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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Rebecca Robertson

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-03-09

The way Rebecca Robertson bounced, laughed and gesticulated at the lunch table yesterday, it seemed perfectly appropriate to ask where her kinetic energy came from.

Was it the lamb-and-barley soup, and the Cobb Salad that she'd consumed, or maybe some super-protein breakfast Ms. Robertson had before starting her day at 8 o'clock, the reporter said?

"That's just me," the president and CEO of the Seventh Regiment Armory Conservancy said. "I'm a passionate person. I'm very passionate about the projects I take on. And this new project - well, it's to die for. This is very exciting."

Only an unreconstructed believer in urban restoration would call the task of rehabilitating a 127-year-old, 180,000-square-foot, 5-story building that occupies a full block between Park and Lexington Avenues and, and 66th and 67th Streets, "exciting."

Only a spirited acolyte of urban history would agree to raise some $150 million for revitalizing a structure that contains 16 reception rooms by legendary New Yorkers such as Louis Comfort Tiffany, Stanford White, Jasper Cropsey, Candace Wheeler, and the Herter Brothers.

And only a committed celebrant of urban culture would sign on to transform a 55,000-square-foot, column-free space - the Armory's Drill Hall, where art and antiques shows are traditionally held - into an arena for cutting edge visual and performing arts.

"But I am all those things," Ms. Robertson said, with something between a laugh and a roar. "What makes a great city great is its mythology. I like to ensure that the mythology is preserved, that everybody is able to tap into it, that public places become vibrant public spaces. Where else but in New York could you get continuing opportunities to do that?"

If there's an element of the outsider's fascination with New York in her comments, that's because Ms. Robertson is indeed not from here. She was born in Toronto, one of three children of Struan and Barbara Robertson, and studied at the University of Toronto all the way to a master's degree in design.

"My father was a lawyer who took a great deal of interest in design, and I would accompany him to all kinds of community board meetings in Toronto," Ms. Robertson said. "I learned all about how urban systems work through the participation process. I came to like the idea of working on projects - of getting various parties to come together to preserve the mythology of cities."

It would be a while before she got her own opportunity to become a significant player in preserving those mythologies.

First there was marriage to an American client of her father, a Citibank executive named Byron Knief. Then there was a move to Mexico with him. She learned Spanish - to complement her English and French from bilingual Canada - and started teaching and research at Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico on housing and urban development issues. (She still lectures at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.)

Then she moved to Venezuela when her husband was transferred. Not one to pass up an opportunity to learn about a new culture and make her special contribution to it, Ms. Robertson worked on the design and construction of a new town in the southern part of that Latin American country, whose new-found oil riches were starting to generate prosperity.

"It was a little bit of a frontier experience," she said. "Tough conditions but interesting people."

New York was next - also a place of tough conditions but interesting people.
One of the most interesting persons she encountered was Herbert Sturz, who recruited her to the city's planning department. Ms. Robertson explored the renewal of West Side neighborhoods, among other assignments.

"And then came a wonderful opportunity - the 42nd Street Development Project," she said, fairly bursting with a fresh injection of enthusiasm.

That project involved changing a crime-ridden, dilapidated block between Seventh and Eighth Avenues from what Ms. Robertson called "the armpit of New York" into a clean, vibrant zone.

"I did not want to end the chaos and populism of that street," she said. "A clean street that was free from crime, definitely - but I felt that the mythology of the area was in its chaos, clangor. I insisted that buildings continue to have bright signage. We brought in madam Tussaud's, and Disney. We talked MV into coming in. But they all had to fit our vision of positive chaos and populism. And look at 42nd Street now - it's reborn, it feels like a place where you want to be. It's to die for!"

Mr. Robertson's next project was also "to die for," as she put it. She was invited to spearhead the redevelopment of Lincoln Center.

"It was the biggest performing-arts center in the world, and yet it seemed so closed down," Ms. Robertson said.

Closed down? Lincoln Center, where thousands of people visit every day?

"It seemed tamped down by it overwhelming architecture - just as Times Square was once tamped down by its crime," Ms. Robertson said.

"But Lincoln Center is populated by people - the dancers in their warming tights, preparing for rehearsals, the stage hands, all the talented artists," she said. "And the public was seeing little of that. I just love the sweat and struggles of the artistic community. I felt that the public should have access to that community."

Her plan for the center's rejuvenation was presented in her capacity as executive director of the Lincoln Center Development Project. Work is expected to commence next month. But Ms. Robertson won't be there to supervise it.


"A lot of running a project involves sitting through long meetings," she said. "I created the renewal project, and I was keen to move on to another high-energy project."

Her move came last month on St. Valentine's Day. It brought her to the Seventh Regiment Armory, which had fallen into disrepair.

"Beyond the overall wear of time and weather upon the structure, the building has also suffered over the years from unsympathetic and destructive work - overpainting of original decorative surfaces, poor restoration attempts, original lighting fixtures lost, problems with heating and water, magnificent wooden doors damaged, and makeshift wiring which poses a danger to the entire structure," Ms. Robertson said, echoing a report that assessed the Armory sorry state.

"The pity is, the Armory has some of the most beautiful 19th century rooms in New York," she said. "So it's going to be exciting to restore the structure."
Her fundraising campaign for the restoration hasn't formally started, but the Armory has already received $30 million from the state - which owns the Armory - and $25 million through private contributions.

Lunch was nearly over. The reporter asked if she saw herself as an embodiment of the New York ethos.

"I don't spend a lot of time thinking about the deeper meaning of such things," Ms. Robertson said. "If you're romantic, idealistic and tenacious - and if you're willing to learn every step of the way, a lot of good things can happen to you.

"I hate doing things that have no point," she said. "But I would say that I've absorbed some of the characteristics of New York - I set high standards for accomplishment, I am very competitive, I have focus, I have high energy, and I also have a little bit of the maverick quality. I'm goal-oriented. I am also disciplined."

Then Rebecca Robertson stood up, tossed back her hair, gave a huge laugh, and was off to the Armory.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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