By Carter B. Horsley
Does New York City need a marble-clad small
building with Venetian motifs and a curved façade fronting
on one of its few major important intersections and Central Park,
an edifice designed by a major architect whose work is not much
in evidence in the city?
The city's Landmarks Preservation Commission
has not thought so and has incredibly and wrongly not designated
it an official landmark despite the fact that it is more distinctive
and highly visible than probably 90 percent of the buildings it
has made "official" landmarks, either individually or
within "historic districts."
The city's role in this sorry tale is significant
for one of its agencies occupied the building for many years until
recently and through malignant neglect permitted it to deteriorate.
The building is in the lee of the Columbus
Center, twin-towered, mixed-use project nearing completion just
to the west on Columbus Circle. This building is also directly
across Columbus Circle from the Trump International Hotel and
condominium tower and, not surprisingly, Donald Trump, offered
to buy this site for development of another "Trump"
On April 1, David W. Dunlap wrote an article
on the front page of "The Arts" section of The New
York Times entitled "A New Look for a 10-story Oddity,"
in which a rendering of a redesign of the building, shown above,
appeared. Describing the existing Stone-designed structure as
"an abandoned work of romantic modernism that has irritated
and amused New Yorkers for 30 years," Mr. Dunlap reported
that the Museum of Arts and Design, which was formerly known as
the American Craft Museum, had acquired the building and commissioned
a redesign that would create facades that would be scrims of bright
The new design by Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works
Architecture of Portland, Oregon, Mr. Dunlap continued, "would
for the first time fill the inside of what is now a nearly windowless
building. Slits and openings between the four-inch terra-cotta
panels would give museumgoers views of Central Park and allow
pedestrians to glimpse the galleries through a diaphonous veil.
Vertical glass channels, filled with artwork, would penetrade
the 10-story structure." The design was submitted March 31,
2003 to the City Planning Commission, which must approve the sale
of the building. The museum plans to move from 40 West 53rd Street.
The building was erected in 1964 as the Gallery
of Modern Art by Huntington Hartford, an heir to the A. &
P. supermarket fortune. Mr. Hartford's museum lasted only five
years, however, and in 1969 Mr. Hartford turned the building over
to Fairleigh Dickinson University, which in 1970 used it to house
the New York Cultural Center.
In their brilliant book, "New York 1960,
Architecture and Urbanism Between the Second World War and the
Bicentennial," (The Monacelli Press, 1995), Robert A. M.
Stern, Thomas Mellins and David Fischman devote a few pages to
discussing this property, and noted that "The New York Cultural
Center had a short, brilliant life under the directorship of Donald
Karshan, and then Mario Amaya, who was appointed director in 1972
and turned it into a Kunsthalle, mounting 150 different shows
and attracting large crowds but also running up big, unrecoverable
costs," adding that the museum was closed in 1975 and put
up for sale.
In describing the building, the authors provided
the following commentary:
"....The walls of the Venetian-inspired
vertical palazzo were perforated with portholelike openings at
the corners, base and crown to suggest rustication inspired, according
to Stone, by Saint-German-des-Prés, a Romanesque church
in Paris. At the ground floor, the building was carried on columns
to form an arcade. The top two floors, where the restaurant was
located behind a loggia, opened to a view of Central Park. Ada
Louise Huxtable likened the overall effect to a 'die-cut Venetian
palazzo on lollypops,' while Olga Gueft said that the building's
'red-granite-trimmed, green-marble-lined colonnades, these rows
of portholes like borders of eyelet hand-embroidered on a marble
christening robe are too winsome for heavyweight criticism.'...The
arrangement of a stair gallery wrapped around a core was similar
to that of Howe & Lescaze's Scheme Six, proprosed for the
Museum of Modern Art in 1931. Filtered natural light was introduced
through the glazed perforations at the corners, a technique that
worked well with Abe Feder's artificial lighting, while also producing
tantalizing glimpses of Central Park without distracting the viewer
from the art. The lobby lfoor was paved in terrazzo, into which
were set the discs that had been cut out of the marble when the
exterior arches were formed in contrast to the white-painted anonymity
of the Museum of Modern Art's galleries. Hartfords' were paneled
with walnut and other hardwoods and thickly carpted or elaborately
finished in parquet de Versailles and marble. A pipe organ
was included in one of the double-height galleries. Though Hartford's
collection did not include any paintings by Gauguin, the ninth-floor
Polynesian restaurant, the Gauguin Room, included a tapestry based
on one of the French master's paintings."
