Moot Fate?

Moot Fate?

Preservationists persisting in their efforts to stop ongoing renovations at the Manufacturers Hanover building being carried out by Vornado Reality Trust—and abetted by the Landmarks Historic Commission—may have found a loophole. State Supreme Court Justice Lucy Billings is presiding over the case where protection of a natural resource, a forest in upstate New York, may have profound consequences for the corner of Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street.

All agree that the 1954 Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM) building designed by Gordon Bunshaft is a masterpiece of Modernism. On October 5 it was added to the World Monuments Fund watch list. With a transparent facade that renders the structure and interior as one, it’s a rare example where both are landmarked (the latter only since February). But the avenue, once lined with storefronts for airlines, has evolved into a youth-centric fashion district, and Vornado is set to lease nearly three quarters of the former bank space to Joe Fresh, a Canadian retailer.

Roger Duffy, a principal at SOM is charged with supervising the renovations of the building right down to redesigning a bronze Bertoia screen that was removed from the building last October. For the renovation, Duffy said in an interview, SOM staff delved into their archives finding correspondence between the client, bank president Horace Flannigan, and SOM revealing that Flannigan always wanted the space to be adaptable, should the radical design not work out as a bank. Duffy allowed that many of the design elements held significant importance, but he argued that it is the adaptability for new programming that makes the space unique.

At issue now are adaptations that preservationists led by the Citizens Emergency Committee to Preserve Preservation (CECPP) say are unacceptable alterations to the landmarked interior, including changing the direction of escalators, replacing site-specific art works, and adding new entrances.

In the original design, Bunshaft placed daily business away from the street on a cantilevered floor floating over a black granite safe whose stainless steel door, designed by Henry Dreyfuss, sat on Fifth Avenue for all to see. Two escalators running parallel to the avenue swept visitors to and from a discreet side entrance on 43rd Street, leaving the avenue façade solely for viewing. On the banking floor a 70-foot-wide multi-paneled bronze screen designed for the space by sculptor Harry Bertoia served as a textured backdrop to the clean lines.

In October of last year, as Vornado bought the property from Tal Prop Equities, preservationists panicked when AN reported that the screen was being plucked from the site by JPMorgan Chase, the building’s former owner and later its tenant. Finally in February, the city responded by landmarking the interior, only to approve major renovations proposed by Vornado two months later. Much of the interior was gutted to alter the cantilever so it could accommodate a reconfigured escalator, no longer in profile from Fifth Avenue, but running west to east. The Bertoia will be replaced with a clean lined anodized aluminum version that looks more like a digital printout than a hand-crafted sculpture. Two entrances would be added to Fifth Avenue and the ground floor space would be divided to accommodate two tenants, with Joe Fresh taking up one half of the first floor and all of the second.

In Bunshaft’s original design, visually weighted elements defined the space in the manner of a three-dimensional Mondrian. The Bertoia spanned the back wall, the escalator diagonally sliced the foreground, the black granite wall provided deep accents, and planters framed the second floor cantilever. All of these elements are to be eliminated or reconfigured.

On July 7, CECPP filed suit, and by mid-August State Supreme Court Justice Billings issued a stop work order based in part on claims by Pratt Institute professor Eric W. Allision, a founding member of CECPP, that his “professional use and enjoyment of this unique site [is] integral to his teaching and course of study” and his work would be “directly curtailed” by the alterations.

The case was quietly limping along until an article in the New York Times quoted an email exchange between a former Landmarks commissioner Meredith Kane and Landmarks staff. Kane is now legal counsel for Vornado. At a September 30 hearing, Maria T. Vullo, Vornado’s rep, alluded to the press coverage. “They can’t win this case so they’re off into other realms,” she said. For her part, Justice Billings said that there was nothing out of the ordinary in the former commissioner lobbying on behalf of her current client. “Her clients were very smart in retaining her because of her experience with the commission,” said Billings.

In allowing that the professor had a legal leg to stand on, Justice Billings cited Save the Pine Bush v. Common Council City of Albany. The judge wrote that though that case addresses the protection of a natural resource under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA), landmark preservation is “closely analogous.” She added that Allison’s “desire to use or observe, even for purely aesthetic purposes, is undeniably a cognizable interest” for purposes of legal standing.

Michael Gruen, the attorney representing CECPP said that he wasn’t sure if Pine Bush had ever before been applied to an urban landmark building. “There’s absolutely no reason why it would not apply on a broad basis, especially on land uses issues,” he said. “SEQRA specifically talks of landmarks, and other cultural aspects have to be considered. There you have a legislative action that considers historic preservation to be part and parcel of environmental preservation.” The city and Vornado are contesting this definition of legal standing at the appellate level. “It is our position that none of the petitioners have standing, and that case doesn’t apply to the specifics of this case,” said the city’s counsel, Virginia Waters. Meanwhile, construction work continues unabated because CECPP was unable to produce a required $370,000 bond to stop it. With the exception of the safe door, all of the original interiors are already gone.