Between 56th and 57th Streets
(the former IBM Building)
Developer: The International Business Machines Corporation
Architect: Edward Larrabee Barnes
Erected: 1983

View of tower and atrium of former IBM Building, right, and Trump Tower, left, from 56th Street entrance to Sony Plaza on 56th Street

By Carter B. Horsley

Much underappreciated when it opened, this sharply chiseled, dark green giant may not be a masterpiece of modernity, but it is very impressive and definitely one of the city's finest oases.

Take a square column, slice off a large wedge facing southwest, cut away a chunk from the base facing northeast and add a saw-tooth skylight atrium on its southwest side and you have the basic form. The photograph above, taken from the 56th Street entrance of Sony Plaza, shows the roof of the atrium, the former IBM Building on the right, and the rear of Trump Tower on the left.

Then fill the atrium with huge bamboo trees, finish everything finely with rich materials, add the finest general-purpose museum space in the city in the basement, connect the atrium to the adjacent Trump Tower atrium and you have the 43-story building that formerly was known as the IBM Building before that company sold it to its present owners.

Plaza District skyline from south

From right to left, Sony/ATT, former IBM, Trump, 712 Fifth Avenue and 9 West 57th Street towers

What you also have is a whole much greater than its parts because this tower cannot be fully considered without its relationship with two other major skyscrapers, the Trump Tower to the immediate west and the Sony (formerly A. T. & T.) Building (see The City Review article) to the immediate south. These three towers, shown at the left in a view from Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street, form a high-rise enclave that by themselves would “make” any other city and which in their aggregate dramatically changed the focus of the midtown office market. One could well argue that the building’s bamboo court atrium is the epicenter of the city's most desirable office market. While the Plaza district has been the city's most elegant for most of the century for its hotels and shops, this trio solidified it as the most desirable corporate address.

Incredibly, both this building and the A. T. & T. Building were abandoned after a only few years by their corporate developers, a stunning quirk of financial and real estate history and probably corporate mismanagement. Neither building, in fact, were official corporate headquarters as the companies had long since sneaked out of the city, but the two buildings epitomized the tradition of distinctive, proud corporate monuments.

The former IBM Building, whose cantilevered entrance is shown below, was acquired by a venture headed by Edward J. Minskoff, a member of a family long associated with major office building development in Manhattan after World War II. The former A. T. & T. Building was acquired by the Sony Corporation for its American headquarters.

Original cantilevered entrance at 57th Street & Madison Avenue

If two of the mightiest corporate names in the history of the United States cannot tolerate or support a major headquarters building in New York, perhaps the city is doomed. At the very least, such a major shift in corporate thinking reflects a serious decline in the city’s stature as the sine qua non of the business world, especially since both abandonments occurred prior to the explosion of interest in the World Wide Web on the Internet with all of its implications for global connectivity via computers rather than in person.

IBM’s decision was the more understandable of the two as the company had endured more than a decade of ludicrous mismanagement of the business it virtually invented: personal computers. It actually needed the money. Indeed, its sale of the building was not as dastardly as its outrageous decision to close its splendid, very elegant, museum-like exhibition space that had hosted a most impressive series of great art exhibitions. Not surprisingly, the company soon decided to also sell off many of its most valuable paintings from its famous art collection, which had helped garner the company a world-wide reputation as a leading corporate patron of the arts. It happened to sell the art when the market was down considerably, also.

The decision of both companies to sell their famous skyscrapers at almost distress prices in a real estate depression was an early and very disturbing sign of corporate downsizing that no doubt warmed stockholders’ hearts while depressing the hearts of all civilized people. If the board of directors of the companies had been more astute and waited a few years, they could have realized substantially greater sales results as the real estate market boomed in the late 1990's. So much for "shareholders' interests" and "corporate responsibility." So much for neighborhood, to say nothing of urban and civic and responsibility.

top of tower from Fifth Avenue and 57th Street

View of top of tower from Fifth Avenue and 57th Street

Adding insult to injury and kicking the city while it’s down, the new owners of both buildings also shared an amazing contempt for contractual agreements with the city. It was no surprise, of course, that city officials meekly, albeit outrageously, acquiesced.

Mr. Minskoff, a dapper contemporary art collector, mowed down a large portion of the bamboo court that IBM had created to make room for meretricious, dismal, uninspired and not at all attractive contemporary art, at least in the first new installations. Furthermore, he approved the installation of a very poor and mediocre red Alexander Calder sculpture beneath the great cantilever at the corner of Madison Avenue and 57th Street.

In his book, "Privately Owned Public Spaces The New York Experience," (John Wiley & Sons, 2000), Jerold S. Kayden writes that this covered pedestrian space has garnered "near universal recognition as New York City's peerless privately owned public space, a tree-filled conservatory and public living room rolled into one."

