Hatchets drawn, oxygen tanks strapped to their backs, four firemen were first on the scene at artist-provocateur Damien Hirst’s opening night in the lobby at Lever House. Aby Rosen, who has owned the office building since 1998, would soon emerge, cocktail in hand, wearing a snazzy velvet Nehru jacket. A British band was rehearsing the Sex Pistols and the Clash on the third-floor terrace, effectively the private patio of Rosen’s own office, wallpapered with Warhols and facing the iconic Seagram Building across the street—which Rosen owns, too. On this chilly evening, Lever House, the landmark modernist masterpiece Rosen had restored to a youthful glow, was lit up and speakered for sound like an eighties disco.
The firefighters trooped upstairs as guests arrived and gaped at Hirst’s surreal schoolroomlike installation in the Lever lobby, its “students” several rows of butcher-shop sheep carcasses in formaldehyde fish tanks. As stated in the handout, this full-floor meat-locker collage commissioned especially for Lever House had something to do with contradictory states of being. The archaeology of lost desires. It made absurd sense that the barbecued-sparerib buffet waiting upstairs had set off the smoke alarm.
Twelve years ago, Rosen’s real-estate company, RFR Holding, had but two employees. But now the enterprising Frankfurt émigré and his partner, Michael Fuchs, controlled approximately 7.5 million square feet of prime office space in Manhattan and 1.5 million square feet of retail space in Manhattan, South Beach, and Las Vegas, not to mention those 2,500 luxury residential apartments here in town and hotels to come in Miami and Palm Beach. Rosen, who’s married to society princess Samantha Boardman, is the wallet behind Ian Schrager and such bankably swank starchitect-designed condos as 40 Bond, 50 Gramercy Park North, and the Gramercy Park Hotel.
Rosen, who may be recognized by his jolly jowls and satisfied smile, theatrically topped off by arrogant eyebrows and silver composer hair, has also been very conspicuously stuffing cash into a massive contemporary-art collection, with Lever House acting as his own personal Frick. Hirst’s Virgin Mother is a 35-foot-tall bronze giantess stalking Lever’s courtyard like a Sinbad-movie monster, skin ghoulishly peeled back to expose her pregnancy in surgical detail. Rosen had it swung into place with a crane. “A crazy rock-and-roll thing to do,” says art dealer Tony Shafrazi. “With Aby, there’s no sense of timidity at all. He wants to blast it to completion—and take it beyond.”
At the party, some of Rosen’s fellow volume buyers of the contemporary-art bubble, the nine or so men who had been hoarding hundreds of Warhols and Hirsts, were checking out the supersize medicine chests arrayed around the perimeter (medicine chests being to Hirst what apples were to Magritte). So, too, were Ron Perelman, Heather Graham, Salman Rushdie, Uma Thurman, and S.I. Newhouse—rolled up inside a top-buttoned beige trench coat like some bashful canapé—on hand to witness Rosen’s Medici moment. Tony Shafrazi stood at the head of the class, an electroshock-haired professor attempting to explain all to Owen Wilson and the rest of the hipsterati. But the glass box that is Lever House was effectively the biggest Hirst vitrine of all, one aiming to seal Aby Rosen’s reputation in this town as the proverbial man of Wealth and, perhaps even more important, Taste.
Rosen’s taste had been in question ever since he’d engaged Lord Norman Foster to grow an ultramodern apartment building atop the landmark Parke-Bernet building directly across the street from the Carlyle Hotel. The Upper East Side predictably went bananas over Rosen’s Siamese-twin tower, carrying on as if Aby the Hun were on the verge of sacking Madison Avenue.
Norman Foster is perhaps the world’s foremost surgeon for landmark-building implants; witness the Hearst Corporation’s stunningly engorged headquarters in midtown. (“It should have been even taller—it would have looked even better,” Rosen says of the Hearst tower.) His proposed building was fashionably green, powered by soybean biofuel, solar-heated water thrumming through pipes concealed inside the double-skinned walls. The elliptical residences with superb views of Central Park were positively anorectic, 18- and 24-story shafts planted in a new roof garden and casting negligible shadows—even if they vaguely resembled two office towers here on vacation from Miami.
At a hearing, Lord Foster presented Aby Rosen’s vision and pronounced it “sculptural.” A work of art. Though this was a historic district, the Foster team observed that the area wasn’t ever intended to be “preserved in aspic,” imagery that seemed to baffle this audience—as did repeated references to the Upper East Side’s “tradition of radicalism” and the proposed public art gallery on the lower floors pretentiously referred to as a Kunsthalle.
Like many younger Upper East Side residents, Rosen publicly lamented the lack of some sophisticated nocturnal street life. (“He should go out more,” counters Peg Breen, the Landmarks Conservancy’s Jackie O.–as–a–redhead president.) Says Adam Lindemann, telecom heir, Upper East Side resident of almost 46 years, contemporary-art collector, and Rosen backbencher, the debate “was a real generational thing. It’s very unfortunate that the 60-plus crowd will make us their prisoners until they pass.”