Lee’s Art Shop to Shutter as Midtown Towers Sprout Around It

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Lee's Art Shop, a longtime fixture on West 57th Street, is closing and has no plans to relocate. The 120-year-old building is being sold, clerks said. Credit Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Twelve years ago, as a newlywed, Michelle Nagler went shopping for an album for her wedding photographs. "Now I'm buying craft things for my kids," she said the other day as she worked her way through the same store, Lee's Art Shop on West 57th Street in Manhattan.

The craft items she bought — ribbon, paint and rubber stamps — were deeply discounted because Lee's is closing; some merchandise in the store was marked down 75 percent. The clerks at the cash registers said the 120-year-old building was being sold.

"Isn't that the usual story, that it's always about real estate?" said Ms. Nagler, a publisher of children's books at Random House.

But the story, in this case, is about something else. Lee's, a Midtown fixture for more than six decades, is at one end of a half-mile between Broadway and Park Avenue that is now being reshaped and redefined by supertall towers. One, at 157 West 57th Street, across the street from Carnegie Hall near Seventh Avenue, sold so many of its condominiums to buyers with long strings of zeros on their net worth statements that people began referring to the block as Billionaires' Row.

Another supertall tower is going up across the street from Lee's, in the block between Broadway and Seventh Avenue. It will house a Nordstrom department store, New York City's first full-line outpost of that chain. Another tower has sprouted at the corner of Park Avenue. And yet another will soon rise on the site of a secondhand fur store next to the for mer home of Steinway & Sons, near Avenue of the Americas.

The new towers are remaking 57th Street at ground level. Longtime fixtures of 57th Street like Steinway and the Rizzoli bookshop have moved. Now there is talk in real estate circles of finding a single retail tenant for the Lee's building that would take a page from the Ralph Lauren flagship store on Madison Avenue at 72nd Street.

"What's going on here is destroying New York's sense of place, particularly for an artist," said Kate Simon, a photographer who has lived around the corner and up the block from Lee's for 38 years. "What would Truman Capote write now, 'Breakfast at Nordstrom's'?"

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Kate Simon, a photographer who has frequented Lee's Art Shop for years, with Hector Alburez on Monday. Credit Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

"I've been watching them build all these huge buildings," she said. "I think this is the last nail in the coffin of the neighborhood."

The Lee's building, at 220 West 57th Street, was originally a clubhouse for the American Society of Civil Engineers, whose members no doubt appreciated its delicate facade as they filed in and filled its 400-seat auditorium — until the building became a Schrafft's restaurant. Lee's, which had been across the street in a 500-square-foot storefront, leased the ground floor in the 1970s.

The owners of Lee's bought the entire building in the 1990s and spent $8 million on renovations in 2001 and 2002 that increased the retail space to 40,000 square feet from 7,500 square feet. The extra room was on three largely unused floors upstairs. New escalators were brought in (through a hole in the roof) and installed at night. That let the store stay open by day.

In 2013 — five years after the death of Gilbert Steinberg, who had owned Lee's since the early 1950s, and six years after the death of his wife, Ruth, who was known as Ricki and also had a hand in the store — the two children who had taken over signed a contract to sell the building for $65 million.

That deal crumbled, and in 2014, Thor Equities, a longtime commercial landlord, and General Growth Properties struck a new deal with the Steinberg children. The Real Deal website reported that the price was $85 million and that the closing was expected to take place next month. Lee's, whic h has no plans to reopen in some other location, will continue its final sale until then, although many of its shelves and display cases are already empty. (David Steinberg, the chief executive of Lee's, did not return a call seeking comment.)

So artists will have to look elsewhere for supplies. The Art Students League of New York, across the street, has its own store. "Anyone who's mourning the loss of Lee's can come across the street and pick up what they need," Ken Park, a spokesman for the school, said.

But longtime customers like Ms. Simon, the photographer, will be left without the help that they counted on from Lee's employees like Hector Alburez. "I have these silver gelatin prints and if one corner is dog-eared, the whole deal is off," she said, adding that Mr. Alburez for years has packed them so that they were never damaged in shipping.

"He never talks about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, even though I would see them in a magazine at Lee's Art Supply," she said. "I would say something to Hector, and he would never talk about it. And he's somebody I've known for 38 years. I don't want to overemphasize that particular star couple, but they're there all the time. And Tony Bennett would be there all the time."

Other customers, though, said the demise of Lee's seemed almost inevitable.

"What in New York isn't different from what it used to be?" Marty Merkley asked, checking discounted merchandise on Friday. "What was quaint is chichi and what was chichi is astronomically expensive. But that's progress, whether we like it or not. Gentrification on any level is the lifeblood of any city."

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