Mr. Hartford was one of the more colorful figures
in New York City during the 1960's and 1970's, a regular on the
nightclub scene and an irregular in the art world, who was not
enamoured of much of "modern" art and favored representational
art. His museum was quite lush and the Gauguin Room was one of
the handsomest restaurants in the city and had spectacular views
of Central Park.
Eventually, the city took it over for use as
a visitors' center and headquarters for the city's Cultural Affairs
Department. The city agency, however, moved out in 1998 and the
building has since been vacant. The city's Economic Development
Corporation awarded the building to the craft museum last year
and Mr. Dunlap noted that the museum estimates it will cost $50
million to acquire and renovate the building.
The redesign would do away with the existing
building's white marble façace, its famed "lollypop"
columns and filigree porthole and arched loggia.
In his article in The Times, Mr. Dunlap
quoted Holly Hotchner, the director of the Museum of Arts and
Design, as stating that the choice of a terra cotta façade
with a warp-and-weft pattern 'speaks to who we are.' Of course,
one could argue, Olga Gueft's comment about Stone's "embroidery"
might be used to counter that justification for a redesign. Mr.
Dunlap also quoted Mr. Cloepfil, the architect of the proposed
redevelopment, as maintaining that "we are trying to maintain
its monumentality, but at the same time make it a more ephermeral
body, so it begins to merge with Columbus Circle," a comment
that is a little strange given the "monumentality" of
the building's new and not yet finished monumental new neighbor
to the west, the twin-towered Columbus Center.
Mr. Cloepfil has designed the new Contemporary
Art Museum in St. Louis and an expansion of the Seattle Art Museum.
Allied Works Architecture was one of four firms on a short list
for the project including Smith-Miller +Hawkinson Architects,
Zaha Hadid, and Toshiko Mori. The museum had initially considered
a list of 11 architects, including William P. Bruder Architect,
Kennedy Violich Architects, Koning Eizenberg Architecture, Lake/Flato
Architects, Peter Marino & Associates Architects, Office dA,
and Wendy Evans Joseph.
Ironically, the Allied Works Architecture design
probably would have been a grand way to complement Stone's building
if it had been used on the site of the Trump International Hotel
and condominium tower as the two "white" small buildings
would have nicely framed the gigantic twin-towered mixed use building
now nearing completion between the two sites. Of course, such
a proposal is ridiculous since Donald Trump reclad the existing
Gulf + Western building for his shiny tower.
The new design is not without interest and
some grace, but it is not called for in this circumstance. Some
have described the Stone building as a folly. Follies are whimsical
and goodness knows cities need a sense of humor. This was not
just a folly, of course, but an attempt to create a new and important
cultural asset for the city and certainly it was infinitely more
attractive than the former New York Coliseum that dominated Columbus
Circle until its recent demolition to make way for the much larger
Columbus Center project. Stone's oeuvre was marked by Classical
inspiration mixed with Middle Eastern accents and sought to create
an aesthetic that was bright and graceful. While his "white"
buildings did not have the sculptural qualities of those of Le
Corbusier and his many disciples, they were light and airy and
Clearly, the building has suffered over the
years and a new institution needs to accommodate its interiors
to its needs and a lively, active museum is preferable to a closed
structure. One solution perhaps would be to preserve Stone's north,
curved façade. To rape this building to justify the egregious
failure of the Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate
it a landmark would be to compound the insult.
On January 7, 2004, Ada Louise Huxtable
(see The City Review article on one of her books)
wrote a column in The Wall Street Journal that included
a color rendering of a revised façade design for the building.
