The Field Building at 17 Lex Gets a Makeover

The Field Building at 17 Lex Gets a Makeover

When 17 Lex (now the Lawrence and Eris Field Building) first opened, it was the center of the Baruch universe. With all classes and many activities taking place under one roof, 17 Lex provided students with a warm, welcoming home. The addition of new outposts—especially the Information and Technology Building and the Newman Vertical Campus—gradually weakened students’ bonds with the older structure. The upcoming renovation of 17 Lex, however, will re-establish old feelings and build new bonds with both alumni and current students, welcoming them home again.

An Impressive History

The Lawrence and Eris Field Building, a.k.a. 17 Lex, is the historic hub—and sentimental heart—of Baruch College. The structure has meant many things to many people over its 82-year lifetime. Built in 1929 to house the College of the City of New York’s School of Business and Civic Administration, 17 Lex was touted, in a New York Times article heralding its construction, as “the largest structure anywhere devoted to the teaching of up-to-date business methods.”

Dubbed “City College Downtown,” the school was later renamed to commemorate financier and alumnus Bernard M. Baruch (Class of 1889) in 1953. Just a year earlier, one of the school’s most talented young men, Lawrence N. Field, graduated with a BBA. He would go on to become a real estate entrepreneur and philanthropist whose support resulted in the 2005 naming of 17 Lex in his honor and that of his late wife, Eris.

“On the day 17 Lex was renamed the Lawrence and Eris Field Building, my head flooded with memories,” says Field. “Using the staircase (since the elevators broke down a lot), staying up to 2 a.m. to put The Ticker to bed, checking out the coeds, the class of a favorite professor. It was our special time.”

So central is the building’s address to Baruch’s identity that membership in the esteemed 17 Lex Society is conferred upon donors who give $1,000 or more annually to The Baruch College Fund.

The Field Building remains a crucial part of a distinguished neighborhood and has been honored by the Gramercy Neighborhood Associates for its contribution to the organization’s neighborhood beautification project. The Field Building site is itself historic. The Free Academy (photo above), opened in 1847 as the country’s first free institution of public higher education, also stood on this site.

But however attractive its Italian Romanesque, brick-and-limestone exterior (designed by Thompson, Holmes & Converse), the Field Building is most treasured for what did—and still does—take place inside its walls. Especially beloved to alumni are memories of the 9th-floor lounge, club rooms, and cafeteria; the ground-floor pool; the 6th- and 7th-floor gym; the 2nd-floor library; and Mason Hall, formerly the Pauline Edwards Theater. At one time, virtually every College activity—academic and extracurricular—took place under 17 Lex’s roof, prompting the nickname “College in a Box.” Some of those original spaces are still in use and some converted to new functions, while others have been dormant for years.

Luz Vargas Liebeskind (’85, EMSF ’08), Baruch College Fund Trustee, notes, “We forget that 17 Lex was the hub of College life as late as the ’80s, when we had to walk from rental property to rental property to get to classes. The renovation will make 17 Lex a campus hub once again.”

Says Baruch President Mitchel Wallerstein, “The Field Building has always been the historic center of College activity and a main source of alumni memories, so it’s crucial that it continue to be a vibrant, relevant space, well-equipped for current and future students.”

Time for an Upgrade

After 80-plus years of service, the building—which accommodates 4,000 students, faculty members, and staff per semester—is badly in need of renovation. Baruchians have long endured time-consuming waits for the antiquated elevators, which are frequently out of service. There is no central air-conditioning, and existing window units are noisy, high-energy consumers. The building’s electricity is maxed out, and the lighting is ancient and inadequate. There is currently no Wi-Fi access, essential in this era of technology-enhanced teaching. Additionally, the building is not fully compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards.

According to Frank Antonucci, director of campus operations and administration, project manager for the renovation, and proud Baruch alumnus (’85), Phase 1A of the much-needed makeover will begin in early 2012. Helming the project is Davis Brody Bond, the architectural firm in charge of the superb renovation of Baruch’s Information and Technology Building in the early 1990s.

The $25 million earmarked for this first phase comes from $40 million allocated specifically for capital improvement from the state budget, thanks to the support of Baruch alumni in Albany—State Assembly members J. Gary Pretlow (’78) and Carl E. Heastie (MBA ’07)—as well as the College’s assembly representative, Brian Kavanagh.

In order to truly bring the Field Building into the future, its rejuvenation must emphasize sustainability. Indeed, the goal is to attain a LEED silver designation from the U.S. Green Building Council, no small feat for a vintage structure. In addition to upgrading electrical systems, plans include adding windows to the building’s dark north side for additional light.

