Thursday, July 14, 2011

Judge Halts work at 510 Fifth Avenue

A state Supreme Court judge has ordered renovations halted at a landmark office building at Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street that preservationists call a model of modernism. A former bank that was originally part of the Manufacturers Trust Company, it was designed by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in the era of the gray flannel suit.

Manhattan State Supreme Court Justice Lucy A. Billings issued a temporary restraining order on Tuesday in response to a lawsuit brought by preservationists. The advocacy group Citizens Emergency Committee to Preserve Preservation filed the lawsuit, which charges that the building’s owner, Vornado Realty Trust, abetted by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, has disregarded restrictions designed to protect the interior. That transparent interior, designated a landmark in February, features illuminated ceilings that were intended to minimize glare and shadow; twin escalators; a side entrance to preserve the Fifth Avenue glass curtain wall; and a circular stainless-steel vault door. But two months later the commission allowed Vornado to change some of these elements in reconfiguring the space for a store, Joe Fresh. The changes include moving the escalators and carving two entrances into the Fifth Avenue facade.

The preservationists said the demolition work, which began in June, had exceeded the limits set by the commission. But city officials said the work had complied with the permit and that the interior alterations were approved after thorough consideration. “We approved a project that will restore several important features of the space, including its signature luminous ceiling and transparency, and allow for modifications to adapt the building to a new use,” said Elisabeth de Bourbon, a commission spokeswoman. She expressed confidence that the court would uphold the commission’s original determination, “which came after an extensive public process.” Vornado declined to comment.

Theodore Grunewald, founder of a coalition to save the building and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said in an interview, “Vornado, through the commission, has robbed this bank of its key architectural, historical and symbolic elements, the unique things that set it apart and define it as a masterpiece.” He added: “It’s a supreme example of midcentury International Style. It’s up there in the top 50 globally and certainly the top 20 nationally, and in New York there are only three that compare to it: the Seagram Building, Lever House and the Pepsi-Cola Building.”

In awarding landmark status to the building’s interior, the commission called the structure “a major example of mid-20th-century modernism.” (The exterior of the 1954 building was designated a landmark in 1997.) The recent designation report described the building and its minimalist interior as “one of Fifth Avenue’s most memorable structures” and “a work that influenced the course of American bank design.”

The commission highlighted the strong diagonal line of the escalators connecting the first floor and the mezzanine, which is recessed from the street and “appears to float, creating the impression that both levels occupy a single, monumental space.” The lawsuit challenges the commission’s approval of structural changes “as effectively rescinding the interior designation” and seeks to have the building restored to its previous condition.

Several architecture experts have argued for preserving the building, among them Terence Riley, an architect and the former chief curator of the department of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art. “Its glass-and-steel construction all but eliminated the distinction between inside and outside,” Mr. Riley said of the building in an affidavit. He went on to applaud a design that featured what he called “the apparent paradox of a transparent building to safeguard people’s money, the presence of a great steel safe visually accessible to the passers-by but of course not actually accessible,” among other elements that make the landmark “much discussed.”

By Robin Pogrebin / The New York Times 
July 14, 2011