While Manhattan’s luxury market splutters and shudders like an old car on a cold morning, one architect has never been busier or in more demand — Robert A.M. Stern. The architectural mandarin’s distinctive limestone-clad skyscrapers are magnets to the world’s wealthiest, guaranteed box office real estate that entices buyers — recently Sting and billionaire hedge-funders Ken Griffin and Daniel Och — to forage deep into their wallets to own a piece of his signature gilded era glam style.
In a skyline of increasingly shimmery, pencil-thin glass and steel mega-towers, Stern’s buildings add equilibrium and character. They say “Yes, this is still Manhattan,” in case you might have mistaken it for Dubai or Beijing. Evoking the elegance of a bygone era in form and materials, it’s not hard to imagine King Kong leaping from his towers while swatting away planes. Internally, they offer every modern-day creature comfort their pampered residents could possibly desire — with prices to match.
There’s a reason most developers don’t undertake projects like Stern’s. They’re outrageously expensive to build. Far cheaper to go the glass and steel route than to import the vast quantities of limestone that sheath the exteriors of many of his structures. Just ask investor and trophy property collector, Ken Griffin. He spent an astonishing $238 million for a penthouse in one of Stern’s limestone extravaganzas, 220 Central Park South, making it the most expensive home ever sold in the United States. Indeed, four of New York City’s most expensive deals of 2018 were in Stern’s creations.
Last year, too ended with a big sale at the long legendary in 220 Central Park South, with Daniel Och splashing out $92.7 million for Penthouse 73, a sprawling four-bedroom duplex of about 9,800 square feet. It was the second most expensive sale in the city in 2019. As an aside, Och also spent a comparatively modest $2.1 million for a studio on the 19th floor, according to the New York Times — a crash pad for staff or guests, perhaps? In fact, three deeds in the building, signed between December 3rd and 5th totaled $150 million — the other $50 million coming from another sale — according to the Real Deal.
With these kinds of gargantuan sales prices, it’s no wonder that Stern goes to lengths to which most other architects would balk. For example, The Vestry, a 14-story condo at 70 Vestry St in Tribeca is sheathed entirely in buttery limestone carved from a quarry 200 kilometers outside of Paris and shipped at extraordinary expense across the Atlantic. No, the lavish exterior won’t help you sleep better at night but it’s all part of Stern’s ethos, to build “truly luxurious” apartments and buildings.
Now 80, with the demeanor of a grandfatherly patrician, Stern founded his firm, RAMSA, in the 1960s and has won numerous awards, authored several books and served as the Dean of the Yale School of Architecture from 1998 to 2016. Though his designs span the globe, it’s his pricey New York condos that invariably draw the most attention. One of his newest projects, 520 Park Avenue, has followed his staple New York design theme influenced by the glamor of the 1920s and ’30s. It’s an ideology that has evoked condescension from other younger “starchitects” who have peppered Manhattan with the kind of acute-angled, cantilevered, reflective structures that give skateboarders looking for their most radical rides, heart palpitations.
“If you break the tradition every week, it’s not really a tradition anymore, it’s more of an architectural temper tantrum,” Stern said in an interview with Forbes. “I like to make my buildings look like people have seen similar buildings before, to build up a culture of form, not tear a culture of form down.”
It’s a classic argument, the upstarts challenging the establishment, only to become the establishment themselves one day. However, it belies one of the central themes of Stern’s buildings. The interiors are just as luxurious as the exteriors, if not more so. The residential units are chock full of custom millwork, festooned with moldings and adorned in yards of imported marble. Extensive and plush amenities have undoubtedly been pivotal in luring buyers to Stern’s projects. From the Vestry’s 82-foot swimming pool lined with split-face marble, brushed limestone, and Taj Mahal quartzite, to the $59,000 a month rental at 220 C.P.S, with its 36-foot-long living and dining room overlooking Central Park, Stern’s buildings provide ultra-luxury for the ultra-rich.
When asked by the New York Times what he thought when about the term “starchitect,” with which he is often referred, Stern had a typically tongue-in-cheek response. “That’s a term used for a lot of people,” Stern said. “But since my name is Stern and ‘Stern’ means star, I think that’s perfectly good. It’s all the other people that are intruding.”
He may have a point.