Notes Zicklin School of Business Dean and Vice President John Elliott, “The plans for the renovation are excellent, ambitious, and above all, necessary. Other than replacing the elevator operators with buttons, we have done little to maintain the space.”

A True Transformation

It’s anticipated that the entire project will take place in four phases. The building will be occupied during renovation, making the work that much more challenging. Much of the initial work involves renovation of the lobby and the main (Lexington Avenue–facing) entrance as well as basement and other infrastructure changes.

In addition to a new bank of elevators situated on the site of the old ground-floor pool, an open stairwell will service the first eight floors of the building.

The Bernie West Theatre, currently on the 9th floor, will move down to lobby level, in the space now used by the Public Safety Office. The basement floor will be lowered to accommodate the theatre, whose new location will give it enhanced visibility. Venerable Mason Hall will remain the building’s main auditorium, a showcase space that continues to host a variety of events.

To bring 17 Lex fully up to speed electrically, new Con Edison vaults will be installed under the 23rd Street sidewalk.

The building’s other 15 floors will be reorganized into three main divisions: classrooms (floors 2–7), science labs (floors 8–10), and faculty and staff offices (floors 9–16).

Renovation plans for floors 2 and above include the relocation of the 9th-floor Irving Weinstein Honors Lounge—a space that has functioned as a student lounge since the 1930s—transplanted complete with its fireplace, sconces, chandelier, and cozy wood paneling. The antiquated 6th- and 7th-floor gymnasium, replaced a decade ago by new facilities in the Newman Vertical Campus and currently in limited use, will be transformed into two large lecture halls. The old 2nd-floor library (now two classrooms) will become space devoted to Student Life.

As beneficial as the revamp will be for Baruch students, staff, and faculty, it also promises to create over 850 construction jobs, especially welcome in this economy. The Flatiron Business Improvement District, the 23rd Street Association, and Community Board 6 all support the project.

The Field Building’s makeover is obviously an immense undertaking, but one well worth the effort. Says President Wallerstein, “This long-awaited renovation will make the lives of students, faculty, and staff easier; maximize energy efficiency; and enable the Field Building at 17 Lex to be an even better neighbor to the Flatiron/Gramercy Park community. Baruch College deserves a state-of-the-art building that will thrive far into the 21st century.”

The Future Depends on You

Though the renovation of 17 Lex will be largely funded by the state, the College is ever more reliant on charitable donations from alumni and friends. The Baruch College Fund’s Baruch Means Business Campaign is in its final stretch. By December 2012, the College hopes to reach its target of $150 million, money that will guarantee the future of excellent academic programs and other crucial College initiatives.

Just as the Field Building’s renovation cannot take place without funding from New York State, the BCF’s mission can only be accomplished with the support of Baruch alumni like Larry Field (’52) (above), who, along with his wife, Eris, provided the generous naming gift that christened 17 Lex in 2005. As our economic climate continues to look uncertain, we rely even more on the munificence of our alumni, without whom Baruch College could not maintain its ever-more-impressive standards.

As Larry Field recently noted, “Baruch College was one of the most important turning points of my life. I became an adult in my four years of Baruch and was taught to think, to experiment, and to follow my dreams. There are even more youngsters now who need help to find themselves and cope with today’s complex life. It is our obligation to give back to help them achieve this, just as we were also helped by countless others. When I was asked by a student why I gave so much to Baruch, I answered, ‘Because without Baruch, there would be no Larry Field.’”

–Marina Zogbi

Note: Computer-generated models above of the renovated Lawrence and Eris Field Building at 17 Lexington Avenue courtesy of architectural firm Davis Brody Bond

1 Comment

  1. Last Friday, I happened across a reprint of distinguished alumnus George Weissman’s acceptance speech in June 1982, when the College honored him with a Doctor of Laws degree. His words about 17 Lexington Avenue were so inspiring that I decided to add them here:

    “In that Baruch building on 23rd Street, on that gray cement campus, we learned we are in this world together. Together we can keep changing it bit by bit. At times that may seem an overwhelming prospect. In this day, when everything seems supersized, superpowerful, superslick, many people feel individually dwarfed and impotent. But you, as individuals, have more strength than you realize in shaping our political, business, social, and communal affairs.”

    Graduate of the Class of 1939 George Weissman—for whom the College’s George and Mildred Weissman School of Arts and Sciences is named—was truly a great man, a visionary.

    —BCAM editor in chief

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