Philip Birnbaum

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Philip Birnbaum (1907-1996) was the architect for more than a dozen apartment buildings in Jackson Heights - see list below.

In his 1996 obituary, the New York Times referred to Birnbaum as "the almost anonymous architectural hand behind many of the most imposing apartment towers in New York City."

Unlike his contemporary, Philip Johnson, Birnbaum didn't receive public celebrity and little critical acclaim. According to the Times, banal was among the kinder words used to describe his work. But his output exceeded that of Mr. Johnson -- and just about any other architect in recent decades -- and his buildings are familiar to New Yorkers, even if they do not know who gets the credit.

What made him so popular among developers was the efficiency of his apartment layouts. There was virtually no wasted floor space in his units, meaning that builders could fit more apartments on a floor. He tried to eliminate interior hallways providing occupants with more usable room. Birnbaum said he designed for the people who lived in his buildings, not the elite.

A Prolific Designer[edit]

Mr. Birnbaum designed some 300 buildings, alone or in association with others. Among the more famous are Lincoln Plaza, also known as the Ascap Building, at Broadway and 63d Street (1971); the Galleria, 119 East 57th Street (1975); 1001 Fifth Avenue, near 82d Street (1979); the Hotel Parker Meridien, 118 West 57th Street (1981); and, cater-corner across Third Avenue, the Savoy, 200 East 61st Street (1986) and Trump Plaza, 167 East 61st Street (1984).

Donald J. Trump is quoted in the obituary saying "Most people don't know Philip Birnbaum, yet he probably designed more buildings in New York than anyone else," and that "Not all were great but they all made money. And some were, in fact, very good."

"Whereas many people would design a building from the outside in, he would design a building from the inside out," Mr. Trump said, adding that Mr. Birnbaum was responsible for the apartment plans in Trump Tower.

Layouts were not his only trademark. Mr. Birnbaum also counted the rooftop swimming pool among his innovations. His daughter, Dara Birnbaum, a video artist in Manhattan who originally followed her father into architecture, said the idea was that "people need to have their own open space, even in a city of high-rises."

"He would say, 'Let's use the roofs for the common good,'" Ms. Birnbaum said. She traced this concern to a youth spent in railroad tenements so dark he would study outside by streetlight.

Mr. Birnbaum grew up in Washington Heights, attended Stuyvesant High School and earned his architectural degree at Columbia. He was accepted at Princeton but was cautioned in a letter from the university that, as a "Hebrew," he might not fit into the environment. Mr. Birnbaum carried that letter around for many years, his daughter said.

In the building boom following World War II, Mr. Birnbaum did a great deal of work in Forest Hills, Jackson Heights, and Kew Gardens, much of it for the developer Alfred L. Kaskel. Over the years, his practice was known as Philip Birnbaum, the Office of Philip Birnbaum or Philip Birnbaum & Associates.

For Mr. Kaskel, Mr. Birnbaum designed the Doral Beach Hotel in Miami Beach and the Doral Country Club in Miami, but most of his major projects were in Manhattan. The 47-story Excelsior, at 303 East 57th Street, was for a time New York's tallest apartment building.

Other significant apartment towers included 45 East 89th Street, at Madison Avenue; Manhattan Place, 630 First Avenue, at 36th Street; the Bromley, 225 West 83d Street; Le Chambord, 350 East 72d Street; the Promenade, 530 East 76th Street, and the Horizon at 415 East 37th Street.

Jackson Heights Buildings[edit]

Philip Birnbaum was the architect for the following Jackson Heights buildings:

Amherst Apartments Lawrence Terrace Somerset House
Bradford House Montclair Gardens Winslow Apartments
Colonial Court Norwich - Guilford Wilshire House
Donner Gardens Roosevelt Terrace Carlton House
Greenway Apartments Saxony Apartments

Birnbaum 's New York Times obituary said "Whatever the merits of his layouts, Mr. Birnbaum's facades typically had few distinguishing features, reflecting developers' quest for economy." It noted one notable departure, the swooping, boomerang-shaped Trump Plaza, on the west side of Third Avenue. When Mr. Birnbaum was commissioned by another developer to build a tower on the east side of the avenue, he saw an opportunity to create a monumental gateway and designed a near twin. But Mr. Trump sued and won a settlement in which the design of the Savoy was modified.

Another exception might be claimed by Montclair Gardens and Colonial Court where shudders and flower boxes adorned the windows of several front apartments, finials stood at the rooftop, and a carved spread-winged wooden eagle hung over the entrance ways. In the shared garden a 40' flagpole stood on an embankment at the south end, with a fountain and two 55 foot reflective pools centered on the property. While the shudders and flower boxes were removed over the decades, the ruins of the fountain remain. Residents there advocate for their replacement or refurbishment. Pictures of the building in its original splendor are sought by preservation oriented residents of these now coop buildings.

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