Lee’s art shop to close as Midtown towers sprout around it

The Lees’ building at 220 West 57th Street was originally a clubhouse for the American Society of Civil Engineers, whose members no doubt enjoyed its delicate facade as they filled and filled its 400-seat auditorium – until the building becomes a Schrafft restaurant. Lee’s, which was across the street in a 500-square-foot storefront, rented the ground floor in the 1970s.

Lee’s owners bought the entire building in the 1990s and spent $8 million on renovations in 2001 and 2002, which increased retail space from 7,500 square feet to 40,000 square feet. squares. The extra room was on three largely unused floors upstairs. New escalators were brought in (through a hole in the roof) and installed at night. This allowed the store to remain open during the day.

In 2013 – five years after the death of Gilbert Steinberg, who had owned Lee’s since the early 1950s, and six years after the death of his wife, Ruth, known as Ricki and who also had a hand in the store – the two children who had taken over signed a contract to sell the building for $65 million.

That deal fell apart, and in 2014 Thor Equities, a longtime business owner, and General Growth Properties reached a new deal with the Steinberg children. The Real Deal website reported the price was $85 million and the closing was expected to take place next month. Lee’s, which has no plans to reopen at any other location, will continue with its final sale until then, although many of its shelves and display cases are already empty. (David Steinberg, Lee’s chief executive, did not return a call seeking comment.)

Artists will therefore have to look elsewhere for supplies. The Art Students League of New York across the street has its own store. “Anyone mourning the loss of Lee can walk across the street and take what they need,” said Ken Park, a school spokesman.

But longtime clients like Ms. Simon, the photographer, will find themselves without the help they’ve counted on from Lee employees like Hector Alburez. “I have these silver gelatin prints and if a corner is chipped, it’s all canceled,” she said, adding that Mr. Alburez wrapped them for years so they would never be damaged during printing. shipment.

“He never talks about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, even though I saw them in a magazine at Lee’s Art Supply,” she said. “I said something to Hector, and he never mentioned it. And he’s someone I’ve known for 38 years. I don’t want to overemphasize this particular star couple, but they’re there all the time. And Tony Bennett would be there all the time.

Other customers, however, said Lee’s demise seemed almost inevitable.

“What’s not different in New York than it used to be?” Marty Merkley asked, checking out the discounted merchandise on Friday. “What used to be quaint is chichi and what was chichi is astronomically expensive. But it’s progress, like it or not. Gentrification at all levels is the cornerstone of any city.