ArchDaily previously ran an article about the Manufacturers Trust Company Bank Branch at 510 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan designed by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and interior designer Eleanor H. Le Maire, a building designated as protected under the Landmarks Preservation Commission with first the exterior in 1997 and later the interior in early 2011. But as recently as October 2011, the building was already listed under the 2012 World Monuments Fund in the 2012 World Monuments Watch as the current owners, Vornado Realty Trust, began compromising the landmarked conditions of the interior of the building as it was being adapted for reuse. With preservationists in an uproar, support for the protection of the building was enough to bring Vornado Realty Trust to New York State Supreme Court where a settlement was reached.
Read on for more details on the settlement and continuing efforts to protect endangered monuments.
do_co,mo.mo_us, an organization for the Documentation and Conservation of Buildings, Sites and Neighborhoods of the Modern Movement, reported on the settlement reached earlier this month: “Not a win, but a legal settlement with some positives“, as the title optimistically states.
The group of preservationists that stepped out to protect the building were actually responding to the Certificate of Appropriateness, issued by the very organization that was protecting the building, the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which according to the plaintiffs, “dramatically compromised the landmark-worthy qualities the Commission intended to protect when it designated the bank”. The certificate was issued last April and had given Vornado Realty Trust the rights to alter the interior for reuse. First, the upside: Vornado “agreed not to build on top of the building, to request that the Commission include the black granite vault wall in the interior designation, and to extend the glass portion of the wall it will construct to divide the first floor into two separate leases”. The company has also agreed to work with JP Morgan Chase to bring two of Harry Bertoia’s original sculptures back into the building: a 70-foot long golden arbor screen that was part of the second floor lobby, and a sculpture that floated over the paired escalators.
In light of this, elements of the building’s interior are being restored to their original state and the exterior is being protected from excessive retrofitting. On the other hand, and this is the point that DOCOMOMO NY/Tri-State makes, is that there has been no agreement on the placement of these sculptures. Their position with the original design created focal points within the public spaces of the building’s interior. It is now unclear how the future state of the interior will compare. Additional downsides pointed out by DOCOMOMO are that the settlement fails to address the division of space that Vornado plans, which severely compromise the openness and transparency designed by Le Maire; it also does not address plans to rotate and relocate the escalators, pushing them further into the building and making them less visible from the street; nor does it say anything about plans to remove the 43rd street vestibule and add new entrances and signage on the Fifth Avenue facade, breaking the regularity and rhythm designed by Bunshaft.
Landmarks has still approved the removal of the black granite wall of the Henry Dreyfuss-designated vault, once a central and symbolic element of the bank’s identity in the original design. It is to be repurposed and relocated. The reason? Vornado claims that it needs two retail tenants on the first floor to be “financially viable” and plans to alter the illuminated ceiling to designate where the safe once was. Original plans included a floor to ceiling dividing wall between the two retail spaces, but this has been changed to accomodate a sheet of glass that will be 18 – 34 inches from the ceiling to protect the visual continuity of the ceiling, which is no landmarked as well.
Maybe this is to be expected – but it is surprising that having the building designated as a landmark specifically for both its exterior and interior does not protect the details and spatial considerations of the original design for which it has been recognized as a monument. It seems, in this case, that what the Certificate of Appropriateness has done is allow Vornado to change the experience of the interior space, so long as the physical space stays more or less intact. This position undervalues the aspects of architecture that make buildings more than objects, that makes them experiences,ties them to memory. When Vornado comes in to change those aspects – the transparency of the interior to and from the street, the openness of the plan, the regularity of its construction – it is changing much more about the building and undermines what Landmarks is looking to protect.
DOCOMOMO has amazing photos of the interior of Manufacturers Trust Bank, view them and the original article here.