There are changes going on at 92nd Street Y. For starters, that’s not technically the name anymore.
After emerging from a challenging pandemic that halted personal programming, the old Upper East Side institution of arts and enrichment has rebranded itself, leaned on digital offerings and is now embarking on a much-anticipated renovation of its home on the corner of 92nd Street. and Lexington Ave.
A groundbreaking ceremony is scheduled for later this month at one of the cultural center’s public play areas, Buttenwieser Hall. Work on that space will mark the beginning of a new phase of what officials say is a broader $200 million masterplan to reimagine the campus, which is largely concentrated in two buildings on a city block of Lexington Avenue between East 91st and 92nd. street.
The plan was largely developed during the pandemic by Seth Pinsky, the institution’s director† which was renamed 92nd Street Y, New York last month – or 92NY for short.
When Mr. Pinsky, the former head of the Bloomberg administration’s economic development division, took over in the fall of 2019, the cultural and community center had already raised $180 million, some of which was earmarked for building improvements.
But the pandemic gave Mr. Pinsky and his team more time to figure out exactly how to upgrade the space while keeping it operational. Now, he said, they are undertaking the most significant campus renovation since the south building was added in the 1960s.
“The 92nd Street Y is a lot like New York City,” Pinsky said. “Fantastic things happen here. But just like in New York City, we underinvested in maintenance and capital for several years. And now is the time for us to improve our internal systems, make the building more psychologically appealing and make the building more flexible so that programmatically, as 92nd Street Y continues to evolve, the building is able to evolve with it. †
Workers have already upgraded some of the building’s infrastructure and created a new outdoor space on the roof of one of the buildings. Next, the $24 million renovation phase includes improvements to Buttenwieser Hall, the creation of a new dance studio on the second floor of the North Building, and upgrades to the gym known as the May Center. Officials also plan to demolish and relocate some of the office space in key areas of the building to make room for even more performance space.
The funds at hand will cover this phase of the work, which will likely take 12 to 18 months. But additional funds will need to be raised to complete the full $200 million plan, Pinsky said. What exactly will happen during the next phase of the renovation is still being discussed.
“We want to go through the plans a little bit and move forward a little bit and make sure we have a good idea of the pricing and that we have the resources available before announcing exactly what we’re going to do,” he said. “But the goal is for the next phase to be at least as important as this one — and hopefully even more important.”
A nearly 150-year-old institution, 92NY is known for its extensive programming, which includes lectures from high-profile public figures. Founded by a group of German Jewish professionals, 92NY also offers language and music classes and activities related to Jewish life.
Some of the upcoming renovations of the decades-old buildings are designed to improve energy efficiency, upgrade heating and cooling systems, and ensure that new toilets and lockers meet the standards of the Americans With Disabilities Act.
On a recent visit, a black and white “92NY” banner hung outside on Lexington Avenue to mark the space. The forward-facing walls had been repainted with the signature logo, and glass displays were filled with new posters with cheerful proclamations such as “INNOVATIVE IDEAS CAN CHANGE THE WORLD”.
But inside, the ceilings in some offices showed their age. As they walked from floor to floor, officials acknowledged that the building is a kind of labyrinth that has essentially been cobbled together over the decades in ways that don’t always make sense. For example, the gym is on a different floor than the men’s locker room – one of the problems they want to partially solve with the renovation.
Buttenwieser Hall, which Mr. Pinsky said currently has “the aesthetic of a high school gymnasium,” will soon be ditching its proscenium stage in favor of a retractable stage, movable wings and retractable seats. The lobby’s lobby, which was dimly lit last afternoon, will also be “opened up” in several ways, Pinsky said. The nearby office space on the same floor is being transformed into the new dance studio and recital space.
Pinsky said the pandemic forced officials to move more programs online and made it clear that 92NY has an audience that extends beyond the city. As such, they embarked on the rebranding (think “92NY” as a fashion brand that has Paris in its name, he said – anchored firmly in a world-famous city in a way that elevates the brand globally); and they’ve rolled out a new online platform for live interactive courses and instruction called Roundtable by the 92nd Street Y, New York.
The platform grew out of 92NY’s renowned adult education program and will feature discussions with Pulitzer Prize winners, Michelin-starred chefs, poets and leaders in academia. Courses are coming up on Franz Kafka’s drawings; the sights, foods and wines of Northern California; and world politics.
“Our values, the mission will never change,” said Mr. Pinsky. “But the way we communicate with the public and the way we deliver our services and our content needs to change.”