How to Preserve a Glass Box
March 5, 2012
With the return of Mad Men looming near (and maybe some explanations for those subway ads), we turn our attention to a mid-century modern masterpiece, once home to a steady flow of taupe fedoras and trench coats: the 1954 Manufacturers Hanover Trust Building by Skidmore Owings and Merrill. The former bank has been the subject of a prickly architectural preservation battle. While SOM is currently overseeing the renovation of the building, in October 2011, JP Morgan, a former owner of the building, had two sculptures removed from the site, including a multi-paneled bronze screen by artist Harry Bertoia, which had served as the textural contrast to Gordon Bunshaft’s clean glass box. Architecture critics responded with outrage, with Wall Street Journal critic Ada Louise Huxtable lamenting the “profound misunderstanding of the sculptures’ function as an essential architectural element.”
We learned that the sculptures have recently been restored after an agreement was reached between the Landmarks Preservation Committee and Chase in late February. But the question of what deserves to be landmarked, or in other words, what constitutes the architecture of this famously modular building, continues to stir controversy. More after the jump.
As the Huffington Post reported, Vornado Realty Trust, the current owner of the building, has received permission to add new entryways, rotate the escalators, and reduce the size of the building’s famed vaulted wall. While SOM principal Roger Duffy hailed the adaptability of design as an inherent quality of the original plan, the rearrangement of the plan has been seen as perversely unfaithful by certain preservationists. Architectural historian Kenneth Frampton told Architect’s Newspaper that “saying this kind of architecture is modular is a weak argument…Even quite small changes will disturb a building.”
Preservationists have now turned to the courts in attempts to reverse the remodeling already in progress. Granted the building now serves an entirely new purpose as home to several retail stores, architects and historians fear for the overall decline of preservation efforts. As architect Richard Gluckman told the Huff Po, “since the building is one of the most transparent in New York…it’s almost as if the interior is more significant than the façade…If things are designated, they should be rigorously protected.”
[All photos © Ezra Stoller]