An agreement reached on Wednesday at the New York State Supreme Court between Vornado Reality and preservationists finally puts to rest the fate of the Manufacturers Hanover Trust building, a Modernist masterpiece designed by Gordon Bunshaft for Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM) in 1954. As part of the agreement, Vornado, the building’s current owner, asked the Landmarks Preservation Commission to amend the certificate of appropriateness issued in April 2011 to allow the reinstallation of two Harry Bertoia sculptures. SOM is overseeing the current renovation of the building. Vornado will also ask the Commission to expand the landmarking to include the interior of the former vault space. “Our staff could cite no other recent example where an owner requested the agency to increase the area of an interior landmark,” Landmarks spokesperson Elizabeth de Bourbon said in an email.
The agreement is unusual for several reasons, not the least of which is that one of the building’s former owners, JP Morgan Chase, still owns the artwork. One is a 70-foot-wide multi-paneled bronze screen designed for the second floor space that served as a textured backdrop inside the glass box. The second is a spindly mobile representing a cloud. The bank removed both sculptures after Vornado completed the deal to buy the building from Tal Prop Equities in October 2010. Almost immediately the architecture press, led by Ada Louise Huxtable at The Wall Street Journal, called for the sculptures’ return. Huxtable said that the removal of the sculptures was “a perverse form of preservation that begins with a profound misunderstanding of the sculptures function as an essential architectural element.” With the crash of 2008 still fresh, the critic warned that despite the bank’s assurances, sometimes, troubled institutions will ship their “expendable assets” off to Christie’s or Sotheby’s.
Ezra Stoller/ESTO and Courtesy SOM
Michael S. Gruen, the attorney representing the preservationists, said that Chase signed an agreement that will keep the sculptures in place as permanent loans as long as the interior remains landmarked. “The agreement was something that seemed interesting to everyone and pointed to a nice solution where instead of everyone being equally unhappy, everyone is equally happy,” said Gruen.
During the case, accusations flew from the preservationists that Vornado and the commission were in cahoots to speed up the approval process. Part of the agreement drops preservationists’ request for all emails between Landmarks staff and Vornado’s council Meredith Kane. Kane’s status as a former Landmarks commissioner came under scrutiny after The New York Times published emails between the commissions’ staff and Kane. Preservationists suggested the communications were undue influence rather than routine procedure, as Landmarks contends. Asked whether the emails acted as leverage for the agreement, Gruen demurred. “I think that the emails spoke for themselves and generated some controversy,” said Gruen. “But the design is the central aspect and we focused a lot more on the design than on the emails.”
Several other changes permitted by Landmarks proved controversial. Yesterday’s agreement attempted to address at least two contentious design interventions. One involves the black granite wall of the Henry Dreyfuss-designed vault, which will be repurposed and moved to the south wall. Secondly, the illuminated ceiling will now continue through the area formerly occupied by the safe. Vornado has insisted that the first floor must accommodate two retail tenants to be financially viable. De Bourbon said the commission’s approval required the installation of a metal strip in the floor and changes to the lighting grid above to demarcate the area once occupied by the vault. In addition, a proposed dividing wall threatened to disrupt the visual flow of the illuminated ceiling. The new agreement extends a pane of transparent glass that will sit atop the dividing wall, taking it from 18 inches to 34 inches. The contiguous ceiling and black granite wall are now landmarked.
Ezra Stoller / ESTO
However, several other contentious elements remain. The escalators that were once viewed in profile from Fifth Avenue, now run perpendicular to the avenue, and two doors were inserted onto the Fifth Avenue facade. But in an interview with AN last October, SOM principal Roger Duffy said that the all of the design interventions could be reversible. He added that original documents show that correspondence between the client (bank president Horace Flannigan) and SOM reveal that Flannigan always wanted the space to be adaptable, should the radical design not work out as a bank.
It’s a contention that architectural historian Kenneth Frampton of Columbia University found lacking. “Saying this kind of architecture is modular is a weak argument,” said Frampton. “The exhibition of the safe [in the front window] means it was historically set up as a bank building.” He added the even subtle interventions change the nature of a building. “Even quite small changes will disturb a building, such as the mode of entry,” he said. Nevertheless, Frampton found the return of screen “amazing,” but added that the restoration and resulting controversies exemplified problems inherent to adaptive reuse. “It speaks to the speed of change and the kind of commodification, and it’s full of ironies,” he said citing the current proliferation of banks in New York that “have no civic institutional pretentions.” When asked if Wednesday’s ruling might set a precedent for the preservation of other transparent Modernist structures throughout the city Frampton predicted, “Every battle has to be fought through over and over again.”