I already miss the old New York Times building on West 43rd Street. It may be four years before Renzo Piano’s architectural wonder, the new world headquarters for the Times, is built, but I’m already nostalgic for the place where I have worked for the past 28 years, and where I thought I’d work for just as many more. Most of my colleagues eagerly anticipate moving around the corner to 40th and 8th, but not me. I prefer the small Times lobby with its sweeping marble staircase, Deco-styled appointments, and curtained windows above the revolving door to Piano’s proposed commercial atrium–the so-called democratic space-that will doubtless be less intimate and remind me less of Loretta Young.
This old Times building is my second home. The prospect of a larger, more beautiful, more public building that will accommodate other tenants does not fill me with delight. I like things as they are: worn, venerable, and comfortable. To confirm these prejudices, I stopped by the new Conde Nast building across the street, which is clean, cold, and corporate. It may be fine for a mega-publishing conglomerate, but for not my hometown paper.
The Times is not a faceless enterprise, and our edifice is not a monument to corporate power. In the long-awaited 42nd Street Redevelopment tower-play, the existing Times building, which looks like a Loire Valley chateau, is, admittedly, an anachronism. But as Times Square becomes the electronic media park of the world–the site of Viacom, ABC, MarketSite, Conde Nast, and Reuters–and with the World Wrestling Federation themestaurant on our corner, the building is now an anchor securing tradition and continuity. Moving into Piano’s post-postmodern skyscraper seems almost as unthinkable as eliminating the Latin Condensed typeface from the Times’s front page. Latin, a 19th-century vestige, is the Times’s typographical signature; it has survived many shifts in graphic styles. Similarly, this building with its baroque ornamentation is a symbol of the Times’s continued excellence. Although The Daily News and the New York Post exchanged their historic old office buildings for bland new ones, neither paper has the Times’s legacy of eminence, and both probably benefited from the new scenery (now if only they’d change their editorial policies–but I digress). This old building is filled with so much pride one can feel it in the communal spaces–lobby, elevators, and cafeteria. Here the walls do talk; I can’t imagine what the new place will say.
I am not a cranky opponent of change. I have occupied three offices since joining the Times. The first was in the enormous incandescently lit art department, where waist-high mahogany partitions separated more than 20 long rows of narrow tables punctuated by rusty metal flat files. Void of such amenities as ergonomic chairs and tables, this space remained unchanged from the 1930s through the 1970s and was in desperate need of renewal. From there I happily moved into a renovated semiprivate office that had been carved out of a mammoth old photo studio. Finally, I shifted into a slightly larger modern warren with a sliver of window facing north, where I have remained–and where my belongings have multiplied–for almost 15 years. I was sanguine through the demolition of the hot-metal composing room, elimination of the Museum of the Printed Word, renovation of the now-defunct Sunday department, and construction of the grand duplex newsroom. I am certainly able to accept change without experiencing the existentia l nausea of longing.
But it is not change that makes me object to Piano’s building, it is the anticipated loss of community. No matter how beautiful Piano’s design, the old building, like the fabled TV bar Cheers, is a place where everyone knows your name (or at least your face). In the new quarters I predict there will be such a throng of transient faces that intimacy will be lost. I saw it at the Conde Nast headquarters and at office buildings throughout midtown Manhattan where people drift without a sense of place and the joy that comes from belonging. This is exactly what the old Times building gives me-belonging–whether I’m aware of it or not.
Exchanging our small hotel-like lobby for an exclusive and separate bank of elevators in a shared entryway (or even a separate reception/waiting room as in the Time Warner building) is not my only regret. Community is not shaped by one space alone. There are so many details in this building that collectively define the space. I will miss the staircases with tile brick walls designed so that maintenance staff could easily wipe off the ink soot that once wafted up from the press and composing rooms. I will miss the modest 12th-floor veranda, where on a warm day one can eat lunch or soak up the smog-filtered sun. I will miss the inaccessible balcony outside my own window; the entrance was long ago covered over for safety reasons, but I still imagine being out there. I will miss the recently renovated formal reception room on the 15th floor, which half a century ago was a magnificent photo studio with high-pitched ceiling and skylight (there are still spirits in that room). I will miss the WQXR auditorium and so und booths, abandoned half a decade ago when the Times’s classical music station moved to new off-site quarters. I will miss the delivery room where the newspapers were transported on conveyor belts from the basement and were bundled and thrown into waiting trucks. I will miss all these remnants of things past because the old Times building is an archaeological dig–a chronicle of newspaper history and a link to the city’s rich past.
The Piano building will be a showpiece, not a home. Yet given the inevitable relocation, I must make one humble request. Rather than raze the old building, or as has been suggested, turn it into a hotel, consider the option of converting it into assisted-living quarters for old Times-persons, like me. For a while, at least, it would be one hell of a living museum.