By Carter B. Horsley
While the relatively plain, almost drab facades
of many Italian villas and palazzos belie the riches within, the
interiors of most American atrium-less office buildings are generally
reflected somewhat in the facades.
An exception was the through-block, 30-story
office tower erected by Gerald D. Hines Interests in 1985 at 40
West 53rd Street and 31 West 52nd Street. Designed by Kevin Roche
John Dinkeloo & Associates, the pink-granite façade
appeared quite flimsy, indeed clumsy, particularly so since Hines
had a reputation as the foremost American developer of quality
office buildings in the 1970's and 1980's.
While the disappointment with the tower's cladding
was major, the project had one incredible redeeming feature: the
grandest lobby in midtown.
A splendiferous space that would make Croesus
smile, the red-and-gold-mosaic clad space, shown above, was several
stories tall and its west side was a huge, full-height, multi-paned
window overlooking a through-block park with its superb sculpture,
"Lapstrake." by Jesus Bautista Moroles that was commissioned
by the E. F. Hutton Corporation when it was the building's initial
In their book, "The Art commission and
the Municipal Art Society Guide to Manhattan's Outdoor Sculpture,"
Margot Gayle and Michele Cohen note that this "ancient ruin...consists
of polished granite slabs alternating with rough-hewn circular
blocks stacked tier on tier with a jaunty tilting irregularity."
The landscaped park, shown below, is very attractive even if it
is a bit unnecessary as it abuts the sunken plazas that wrap around
the CBS Building and is near the Avenue of the Americas.
The entrances to this office building are nicely
treated as small but tall loggias that open onto its magnificent
lobby whose walls and ceiling and columns exude a sumptuously
reddish-rose glow and warmth. The effect is more astonishing because
of its Gothic Cathedral-like soaring height, which seems even
higher because it is rectilinear in plan and because Roche has
employed some of his scale-obscuring tricks. Like his United Nations
Plaza hotel/office complex on First Avenue, the fenestration pattern
in the lobby is deceptive and multiple panes constitute a floor.
Furthermore, with the exception of the arched
openings to the elevator banks, this space in monochromatic, further
robbing the visitor of easy visual clues, such as banding or artworks,
with which to gauge the scale, and the thin columns are capped
with splayed capitals that almost seem to melt into the ceiling,
additionally blurring the visual focus. The building has occasional
art exhibitions on freestanding panels near the west window wall
in the lobby, which have been of high quality, but unfortunately
conflict with the glory of the space and are unnecessary.
The design of the building's exterior was especially
noticeable since the fairly squat tower was just to the east across
an attractive through-block park and plaza from Eero Saarinen's
famous "Black Box," the CBS Building. Furthermore, the
building was just down the block from the famous "21"
Club on 52nd Street and from the Museum of Modern Art complex
on 53rd Street.
Given such an elegant and prestigious setting,
one would have thought that Hines, who also built the "Lipstick"
building with its supremely sleek façade at 885 Third Avenue,
would have laid a golden rather than a rotten egg here.
The Byzantine touches have become a Roche preoccupation,
but are best, indeed gloriously, realized here. (The subsequent
galleria of Roche's Morgan Building at 60 Wall Street offers an
interesting variation on this Post-Modern theme in a completely
different temperature and the architect employed yet a third variation
in his reconstruction of the Central Park Zoo.
Roche's touches are less successful on the
exterior. The rough-finish granite cladding appears thin enough
that it could be mistaken for painted cardboard. The stepped pyramidal
roof, shown below, almost works, but is truncated at the top,
further indication of budgetary constraints, most likely.
As Croesus blinked, the Deutsche Bank became
the major tenant in the building and changed its name to the Deutsche
The Deutsche Bank Building's exquisite lobby
and the superb Moroles sculpture easily outweighed the building's
overall aesthetics and contributed greatly to an already important
They did, that is, until the late summer of
1997 when the building decided to lop off the top of the lobby
and convert that space to offices, dismasting the awesome columns
and destroying one of the greatest interior spaces ever created
in the city.
Perhaps the Deutsche Bank, or whoever the landlord
is who made this decision, would like to fill in all of the nave
of St. Patrick's Cathedral except for the bottom 8 feet, or convert
Radio City Music Hall into a 100-theater multiplex, or take off
the spire of the Empire State Building, or convert Carnegie Hall
into 10,000 listening booths for the sales of CDs.
Many blasphemous and terrible acts of public
vandalism have, sadly, been perpetrated in this city: the demolition
of the former Penn Station, the Madison Square Garden building
on Madison Square, the Singer Tower on Lower Broadway, the Savoy
Plaza Hotel across from the Plaza Hotel, and the destruction of
many great movie palaces to cite the most infamous.
A spokesman for architect Kevin Roche said
he was "not interested" in making a comment on the alteration.
This interior destruction ranks with such preservation
calamities. Part of the problem is that the city's landmarks preservation
law, which does permit designation of interior spaces, does not
allow consideration of structures less than 30 years old. Part
of the problem is also that no one, especially the city's prominent
civic activists and preservationists and architecture critics,
has raised a decibel of protest.
Damn the Deutsche Bank or whoever approved
and authorized this desecreation!
In early 1998, the lobby was renovated in an
attempt to disguise its radical surgery. A new ceiling was installed
in the lowered lobby and it had a mosaic and sculptural treatment
similar to the original, but the delicate proportions are now
gargantuan and completely out of scale. What once was glorious
is now merely curious, sadly. (3/8/98)