The fate of Alvar Aalto’s Edgar J. Kaufmann Conference Center on the 12th floor in 809 United Nations Plaza remains in limbo nearly seven years after it was proposed as an interior landmark before the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). Designed in 1964 for the Institute of International Education (IIE), the 4,500- square-foot modern space is one of only two interiors designed by the great Finnish architect in the United States, the other being the Woodberry Poetry Room of Harvard’s Lamont Library. “This is one of the city’s great rooms and not enough people know,” said Alex Herrera, director of technical services at the New York Landmarks Conservancy, who worked with the IIE to research and supervise the restoration of the space in 2003. With its undulating plaster ceiling, ash-paneled walls, blue porcelain tiles, and bentwood wall sculpture, the space is typical of Aalto’s work. The original Aalto-designed lighting fixtures and furniture, including black leather and birch chairs and a rolling bar, are still intact.
Until a month ago the conference center, comprising meeting rooms, a lecture hall, and elevator lobby, was available to the public as rental space for functions and events. Faced with a shortage of space, the IIE has closed its doors and will use the meeting rooms as “temporary office space,” said Derrick Wilson, the IIE’s telecommunications manager. There is no foreseeable date for when the space will be available for rent again, said Wilson.
The issue of public accessibility has been the crux of arguments both for and against designating the conference rooms as a New York City interior landmark. According to the city’s Landmarks Law, only building interiors that are “customarily open or accessible to the public” can be designated interior landmarks.
In a New York Times article published after an LPC designation hearing in September 2002, the IIE said that access to rooms was restricted because of security concerns at the building, which is located across the street from the United Nations and is also home to the UN’s missions of the governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Preservationists, however, have said that the rooms have been accessible to the public since their opening. The rooms have had a special connection to the United Nations, and have been the site of countless Fulbright Scholar programs, which the IIE administers. “Clearly it was Edgar J. Kaufmann’s intention to make the work of Aalto better appreciated in this country by having the rooms always open to the public. It’s unfortunate that an institution whose goal is education is removing the rooms from the public access,” said Theo Prudon, president of DOCOMOMO US.
Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council (HDC), agrees and sees the closing of the space as a pushback against landmark designation. “By fighting landmarks designation, it makes one very concerned about the space,” said Bankoff. In response to these concerns, HDC has reestablished communication with the LPC and has circulated a petition that calls for the designation of the space as an interior landmark.