"When the Minksoff ownership group purchased the IBM building in 1994 and applied to the City Planning Commission one year later for permission to modify the space, alarm bells sounded. Here was someone about to tamper with sacrosanct public space, something that could be tolerated only if it were conclusively demonstrated that the changes would improve existing conditions. The owner originally proposed to reduce from 11 to 5 the number of bamboo tree stands and remove the low dish planters to make physical and visual way for the indoor sculpture garden displaying large-scale artworks by major artist sof the twentieth century rotated regularly under the directionof the Pace Wildenstein Gallery. The owner also proposed to increase the amount of seating (albeit with benches substituting for some of the movable chairs), to decrease the number of movable tables, and to relocate the food kiosk from southwest to southeast corners, making it more visibile form Madison Avenue. After hearing arguments for and agaisnt the changes, and after the owner agreed to retain 8 of 11 bamboo stands, install additional movable chairs without benches, and keep the tables, thge City Planning Commission gave its approval....While Wordsworth's 'brotherhood of venerable trees' has been diminished, and the planters once filled with brightly colored azaleas, lilies, and tulips that changed with the seasons are sadly absent, sculptures by such artists as Henry Moore, Karel appel, and Alexander Calder have taken their place. Together with the Levitated Mass (1982), environmental artist Michael Heizer's sculpture in the urban plaza at the northwest corner of East 56th Street and Madison Avenue, shown below, consisting of an 11-ton stone incised with a coded building address and resting in a stainless steel basin of rushing water...,the public spaces here have become something of a public art magnet....Several other changes have occurred over the years. The IBM Gallery of Science and Art...has been replaced by the Newseum, a media museum funded by the Freedom Forum."

One might say that such art patronage was praiseworthy, but one cannot, first because the specific art is not distinguished and second because a resurrection of the former IBM gallery would have been very noble and could well have been called, proudly, the Minskoff Gallery. Of course, it still could, hint, hint.

One should not quibble too much over public art, perhaps, but here the art was being lent by local, albeit prestigious, art dealers, usurping dedicated public space that was used by the building to erect a larger structure. The new artsy atrium can be seen below.

"Artsy" redesign of atrium at 590 Madison Avenue

The decision of Sony to remake the street-level spaces of the former A. T. & T. Building into commercial showcases for its products is even more blatant chutzpah and how it could have been approved by city officials makes Boss Tweed look like a saint.

Bamboo atrium 2006

By the spring of 2006, the bamboo in the atrium had shrunk markedly

IBM bamboo shrinkage

By the spring of 2008, further shrinkage

While somewhat stylish, the Sony spaces enclosed the building’s most of the original huge arcades that also counted heavily toward permitting the building to become much larger than its normal zoning would have permitted.

All this change, of course, merely carries on New York’s infamous, chaotic tradition of change for change’s sake.

Indeed, Donald Trump demolished the rather attractive Art Deco facade of Bonwit Teller, the department store, to erect Trump Tower, and moved the store into a classy, but more contemporary and sleek new building next to the IBM Building on 57th Street. The store didn’t survive very long and was soon taken over by Galleries Lafayette and in 1996 Nike, the sneaker company, tore that building down to erect its own store on the site, inspired and attracted no doubt by the wild success of the Warner Bros. Studio store across the street that revitalized the neighborhood.

It is interesting to note, moreover, that this trio - the former IBM and A. T. & T. buildings and Trump Tower - is countered by another towering trio two blocks to the west. The western trio, comprised by the Metropolitan Tower, the Carnegie Hall Tower and CitySpire, was also unplanned and uncoordinated by its three separate developers. While considerably more controversial for a variety of reasons that are discussed in their individual essays in this book, the western trio, which is much more closely bunched, resonates much more like a three-pronged tuning fork than this trio anchored by the former IBM Building.

This trio is more satisfying because of the open spaces provided by the “IBM” atrium and the open rear terraces of Trump Tower. Architecturally, this trio also betters the other one, largely because two of its towers were designed as corporate showcases rather than speculative office towers, which normally are not as plush. Both trios, however, introduce to midtown much of the vertiginous ecstasy/apoplexy that heretofore was the sole domain of the financial district downtown.

Like the palm trees in the Wintergarden at the World Financial Center downtown, the bamboo trees here were doubtful survivors, but like most transplants to the city they have thrived, until Mr. Minskoff came along. This trio is also more cohesive because the former IBM was the most dignified of the lot and happens to be the shortest and at the center, an interesting reminder that mere physical dominance in height or bulk does not necessary rule.

There are six entrances at the former IBM Building: directly from the former IBM Building's cantilevered Madison Avenue and 57th Street entrance, through the building's lobby; directly from the former IBM Gallery of Arts & Sciences, now used by Freedom Forum; directly from the Nike store that was formerly the Galleries Lafayette store and originally a new Bonwit Teller in the middle of the block; and three directly from the streets. (In 1996, the building’s new owners rented the former IBM corporate exhibition showroom space on 57th Street to Tourneau, a watch store, shown below, which will never match the institutional elegance of the former showroom. While its space would be impressive in another context, say a New Jersey shopping mall, here it borders on being crass. The new Nike Town store is a crowd magnet, but its high-school gym architecture is an incongruous and disappointing replacement for the original building on the site whose dark red polished granite facade was elegant and a good neighbor for IBM’s polished granite facade and the fortress-like facades of Tiffany's on the other side.)

