IF THESE WALLS COULD TALK: An ever-changing tune

If the walls of New York’s iconic Brill Building could talk, they probably wouldn’t – they’d sing. Located squarely on the corner of Broadway and West 49th Street, the 175,000-square-foot building has been a nerve center for popular music in the Western world for more than 60 years. 

In June, however, the Brill Building got the attention not of music lovers or entertainment gurus, but real estate investors. In a deal valued at roughly $250 million, including anticipated renovations and leasing costs, one group of private equity real estate firms passed the baton of the building’s legacy onto another.

A partnership between Stonehenge Partners and a fund managed by Invesco Real Estate, which had been the owners of the Brill Building since November of 2007, sold the property to private real estate investment firm Allied Partners and private equity real estate firm Brickman for $185.5 million. The pair relied on Starwood Property Trust for a $158.5 million first mortgage to acquire the building and an additional $40 million in financing from Square Mile Capital Management for renovations.

“We have a vision to capitalize on the legendary reputation of the property by transforming it into a modern-day creative center for fashion, arts, media and entertainment in New York,” said Allied’s Eric Hadar in a statement announcing the sale. “We are in active negotiations with a number of parties and expect to announce several exciting new retail and office tenants soon. We anticipate a grand reopening of the space in late 2014.”

If renovations go according to plan, it should retain the landmark building’s heritage and aesthetic while modernizing the infrastructure to reflect the 21st century needs of its tenants. Still, for a building with an 82-year history as rich as that of the Brill Building, that’s quite a tall order.

Artsy façade, musical tenants
As one of the few buildings in Times Square built in the Art Deco style, the 11-story structure located at 1619 Broadway was built on speculation at the start of the Great Depression and completed in 1931. Real estate developer Abraham Lefcourt briefly planned to build “the world’s tallest building” on the site (it’s hard to imagine, but 1,050 feet would have fit the bill back then). However, due to financing difficulties, he had to scale back his plans.

For a short time, the structure was named for the developer’s son, Alan Lefcourt, who died at age 17 while the project was being planned. Indeed, a brass-finished bust of the boy still overlooks the elaborately ornamented entrance to the building. However, when the elder Lefcourt did not meet the letting agreement terms, the Brill brothers foreclosed on the property and renamed it. 

Although the Brill brothers were the owners of a men’s clothing store, the building they took over attracted tenants with a musical bent from the very beginning. Two of the earliest ones – sheet music company T.B. Harms and lyricist/composer Irving Caeser – were associated with the fading Tin Pan Alley, the publishers and songwriters that had dominated American music since the late 19th century. Even if they didn’t write music themselves, tenants such as vocal coaches and publicity agents also began to flock to the office building.

In the 1940s and 1950s, a growing number of big band groups and jazz musicians joined the ranks of Brill’s musicians. Big-name performers included Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole. By the 1960s, the building had 160 tenants related to the music industry.

Later on, Brill tenants not only kept up with the rise of rock ‘n’ roll; they popularized it and made it profitable on the mass market. The walls of certain offices were able to witness the creation and composition of such classics as Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock” and “Hound Dog.” In those days, to be successful in the music industry was to be associated with ‘the Brill Building sound’.

When the building was granted landmark status in 2010, New York Landmark Preservation Commission chairman Robert Tierney said: “This legendary building is as closely linked to American music as Hollywood is to film.”

Back to its roots
Today, only a handful of tenants related to the entertainment industry remain in the Brill Building, including Paul Simon Music and film distributor Broadway Video. However, the new owners of the landmark building have no intention of neglecting the structure’s rich history.

For instance, Hadar and Brickman intend to make the building home to the Songwriters Hall of Fame, an organization that honors the writers of the most beloved popular music songs. While “extensive renovations” will be needed throughout the retail and commercial space in the building, Times Square Alliance president Tim Tompkins believes the new owners will be “giving the Brill Building the attention it deserves.”

Even musicians at the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame “look forward to being a part of the renaissance of the new Brill Building,” according to Jimmy Webb, the legendary songwriter and chairman of the Songwriters Hall of Fame.