375 PARK AVENUE
Developer: Joseph Seagram's & Sons
Architect: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson (design
architects); Kahn & Jacobs (associate architects)
By Carter B. Horsley
In real estate and architecture, some dreams
need a lot of staying power to get realized.
The Seagram Building is the realization, some
three decades late, of Mies van der Rohe's dream of a glass-covered,
high rise office tower that would provide a stunning monument
to the International Style's faith in simplicity and clarity.
It was worth waiting for as the 38-story tower
quickly began the country's most influential and copied office
building, an instant classic.
Its almost mythic greatness lies in the tower's
proportions, the fineness of its bronze and dark-tinted glass
curtain walls, and its expansive front plaza.
Yet its much heralded plaza, which led the
city to rewrite much of its office district zoning in 1961 to
encourage similar open public spaces in new projects, is not really
appropriate or necessary on as broad a landscaped boulevard as
Furthermore, it followed by six years the lead
of Lever House (see The City Review article),
catty-corner across the avenue at 53rd Street, in introducing
a slick glass curtain wall and public open space. Of course, Lever
House is green and its open space is tucked beneath its arcade
and the building's base that fills its property line as opposed
to Seagram's rather golden hue and large open plaza. One could
argue ad infinitum over the merits of different colors in the
urban environment and the decades since the completion of the
Seagram Building have certainly not settled debates over the merits
of plazas. To have both buildings, which total transformed the
uniform nature of Park Avenue in the 40's and the 50's, was a
remarkable coincidence in an era that cared little for contextual
design. Interestingly, Lever House is immediately surrounded by
more derivative buildings, at least in terms of glass tint, than
the Seagram Building, although that is proof of very little in
the argument/contest/contrast between the two great buildings.
The Seagram Building was designed in an age
that also did not pay much heed to the needs of the disabled and
the plaza and the building's side entrances are raised several
steps from the sidewalk.
Although the plaza has no formal seating, its
low, dark green, polished granite north and south walls along
the sidestreets that gently slope down towards Lexington Avenue
are Park Avenue's most popular seating areas in good weather.
(Of course, there are not many public seating areas on the avenue
although in its early years it had serpentine walkways with seating
in its much broader median in the 40's and 50's.) If that broad,
landscaped mall had survived, the Seagram plaza would really have
been unnecessary and the avenue and the city better off (as long
as they still built the project elsewhere in Manhattan).
The plaza has two rectangular reflecting pools
at its north and south ends that are filled with forests of Christmas
trees during the holiday seasons. For many years, a large Henry
Moore sculpture was placed off-center, and very effectively, in
the plaza and then replaced with other sculptures that changed
and often the plaza is barren.
Credit for the Seagram's high quality goes
to Phyllis Lambert, the daughter of Samuel Bronfman, the head
of Seagram's. Bronfman had selected Charles Luckman to design
his proposed tower at the site. Luckman, as chance had it, had
been the chief executive officer of Lever Brothers before becoming
a full-time architect. Lambert, who had studied architecture,
convinced her father to switch architects and upgrade the project
and recommended Mies van der Rohe, who was internationally recognized
but without a signature building in New York. (Lambert was later
largely responsible for the creation of an important architecture
museum in Canada. She also commissioned Mark Rothko to do a series
of paintings for the smaller of the two dining rooms in the Four
Seasons Restaurant in the building, but Rothko eventually decided
to return the money for the commission because he did not feel
his art should be in such an expensive restaurant. See The
City Review article on the May 14, 2003 evening auction of Contemporary
Art at Christie's in which one of the large paintings is included
as well as another fine Rothko that Lambert bought for executive
offices in the building.)
With more than 800,000 square feet of office
space, the Seagram Building, which originally was going to be
called Seagram House, is not petite. By setting back its tower,
whose front facade rises without setbacks, so far on the site
to create the plaza, the building sacrificed considerable rental
space under the zoning then in effect.
