The thorny dilemmas that can be posed by efforts at architectural preservation are rearing their heads again in New York City in the case of a landmark building on Fifth Avenue that is considered to be the very model of Modernism.
Almost 60 years ago, when the glass corner structure at 43rd Street was designed for the Manufacturers Hanover Trust, it broke all molds for bank architecture. No more shuttered fortresses with tight doorways and pillars of formidable stone.
It would be an airy, transparent building. A wisp. A luminous box with an unbroken glass facade that positioned its escalators and its impressive steel vault so that they would be prominent and visible through the windows.
Designed by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and completed in 1954, 510 Fifth Avenue came to be seen as an important, historic building in the same league as modern architectural legends like Lever House and the Seagram Building.
But now preservationists and the city are battling in court over the building’s future. Preservationists say the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission has abandoned its role as a protector of history and aesthetics to accommodate a powerful real estate interest. The commission says it has made reasonable accommodations for a new owner who wants to renovate the building.
The owner, Vornado Realty Trust, has, among other things, received permission to cut new doorways into the Fifth Avenue facade, to rotate the prized escalators and move them farther away from the windows and to reduce the vault wall. The plan is to create a space that can accommodate two new stores on Fifth Avenue.
“The resulting alteration totally obliterates the quality of this iconic structure,” said Roberta Brandes Gratz, a former landmarks commissioner who said she was asked to leave the panel last year to serve on a mayoral sustainability panel. “The interior is totally one piece with the exterior, both visually from the street and architecturally within. That has been totally compromised.”
Landmarks panels across the country have long wrestled with the delicate balance between preserving architectural history and fostering economic development, particularly during financial downturns when new projects can mean jobs. In New York, preservation groups have continually criticized the Bloomberg administration as favoring developers.
But in the case of this Fifth Avenue landmark, some say the building must be allowed to evolve.
The landmarks commission’s role is not to lock New York’s architectural history in aspic, said Stephen F. Byrns, an architect who left the commission last year after completing his term. Rather, he said, “It’s trying to be reasonable and flexible in allowing a property to adapt.
“This is no longer a bank and there’s no longer a vault there,” he continued. “You can make doors out of glass that are almost seamless.”
Though renovation has begun, preservationists have secured a stop-work order from the Manhattan Supreme Court judge who is hearing the case. They charge in the suit that the developer, abetted by the landmarks commission, has ignored restrictions set by the city to preserve the building’s interior character. Work is continuing, however, on the condition that any change must be reversible should the preservationists prevail in court.
Feeding the dispute are the preservationists’ concerns that the commission’s dealings with Vornado, whose many tenants in buildings across the city include Bloomberg L.P., the mayor’s company, have been too cozy.
Vornado hired a former landmarks commissioner, Meredith Kane, to be its lawyer before the commission. She was allowed to see and suggest changes to the report that the commission used to give the interior of the building landmark status earlier this year. And in a round of e-mails that the preservationists secured as part of their lawsuit, filed in July, they found one in which Ms. Kane asked that a hearing on designating the interior “be deferred until Vornado had its tenants in place” and another in which she asked the commission’s chairman, Robert B. Tierney, to reassure Vornado’s chairman, Steven Roth, that the commission would not block efforts to convert the property into retail space.
“I just had a call from Steve Roth, who is facing a drop-dead deadline of next week in his deal to buy the property,” Ms. Kane said in an e-mail in April 2010. “What I think he’d most like is a little bit of hand-holding directly from you — he won’t believe it when it comes from me! — that even though we have a lot of detail to work through, and you will need staff and the commissioners to be satisfied with the proposals, that we are going to ‘get through’ this project.”
Theodore Grunewald, the founder of the Coalition to Save Manufacturers Hanover Trust and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said: “The ability for a real-estate industry to reach inside the operations of our city government to suit their own purposes is appalling. It brings up a larger question of why a large corporation like Vornado is given special treatment above the law and behind the scenes.”
But the landmarks commission said building owners are routinely allowed to see draft landmark-designation reports and to confer with staff members on how to submit an application that will meet the commission’s restrictions. These contacts, Mr. Tierney said, are designed to provide insight into the process, not to offer any guarantees. “Since the commissioners, not the staff, make the ultimate decisions, staff cannot give any such assurances,” he said. And he said he never made the requested call to Mr. Roth.
“The proposed changes were consistent with and showed immense respect for the interior and exterior of this building,” Mr. Tierney said. “They not only complement the beauty of the building but are also almost fully reversible for future potential owners.”
The building’s exterior was made a landmark in 1997. The interior, which had come to public attention after a signature metal screen by the sculptor Harry Bertoia was removed, was not given landmark status until February. Two months after the interior landmark designation, the commission granted the new owner, Vornado, permission to make changes to the building.
The preservationists contend these changes are significant reconfigurations that violate the protections that had been put in place. But Vornado hired the original architects, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (S.O.M.), to make the changes and it has argued that the renovation is in keeping with the original design.
“This is one of the great projects in our portfolio that helped contribute to the reputation of S.O.M.,” said Roger Duffy, a design partner at Skidmore, Owings. “So we wanted to make sure we would do this in the right way and to the highest level of quality.”
When the bank president originally approached Skidmore, Owings in the 1950s, Mr. Duffy said, he had asked that the building be adaptable in case it failed as a bank. “That was always a part of the building,” Mr. Duffy said, “the adaptability of the project.”
Mr. Tierney agreed. “Ultimately, the building was originally designed for a specific use — banking — which was no longer practical,” he said.
Given that the building’s previous owners had made some alterations to the interior, the architects also made the point that they would be restoring a few original elements, like the luminous ceiling.
Perhaps the most noticeable change in the interior is the reconfiguration of the escalators. In public hearings, commissioners had objected to the idea of changing the escalators, which were positioned about 15 feet from the street and ran north-south. In designating the interior as a landmark, the commission spoke of how the escalators had been “positioned to maximize visibility from Fifth Avenue” but noted that in recent years, before Vornado’s purchase, A.T.M.’s had blocked the sightlines from the street.
Under the approved changes, new escalators will be installed that will be set back farther from the street and run east-west. “It was an important diagonal element in the composition,” Mr. Grunewald, an architect and archivist, said. Other architects say such changes represent a slippery slope; allow escalators to be moved and eventually a landmark isn’t a landmark anymore.
“Since the building is one of the most transparent in New York and it’s an iconic structure, it’s almost as if the interior is more significant than the facade,” the architect Richard Gluckman said. “If things are designated, they should be rigorously protected.”