rl polo shirts But Is It Restoration
IS the flagship store of Polo Ralph Lauren on Madison Avenue a fantasyland creation or a deftly restored building that brings its 1890’s heritage back to life?
That question has become more than academic now that the Lauren company is seeking Federal tax credits perhaps in excess of $4 million for its transformation of the neglected Rhinelander Mansion on the corner of 72d Street into an emporium for apparel and home furnishings.
The Lauren project brings into focus the subjective guidelines that Government officials use to parcel out the lucrative tax credits, which Congress established a decade ago to encourage historic restoration.
”It’s one of the most complex projects this office has been involved with, and it raised a lot of questions,” said Michael F. Lynch of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, which gave its support to the application last month before forwarding it to the National Park Service for final approval.
The Federal guidelines for tax credits do not flatly prohibit such alterations, but projects run the risk of being rejected for errors of period style.
”We reviewed one project recently where they had painted every piece of varnished woodwork within an 1880’s building,” explained Cynthia MacLeod, chief of preservation services at the National Park Service. ”Everything else was beautiful, but we decided that the project wasn’t proper for certification.”
The Park Service, which is ready to begin processing the Lauren application, tries to reach its decisions within a 30 day framework. But some take much longer. State officials took more than a year to scrutinize the Lauren application before recommending approval. It was a tough call partly because the five story mansion had suffered the ravages of neglect, interior demolition and more than a dozen renovations that destroyed many original features. Moreover, researchers found little documentation to reveal the original look of the mansion’s interior space.
”There was significant damage on the inside,” said Mr. Lynch, a senior restoration coordinator, ”and we don’t even know if all the rooms were ever completed.”
The reason they might not have been is that the woman who commissioned the ornate neo classical structure, Gertrude Rhinelander Waldo, never moved in after the workmen left in 1898. Mrs. Waldo, a member of the wealthy and socially prominent Rhinelander family of New York, continued to live across the street, as she had during construction, for reasons that remain a mystery.
NO one occupied the house for at least 10 years after its completion, and a bank foreclosed on the property in 1912. Mrs. Waldo died in 1914 at the age of 77. The mansion’s subsequent occupation is not well documented until recent decades, though evidently the ground floor was used as retail space beginning in 1920 with an antique shop.
”The building had been really garbled in terms of its uses, its physical integrity and its circulation patterns,” said William J. Higgins, a consultant hired by the Lauren company to oversee the tax credit application.
So an ornate but more compact staircase was built to replace the missing one. ”It was reconfigured for the very practical needs of a retail operation,” Mr. Higgins said. ”The original configuration would have eaten up a lot of valuable space.
”There’s a balancing act between the need to bring the building back to economic life and the need to work with the surviving material and historic evidence that we could find,” he said. ”The building is not being presented as an authentic duplication of what once existed, but rather a contemporary retail building that tries very hard to be in the spirit of the original look.”
Many observers say the building,
which lies within the Upper East Side Historic District, captures that spirit. Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, a civic group, gave Polo Ralph Lauren its Restoration Award in 1986, the same year the 20,000 square foot store opened to hordes of shoppers.
”While the needs of a store are different than that of a museum or a residence,” said Halina Rosenthal, president of the group, in a letter to state officials last year, ”. . . we feel that were Mrs. Gertrude Rhinelander Waldo alive today, she may have felt at home enough here, and perhaps would have finally moved in!”
BUT Mrs. Waldo’s presumed comfort will not be an issue when Federal officials judge if the Lauren project fits within the tax credit guidelines.
”Our standards are fairly general in their wording,” said Ms. MacLeod of the Park Service. ”Some buildings can take more alterations than others. For instance, we deal with a lot of mill buildings that no longer have machinery and wide open spaces. On the other hand, very highly ornamental buildings couldn’t be changed so substantially.”
During the last fiscal year, the Park Service certified about 1,000 historic renovation projects. Typically, 10 to 15 percent of the applications are denied, and more than half of those denials are overturned on appeal.
For a developer like Polo Ralph Lauren the stakes are high. The current tax credit provides a dollar for dollar reduction of a company’s tax liability equal to 20 percent of the total renovation costs. Work that was completed before the Tax Reform Act of 1986 took effect including the Lauren project is eligible for a 25 percent tax credit.
Other changes incorporated into the 1986 tax act make the credits less attractive to wealthy individual investors, because they can no longer use the credits to cancel out earned income; but that revision did not affect corporate developers.
Though Lauren has never disclosed the cost of renovating the Rhinelander mansion, on which it holds a long term lease, outside observers have pegged the figure at $14 million to $18 million. Those estimates include display cabinets and other interior fixtures, such as chandeliers, that are part of the package eligible for the tax credits.
No one has raised any objections to the restoration of the mansion’s fanciful limestone exterior. And no one finds fault with the craftsmanship of all the sculptors, woodcarvers, plaster carvers and other artisans who worked on the project for nearly two years. ”The quality is unlike almost any other tax credit project we have seen in New York,” said Mr. Lynch, the state official.
”But the project is in a gray area,” he explained. ”It’s an interpretation of what might have been there. And it raises difficult questions about what kind of new construction can be compatible with what remained of the original material. There’s a real danger of creating a false history which is not good preservation.”