Tourneau store is radical change to building's facade

The atrium's potted plantings in the former IBM building used to be changed regularly and a handsome, circular, stainless-steel food and beverage stand made a stay in this vast skylight jungle extremely pleasurable. The New York Botanical Gardens also had a store fronting on the atrium, which was appropriate because of the atrium's lavish plantings.

A bar and smoking area would be most welcome here, but probably incorrect politically and corporately.

The zig-zag skylight is rakish, but it is a reminder of the unusual angularity of the former IBM Building, which, with the adjoining Trump Tower and the Sony Building, has transformed a rather drab great location into one of the supreme glories of New York despite the above-mentioned flaws.

The double-height office building lobby itself is minimal in size, relative to the tower, but is oriented so that clear views into the atrium can be seen from its entrance. Thanks to the high polish of its granite walls, the reflected views of the atrium between the elevator banks appears larger than the actual window openings, a rather brilliant design.

Moreover, this entrance is tucked beneath the tower's incredible cantilever at this corner. This engineering tour-de-force reportedly cost IBM an additional $10 million or so in construction costs at the time. (At the time, $10 million was not an insignificant figure.) It was considered an awkward gimmick initially, but it is very, very dramatic as befits such a prestigious corporation whose history of support of the arts had always been among the highest in the country. The cutaway corner opens unusual vistas of 57th Street between Madison and Fifth Avenues, one of the city's most elegant blocks, but the cantilever also permits the tower's form to hold to the traditional street grid. Barnes tried a variation of this cutaway for Park Tower Realty's 535 Madison Avenue office tower, a few blocks south, but there a corner column helps support the tower and interrupts, albeit fairly gracefully, its midblock plaza.

The Calder sculpture, shown above prior to the Tourneau watch store lease of the retail space to the west in the building that fussified its appearance, just sits plunk and ungracefully beneath the cantilever and directly in front of the entrance. While it certainly is not as bad as the wall Richard Serra controversially erected some years before in the plaza of the Federal Office Building on Foley Square in Lower Manhattan, it detracts from the awesomeness and daring of Barnes’s design. It’s hokey and not elegant. It’s just plain ugly in its execution.

The IBM tower's angled facade facing southwest not only gives it workers unusual vistas but also opens up views of the nearby Trump and Sony towers. Furthermore, the IBM tower's highly polished and flush granite facades lessen the visual impact of such a large building and presents a very sleek image.

Michael Heiser fountain at 56th Street and Madison Avenue

The southeast corner street entrance to the atrium is setback to permit a marvelous horizontal fountain, shown above, by sculptor Michael Heizer that is one of the best new works of public art in the city in a generation. The stainless steel base of the fountain, in which water rushes horizontally, contains a large granite sculpture that the artist designed as a “lineal code” to denote the location by assigning numbers to the alphabet and then spelling out, in code, MAD and 56.

According to Margot Gayle and Michele Cohen in their excellent book, “The Art Commission and the Municipal Art Society Guide to Manhattan's Outdoor Sculpture,” Heizer's carving atop the granite boulder “suggest Egyptian rock gravure and American Indian petroglyphs,” even if less casual observers might construe them as an abstract representation of a microchip that seems to hover over a torrent of rapids.

The angle of the tower is recalled in the angled sidewalk lobby of the building's former gallery space as well as the sidewalk piers of the tower, an especially nice and unusual touch.

The former gallery's lobby is large, simple and efficient with a broad staircase and a large elevator leading to the galleries downstairs, which expand under the entire site and had the highest record of consistently interesting and wonderfully installed exhibitions of any art institution in the city. Excellent public restrooms are located on the lower level here. The gallery alone would have earned plaudits for this project, which is the best and only good thing IBM has done since the introduction of its personal computer in 1981.

Some purists may never forgive IBM for not making its tower out of lapis lazuli to conform with its nickname of “Big Blue.” Perhaps someday they will erect a blue skyscraper, but inasmuch as this was not even its corporate headquarters, nay, not even, a summer residence, this green giant will do very nicely indeed.

John Chamerlain artwork in atrium

John Chamberlain's "The Hedge" is exhibited in bamboo atrium in October, 2000

The former IBM building is too stark, bulky, overwhelming and almost too razor-sharp to be a masterpiece. Yet its combination of robust solidity and strength, high degree of finish and fine materials, and unusual form and superb public amenities make it a subtle, sophisticated modern marvel of urbanity.

In 2008, the museum-like space was taken over by Bonham's, an auction house.

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