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Roberta Brandes Gratz

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When Is a Landmark A Landmark?

Posted: 07/30/11 02:23 PM ET

When is a designated landmark really a landmark and what are the limits of protection? When is the alteration of a landmark for a new use so extensive as to render the designation pointless? And if a building is worthy of such an honored status that often brings with it tax credits for its restoration, how far can the cause of adaptability be stretched?

Ever since the battle over the future of 2 Columbus Circle, these questions have taken on greater significance. The refusal of the Landmarks Preservation Commission to consider landmark status for the 1964 12-story museum designed by Edward Durell Stone is considered by preservationists as the "Penn Station of Modernist Preservation." Appreciation for the enduring value of mid-century modern architecture has been growing ever since and the number of advocates for preservation of that not-too-distant era has increased as well.
Now comes the case involving the 1954 Manufacturers Hanover Trust Bank at 43rd Street and Fifth Avenue, designed by one of the 20th century's most notable architects, Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

No more iconic building represents the Modernist era in New York City than this five-story glass box. Some are bigger and taller, others more famous, but none are more transparent or important. This little jewel speaks as well as any of them to the famed era of Mies Van der Rohe when "less is more" was the design rule of the day and Bunshaft was the city's leading practitioner.

Not anymore. Both the interior and exterior have been effectively destroyed, with the approval of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Just designating a lot of buildings is not a great accomplishment if honoring that designation does not follow.

This Landmarks Commission does not designate interiors lightly and rarely without an owner's consent. But recently the Commission designated the bank's interior with the consent of the new owner, Vornado, who is converting it to a big box retail store. Is yet another ho-hum big box retail store more important than a singular landmark, even if owned by one of the city's most powerful developers?

In its designation report, the commission cited as important the very elements it then permitted to be irrevocably altered, rendering the designation meaningless. The interior sits completely gutted -- totally taken apart, apparently with the commission's approval, raising the obvious question: when is a landmark really a landmark?

A state Supreme Court judge last week halted at least temporarily the renovation of this landmark, raising anew all these questions, especially how much alteration is permissible before a designation is rendered meaningless.

Only the exterior of the five-story, transparent, all-glass 1954 bank -- originally Manufacturers Hanover Trust and then Chase Manhattan -- was designated an exterior landmark in 1997, even though, as Ada Louise Huxtable has noted, "the exterior and interior were conceived as one thing, unified and inseparable, to be seen and understood as a continuous visual, spatial and aesthetic experience."

What could be the justification for destroying the unique interior features singled out in the Commission's own designation report? The celebrated stainless steel vault door designed by Henry Dreyfuss and its black granite exterior are gone with only the vault door and sliver of granite to be reinstalled; the Fifth Avenue façade, an "uninterrupted expanse of clear glass" so notable for its pure expression of modernism, will now be destroyed by two planned entrances inserted to replace the discreet 43rd Street entrance; the "twin escalators" running north/south, paralleling the avenue and giving pedestrians a view of people seemingly floating up and down will be replaced by escalators running east/west to service two separate stores divided by a previously non-existent wall undermining further the open, airy, minimalist interior. The mixed-metal 70-foot by 16-foot screen by famed modernist designer Harry Bertoia is gone as well. The exterior is fundamentally altered by the rearrangement inside. Transparency from the street meant everything.

What will be left? It is hard to tell. Final working drawings apparently have not yet been submitted. But the "luminous ceiling" is due to be restored with all sorts of new insertions. The eight marble-clad piers that held the mezzanine in a floating-like position are being strengthened along with the mezzanine, providing the ability (not yet requested but expected eventually) to build a tower over this diminutive gem.

By the commission's own standard alterations to a landmark should be reversible, but it is a challenge to see how that would be possible. Ironically, this building interior survived undesignated with few incursions until designation opened the floodgate to major alterations. No such dramatic adjustments would even be attempted for such eminent bank interiors as Central Savings Bank at 72nd and Broadway or the Williamsburgh Savings Bank in Brooklyn. And for other modernist interiors, such as Seagrams and Time Life, or for the Art Deco Empire State Building, commissioners hardly let a concierge desk be changed without fierce attention to the integrity of the building.

This celebrated masterpiece could have been so creatively adapted to distinguish any new retail space from yet another ordinary big box container. The historic bank vaults, now restaurants, at Cipriani's Wall Street, Trinity Place or Bobby Van's Broad Street are successful models. Traditionally, New York department stores had notable eateries drawing customers to their space.

Stripping a landmark of the character that makes it special or letting one serve as a pedestal for a new tower contradicts both the spirit and substance of New York's Landmarks Law, once a model for the country. This is tantamount to de-designation.

Roberta Brandes Gratz is a former New York City Landmarks Commissioner and author of the recently published, The Battle For Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs (Nation Books).