The Weirdest Building In Midtown

Last week, I was trudging through a very slushy midtown when I happened to turn onto 47th Street…

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…and walk past what has to be one of the strangest buildings in Manhattan:

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A six-story office building, the facade of 15 East 47th Street is completely obscured by a wall of brass-colored rings:

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Here’s a close-up. You can just see the outline of the building’s windows on the other side:

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The rings go all the way to the roof…

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…and are actually set at a slightly downward angle, perhaps for better visibility from the street. By my count, there are over 6,000.

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Adding to the mystery, this is the entire ground floor facade:

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Just a door with a number and some circles…

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…and a nondescript buzzer. There was no answer when I buzzed, and I’m pretty sure the building is completely vacant.

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As it turns out, the building at 15 E 47th Street was once the home of Algeria’s Permanent Mission to the United States. The building was purchased by the Algerian government in 1975 and renovations commenced, at which point I assume the current facade was added. Once completed, the Algerian government remained here until the early 2000s.

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But what’s the story with the ringed facade? Reader Architecture Dilettante writes: “It’s a modern take on an Arabic mashrabiya, the carved wood lattice over a street-side window that gives shade and privacy while allowing air to circulate. They’re mostly used in urban areas.”

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I noticed the property next door was also abandoned. Very curious if they’ll both disappear in the coming years. If anyone has any further information, be sure to share!

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20 comments

  1. Electronic shielding, maybe?

  2. Architecture Dilettante

    It’s a modern take on an Arabic mashrabiya, the carved wood lattice over a street-side window that gives shade and privacy while allowing air to circulate. They’re mostly used in urban areas.

    • Architecture Dilettante

      Hey, Nick, I found this report put together by an assorted group of developer interests and a couple of professors from U Penn. It’s really interesting but long as it covers the history and their proposed future for Midtown East (which is basically that the “important” stuff has already been landmark protected, and development should happen everywhere else). The key stuff re 15 E. 47th, which is pictured a few times in the document (including on the cover), is that starting on page 72 they talk about what they call the mid-block architectural “left-overs and anomalies,” and on page 76 they specifically list #15 under a fun category called “frankly unbelievable.” http://midtown21c.org/files/2013/02/Icons-Placeholders-Leftovers-Midtown-East-Report1.pdf

  3. This is sort of random– but the Social Science building at UW-Madison is covered in a similar metal grating. When I went to school there we were told it had something to do with cutting down on warmth from the sun, but really it was ugly and made the offices behind the grating dark.

    You can see the grating here: http://www2.fpm.wisc.edu/support/SocialScience/SocialScience.jpg

  4. @Architechure Dilettante

    If this were Metafilter, I’d favorite that answer.

  5. There’s more info on the NYC BIS site… seems to be originally built in 1930, possibly renovated in the early ’70’s http://a810-bisweb.nyc.gov/bisweb/PropertyProfileOverviewServlet?bin=1035416&requestid=1

  6. Here is the current location for the Algerian mission to the UN. There’s even a phone and email address. You could ask them:

    http://www.algeria-un.org/default.asp?doc=-contact

    The copyright there is only 2005, but the UN website gives the same address and phone:

    326 East 48th Street, New York, NY 10017
    (212) 750-1960/1962/1965/1966

  7. I used to work nextdoor from this place in a Mercantile Library office and sent it to you a few years ago. The only info I could find about it currently was on real estate forums about how it’s hideous and should be razed, but it did have ‘for rent’ signs up in the past. Another speculated it would be torn down with the library when that building was up for sale in 2009 or so.

    Often the lights were on and there was a small office setup on the 2nd floor.

    If you ever have the chance, I’d check out the Merc library as well. The interior is beautiful outside of one of the renovated floors.

  8. But why male models?

  9. Its more likely that the rings are set at a downward angle to facilitate drainage.

  10. I’d like to see more of the building on the right. Are those little balconies?

  11. I worked in the area during the ’70s and never paid attention to how very odd this building was. Thanks for calling it to our attention.

  12. I really don’t think it’s all that ugly. It’s sort of a 1970’s modern art sort of thing. Kind of “retro”. Wonder if the Algerians still use it for anything? Secret spy stuff, maybe? Any lights on at night?

  13. I work at The Center for Fiction and know the building next door is still owned by the Algerian government. The building just to the west of it was purchased as part of an assemblage on East 48th Street and the buildings in the assemblage are being emptied one by one. The Algerians don’t seem to want to sell to the developer., so they are not a part of that There are people living in the building. It’s a family and I assume they are caretakers.

    And, yes, The Center’s first and second floors are beautiful.

  14. I think the building is still owned by the Algerian government:

    http://nycprop.nyc.gov/nycproperty/statements/asr/jsp/stmtassessasr.jsp?statementId=215172267

    As for the downward-pointing rings, I assumed it was to keep birds from nesting.

  15. Well, this one is no more. A few weeks ago a scaffold went up and all the rings are gone.

  16. The exterior reflected a dated design as discussed above with also was appropriate to hot sunny climated. That being said there is scaffolding up to do renovation work and for the first time I saw there is original cornice work visible where the metal facade has been removed! Still does not appear to be a treasure revealed LOL. Our family lived at that addess from the mid to late 1800’s before moving up to 73nd street.

  17. Funny thing..I bought a piece of French crockery that was used to house Foie Gras.It was made for Maison E.H. Glass which was located at this address. The piece is probably from the late 1800’s. Apparently their was a fine food and wine store at this location (15 E 47th)

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