This site is included in LMCC’s Creative Insider’s Guide to Lower Manhattan, sponsored by Launch LM.
When SoHo was designated a historic district in 1974, many blocks were interrupted by vacant lots. Today, one of Manhattan’s premier retail destinations, this desirability has made any undeveloped parcel extremely valuable and many are now occupied by new structures that required the approval of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. In general, two strategies have tended to win favor – contextual designs that complement the character of earlier structures through the use of similar ornament and materials, or more adventurous designs that reflect current aesthetic directions.
In the case of 40 Mercer Street, these often diametrical tendencies were skillfully blended. Facing Broadway, Grand and Mercer Streets, this impressive residential building occupies the former site of the 1860 Lord & Taylor department store, which was destroyed by fire in 1967. It remained a parking lot (with a popular flea market) for several decades until the block-long parcel was acquired by Andre Balazs in 1999, who commissioned the French architect Jean Nouvel to design a 180-room hotel. Construction, however, was postponed in 2001 and the 2007 structure – Nouvel’s first completed project in New York City – was reworked as a slightly larger apartment house with ground-floor retail. Subsequent works by Nouvel include 100 Eleventh Avenue, a 2009 apartment building in West Chelsea, and the 2011 carousel pavilion in Brooklyn Bridge Park.
Nouvel may be a modernist but he is no minimalist. As with many of his buildings, 40 Mercer Street is rich with detail, namely projecting gray metal elements that suggest traditional architectural forms. While the rhythms and dimensions of the gridded openings recall cast-iron facades, he enlivened the composition with tinted and textured glass that introduces red, blue, and white highlights. A slender eight-story tower rises from the north side of the roof. In contrast to the treatment of the lower floors, the windows are considerably larger and the surfaces are relatively smooth and sleek, serving as an elegant counterpoint to the more ornate Silk Exchange Building (1899), a 12-story terra-cotta confection at the southwest corner of Broome Street.
Other unexpected features at 40 Mercer Street include an immense louvered glass sunscreen that shades a private penthouse overlooking Broadway, as well as a deep mirrored niche that reflects the brick building on the south side of Grand Street. This niche becomes semi-transparent after dark, revealing the interior stairs. The subdued north facade, however, has an almost sinister quality. Punctuated by dark horizontal windows and multiple terraces, it stands aloof from its neighbors, towering above a modest garden and garage entrance.
– Matthew A. Postal