In 1976, the building's owners requested designation
of its exterior as an official city landmark, an extremely rare
action as most commercial property owners were, and still are
mostly, very wary of design reviews and potential higher preservation
costs associated with such landmark designations. The city's laws
do not permit landmark designations for buildings less than 30
years old. That restriction resulted in the unfortunate abuse
of many fine commercial properties. The city only created its
Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1965 and many preservationists
were greatly, though not publicly, concerned that major landlords
might legally challenge the city's new landmark regulations and
also argued that buildings should stand the test of time before
In 1980, the building, still undesignated,
was sold to the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of
America, a huge pension fund long active in real estate, with
the proviso that it apply for landmark designation for the property
when it became eligible in 1988.
By 1988, many city preservationists felt that
not only should the Seagram's exterior be designated, but also
the interior of the Four Seasons Restaurant. The building owners
strongly opposed the interior designation on the grounds that
restaurants tend to have shorter life cycles than buildings and
designation would inhibit future users of the space and possibly
create economic hardships for them.
The restaurant, whose entrance is on 52nd Street,
was designed by Philip Johnson, who became a regular patron, and
its very handsome design and celebrity as one of the city's most
expensive restaurants, added significantly to the allure of the
Seagram Building as it occupies, with total discretion, all of
its retail frontage facing the avenue. As a result, the building
seemed more institutional than speculative and commercial.
Its entrance is a large, travertine-walled
and -floored lobby with coatroom and a broad staircase leading
to its south dining room and bar in the south base wing of the
building. The upper walls of the spacious, double-height room
are covered with French walnut panels of extravagantly high quality.
A dining balcony is at the east end with a private dining room
behind it. The room is highlighted by a very dense brass Richard
Lippold sculpture that "floats" over the bar.
The restaurant stretches to the north base
wing of the building through a broad, high corridor adorned with
a very large theatrical hanging backdrop for the ballet, "The
Three-Cornered Hat," by Pablo Picasso, that is rather muted
with a narrow range of colors and not one of the artist's better
works, but impressive, nevertheless.
The north dining room has a large square pool
at its center and is brighter and has more landscaping than the
south dining room. The large windows in both rooms are hung with
fluttery, floor-to-ceiling draped chain curtains that accent the
glistening water of the pool and the glitter of the Lippold sculpture.
In typical New York reverse snobbery, the south dining room is
frequented by more celebrities than the more attractive north
dining room. Since patrons must pass through the south wing to
get to the north dining room, the rationale, among power lookers,
is that by sitting in the former you get to see everyone in the
restaurant if you stay long enough. The restaurant has always
been one of the city's most expensive and highly rated and in
keeping with its name it changes its menus seasonally. Mark Rothko,
the Abstract Expressionist painter, had been commissioned to design
murals for the restaurant, but decided not to complete the project
because he felt it was not an appropriate setting for his art,
Tucked away in the basement, with an entrance
on 53rd Street, is the large Brasserie Restaurant, whose main
claim to fame is that it stays open 24 four hours a day. Much
less expensive than its luxurious neighbor, the Brasserie offers
patrons one of the best entrances in the city down a small flight
of stairs from which one can survey almost the entire, brightly-lit
restaurant, which is decorated with many Picasso plates.
Purists point to the facade's excellent detailing
and bronze mullions and spandrels, but the building's real strength
lies in the serene sense of strength and orderliness that its
sheer facade and tall tinted windows convey, an effect augmented
by the fact that the facade is not interrupted by any "mechanical"
floors that contain the building's heating, ventilating and air-conditioning
This is more a conservative than a cool corporate
environment, energized by the warmth of its bronze color and the
rhythmic repetitive pattern of its fenestration. Like a well-bred
lady who is confident enough not to wear the emperor's new clothes,
the Seagram Building has a sophisticated arrogance that can wilt
trendy fashions with the authority of its posture and demeanor.
Interestingly, the building's form is not as
simple as the Park Avenue facade might indicate as the central
portion of the east facade protrudes considerably from the slab.
In early 2006, the city's Landmarks Preservation
Commission approved a plan by Aby Rosen, the owner of the Seagram
Building, to transfer the unused air rights from the Seagram Building
to the site behind it on 53rd Street to build a hotel and residential
condominium tower designed by Sir Norman Foster on the southwest
corner at Lexington Avenue. The new tower will be very slim and
about 700 feet tall.