Joseph Pell Lombardi, Turning Offices Into Apartments

When Liberty Tower went up for sale in Manhattan’s financial district in 1978, there was only one bidder for the 33-story skyscraper. The building was dated and dilapidated, and even though rent had plunged to $5 a square foot, it was two-thirds vacant. New York City itself had tumbled into a downward spiral after a severe fiscal crisis and a deep recession.

But Joseph Pell Lombardi, a 38-year-old preservation architect, envisioned a future for the tower, the former headquarters of Sinclair Oil, that others could not. “The city was failing,” Mr. Lombardi recalled recently. “The financial district was failing. Nobody wanted to be here.”

He was entranced by the neo-Gothic elegance of its terra-cotta exterior, adorned with gargoyles, alligators and birds; its huge windows had an unobstructed view of New York Harbor. With just $25,000 down, he bought the 1909 building at a bargain-basement price of $922,000, and then — to the bafflement of the real estate industry — he converted it into 89 co-op apartments. Liberty Tower was the first major residential conversion of an office building in New York’s financial district.

It was not an obvious solution to empty office space. At the time, the area around the New York Stock Exchange and World Trade Center was largely deserted in the evening; supermarkets, restaurants, retail stores all closed by 5 p.m.

“It was an outpost,” said Mr. Lombardi, who moved his own family into the former executive suite of Harry Sinclair, the founder of the company. “We were pioneers in the urban wilderness.”

The building soon filled, and its surprising resurrection opened eyes. “Joe was way ahead of the curve on that Liberty conversion,” said Richard Gluckman, a partner at Gluckman Tang Architects who specializes in restorations. “His foresight inspired a lot of architects. He showed what was possible.”

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