Her column attacked efforts to preserve Stone's design, which
she said has a "certain toy-like charm," and supported
the new design:
"I have been watching, with wonder
and disbelief, the beatification of 2 Columbus Circle, né
the Huntington Hartford Museum, a. k. a. the lollipop building
(so-named, for better or worse, by me). This small oddity of dubious
architectural distinction, designed by Edward Durell Stone, has
been elevated to masterpiece status and cosmic significance by
a campaign to save its marginally important, mildly eccentric,
and badly deteriorated façade - a campaign that has escalated
into a win-at-any-cost-and-by-any-means vendetta in thename of
'preservation.' Never has that term been so taken in vain....Inspection
has found the façade so badly deteriorated that it can't
be saved; it would have to be rebuilt - a copy or reproduction
would have to replace it."
One might counter, however, that the building's
façade problems result most likely from the city's mismanagement
of the property and that such a blatant disregard for preservation
should not be casually rewarded.
On July 14, 2005, a public meeting was held
at the General Society for Mechanics and Tradesman Library in
midtown to protest the continued refusal of the landmarks commission
to hold a hearing on the building. Three days before, seven major
preservation organizations sent a letter to Mayor Michael Bloomberg
asking him to support such a hearing. The organizations were the
Muncipal Art Society, the National Trust for Historic Preservation,
the New York Landmarks Conversvancy, the Preservation League of
New York State, the World Monuments Fund, the Historic Districts
Council and the New York/Tri-State Chapter of DOCOMOMO. In a press
release, the organizations stated that they "find it hard
to understand why a building with such significant and widespread
support is not worthy of a fair and impartial landmarks hearing
before its exterior features are gone forever." The press
release also noted that "Bernadette Castro, New York State
Parks Commissioner and State Historic Preservation Officer has
stated that 2 Columbus Circle 'does appear to meet the criteria
for listing on the State and National Registers of Historic Places,'"
adding that "A state review board could vote on listing the
building this September."
At the July 14, 2005 meeting, a letter was
submitted by several architects including Jordan Gruzen, Paul
Byard, Frances Halsband, Teb Liebman, Peter Samton and Tod Williams
stating that Landmark West, a civic organization that helped organized
the July 14 meeting, "has gone to the barricades to save
the sad, idiosyncratic, dysfuntional and lifeless building that
Edward Durell Stone designed in 1964 at 2 Columbus Circle...The
building...has a chance to be resurrected by the Museum of Arts
& Design....By retaining its massing and introducing a cultural
use at Columbus Circle, the Museum would maintain the scale of
the building and add life and vitality to what is now, with the
completion of Time Watner, a predominantly commercial center....In
June the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of the State
of New York rejected the request by Landmark West to re-argue
the twice previously dismissed petitions....This is a building
of great potential value, but not in its present state."
Deputy Majority Leader of the City Council
Bill Perkins told the July 14th meeting that "The refusal
of the Landmarks Preservation Commission to hold hearings on the
future of 2 Columbus Circle demonstrates a shameful disregard
for the will of the people and the Commission's charter-mandated
responsibility." "The Preservation League of New York
State placed this building on its 'Sevel to Save' list; the National
Trust for Historic Preservation....named the building to its 2004
list of '11 Most Endangered Places'; and this week the World Monument
Fund added it to its 'Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites';
yet the LPC won't even hold a hearing. This abuse of power must
Anthony M. Tung, a former member of the
landmarks commission, told the July 14th meeting that the failure
of the commission to calendar a hearing on the building "is
a gross dereliction of duty."
Francis Morrone, an architectural historian,
said that 2 Columbus Circle "may be the very best building
ever erected on Columbus Circle.
Robert A. M. Stern, the architect, told
the gathering that the commission's refusal to schedule a hearing
was "frankly inexplicable." The building, he declared,
"stands outside the canon" and "it questions rather
Tom Wolfe, the author and journalist, said
he spoke that morning with Huntington Hartford on the telephone.
He said that Mr. Hartford, who is 98 years old, said that significantly
altering the building was "a disgrace."
The "stonewalling" of the commission
on this building is shocking and unexcusable. It is a lovely building
designed by an important architect at a major site and has a substantial
cultural history. It worked fine as a small museum originally
and still can. The proposed recladding by the Museum of Arts &
Design, formerly the American Crafts Museum, is not needed, inappropriate
and not better than the existing facade.