The most riveting — and frequently delicious — evocation of upper-class class warfare came to us this week not via an episode of “Succession” but rather during a Zoom hearing, more than three hours long, of New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. The matter at hand was whether the city ought to let a billionaire hedge-fund manager build a two-story glass pavilion above the top-floor apartment he owns in a 1927 building in Manhattan. But really it was about where the retaining wall ought to be erected against the desires of the magnificently wealthy to configure the world precisely to their specifications.
The apartment, on West 77th Street, belongs to Bill Ackman and his wife, Neri Oxman, who commissioned the celebrated British architect Norman Foster (addressed by nearly all during the proceedings according to his honorific, “Lord Foster”) to design the 3,000-square-foot addition that would replace an existing structure of the same size. The arguments against it have not necessarily been rooted in aesthetics, though some made the case that the addition would feel incongruously pastoral, or too beach-y, or just “intrusive.” Calling to mind Philip Johnson’s Glass House, the design is tasteful in the minimalist vernacular. But if this were permitted, what hellish billionaire fantasies might materialize later?
Many testimonies that called on commissioners to reject Mr. Ackman’s plans were based on the fear of precedent this project might set, which itself stems from the feeling that the selfishly rich have inflicted so many traumas already. Even on the outlying chance that you could concede that the thing itself was unobjectionable — stunning, even — what would prevent the landmarks committee, as one speaker remarked, from someday allowing Elon Musk to build whatever he wanted, say, on top of the Dakota?
Among those who have stood in opposition to the venture is Bill Moyers, the longtime PBS host and former White House press secretary, now 87, who had planned to appear at the hearing until a medical issue intervened. When we talked on the phone the next day, he said he worried about the disruptive glare of light the glass penthouse would produce at night and what that would do to the evening skyline at the periphery of Central Park. At the crux of his concern seemed something much deeper. “I think this undermines the soul of the city at the vanity of one person,” he said. “If the commission is going to cave to the glitter of one billionaire, there’s no hope for this city as a place where everyday people hope and live and die.”
Mr. Ackman, who turned an early pandemic hunch about how investors might approach risky securities into a $27 million bet that yielded a $2.6 billion return, is not restrained by fears of controversy or provocation. (A few days before the hearing, he used Twitter to express what would inevitably count as an unpopular view on the Upper West Side, that Kyle Rittenhouse had acted in self-defense.)
Billionaires generally don’t care what you think of them, but Mr. Ackman diverges from some of the other stereotypes in subtle ways, among them his interest in living in an old co-op without golf simulators and $125 million units. For years he has lived nearby in the Beresford. The building in which he hopes to move, designed in the neo-Renaissance style, overlooks the Museum of Natural History on one of the most beautiful blocks in Manhattan. And like others that went up during the same distinguished period in the city’s architectural history, it has transformed over the past two decades, as the moneyed class has demanded more of tradition.
Yet even by the standard in which apartments are routinely combined and made larger, Mr. Ackman’s plans are ambitious. Typically, a municipal hearing on the viability of a residential addition would not feature a roster of speakers that might make up a lecture series at the Century Association. But Mr. Ackman, seemingly having planned for every contingency, had supporters to counter all possible lines of opposition.
Was the design too aggressively modern? Here was Kenneth T. Jackson, the pre-eminent historian of New York City to explain that no it was not (because New York isn’t “Charleston” and it should never become “Dubuque”; and please let it remain always all about “change”).
Would the new structure improve on what it would replace — a pink stucco box that had originally been built to house servants? Here was the Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Paul Goldberger, an Upper West Side neighbor of Mr. Ackman’s who has advised him on the project, to say that yes, of course it would.
How would integration play out with the building’s immediate neighbors? Fantastically. That was the opinion of Louise Mirrer, president of the New-York Historical Society, which is next door and an organization to which, it is worth noting, Mr. Ackman has been an enormously generous donor.
Soon enough the audience also heard from the venerable Betsy Gotbaum, who was president of the Historical Society in the 1990s, after she had served as the city’s first female parks commissioner and before she became public advocate, a background that seemed to swaddle Mr. Ackman’s agenda in the warmth of civic virtue. Was it possible to be blown away by the beauty of this proposal? Ms. Gotbaum was indeed “blown away,” as she put it, recalling how she and her colleagues at the Historical Society would snicker about the pink structure on the roof but were hamstrung to complain too much about it because the media executive Norman Pearlstine, a longtime trustee, lived there.
Mr. Pearlstine moved in when he became involved with Nancy Friday, the best-selling author and loopy analyst of sexual politics who bought the original apartment in the late 1970s and added on to it, at a time when writers might conceivably live in 13-room apartments off Central Park. The couple divorced in 2005 and Mr. Ackman bought the apartment after Friday died in the fall of 2017. Even her former caretaker appeared at the hearing to declare himself “spectacularly in favor’’ of Mr. Ackman’s proposal.
At the end of the hearing, the landmarks commission asked that Mr. Ackman and his architects come back with an amended plan that would scale back the second story of the penthouse. Although the committee could still turn him down, the enthusiasm its members displayed made that seem unlikely. Exactly how much good will there is for the project within the building itself is not especially clear. Mr. Ackman believes it is extensive; opponents estimate that there is a roughly even split. Recently a vacancy on the co-op board resulted in the election of an architect who is in favor of Mr. Ackman’s plan. The candidate who lost to her is not — some residents have asked for an audit of the vote.
Before the commissioners announced their decision, Mr. Ackman himself spoke, offering himself up as a benevolent rich person, an asset. Since the beginning of Covid he said, he had given approximately $100 million away, much of it to organizations that serve the interests of the city. Unlike many in his industry, he pointed out, he had not fled to Miami or Austin, Tex., to escape high taxes. He did not abandon a place he had been committed to for a long time. But did it have to be that way? If things didn’t work out, he said as graciously as he could, he could always pack his bags.