drained it, and plotted out what John B. Pine called “one of the earliest attempts in this country at ‘City Planning.’”

Another form of city planning began here at the end of that century when charities began moving in to set New York’s social policy. Three blocks of 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, set up headquarters there.

Although its rich design may suggest otherwise, 281 Park Avenue South was part of Charity Row. When the Episcopal Church wanted to establish a headquarters for its various committees, it selected the plot at East 22nd Street and Park Avenue South. However, just like some of the contemporary and notorious figures who came up short on funding, the Church likewise needed to raise funding for the property. It took the likes of benefactors J. Pierpont Morgan and Cornelius Vanderbilt to foot the bill.

Thirty years after the idea had sparked, the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society moved into the new headquarters in 1894. The spacious property was referred to as the Church Missions House.

In 1963, the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies (FPWA) bought the property. For decades, the building remained in the hands of a charity.

When the FPWA moved out, though, the building was scooped up by RFR Holding, in a joint venture with Real Estate Capital Partners, in 2015. In 2019, its lessee, Fotografiska New York, opened its door to a new type of mission: the Swedish photography museum serves as “an immersive environment where art, culture, and food are all in one container.”

Noting that the initial construction of the building cost $500,000 and that asking price in 2014 was $50 million, The Wall Street Journal’s Douglas Feiden writes: “The building's history tells the story of New York's rising real estate prices.”

Perhaps another way to look at the change in property owners, though, is that it is a reflection of New York City’s shifting economic power players, changing values, and more innovative approach to service. As Feiden uncovered through interviews in an earlier article for The Wall Street Journal, instead of stationing themselves in a central hub in which those in need have to come to them, social workers now work in the field; video conferencing makes the need for a fine establishment in which to solicit funds obsolete; and charities are less interested in the business of preserving buildings and more interested in the business of preserving lives.

One by one, the charities began moving out, albeit some to larger properties, and RFR, the Toll Brothers, and the Omnia Group began moving in. FPWA was the last significant charity to leave Charity Row.  

281 Park Avenue South stands out even though it’s situated in a neighborhood renowned for its architecture. As is typical on the small island of Manhattan, the 36,749-square-foot building is flanked by skyscrapers. It also exists at the entrance to a subway station. The Flemish-style building nevertheless commands attention.

In fact, that is how it became the home of Fotografiska New York: Jan Broman, who cofounded the museum with his brother Per, was in a cab with his wife, who pointed out the building as they drove down Park Avenue. Its impressive design grabbed their attention.  

The old Church Missions House has an ecclesiastic aesthetic. The double-door entryway is nestled within an archway. Above it, is a triangular tympanum featuring a bas relief of individuals with illness being blessed.

The tourelles at each corner of the six-story building guide eyes upwards toward the gable. Along the way, on the second floor are large rounded arched windows. The two stories above that feature rectangular windows before the floor above that returns to the rounded windows, albeit narrower this time. (See photos and sketches here.)

Protected by its landmark status, the Church Missions House has undergone renovations to preserve its integrity over the years. Its exterior has remained the same, but its interior has been reinvented. It’s an example, for industry, of how to bridge the gap between preserving the past and innovating for the future. For the futurist, the story of the building illustrates how to guide clients on a journey toward advancement of thought and design.  

Delvey envisioned 281 Park Avenue South as an exclusive multi-purpose arts club that would include a restaurant. That’s not a far cry from how Geoffrey Newman, a general partner and owner of Fotografiska New York, referred to it: “a space for social and cultural interactions.”

In a press release, Fotografiska New York detailed plans for its interior design and restaurant and said: “Technology consultancy Linq will be developing a tech-enhanced, multi-sensory journey for visitors to experience throughout the space.”

Today, it hosts art exhibits, music festivals, sound bath meditation, poetry events, and more. Its website encourages people to come to the photography museum to: “Have fun. Stay late. 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 getting swept up in your imagination.   

Image Credit: ajay_suresh/Wikimedia.org

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