News
06.03.2009
A New Leaf
After a half-century, Manhattan's fabled Four Seasons restaurant gets freshened up
The Oak Room, circa 1960.
All photos Ezra Stoller/Esto

Service at the Four Seasons on East 52nd Street is so solicitous, the Knoll banquettes so comfy, and pricey entrees so reliable, most patrons don’t notice how ratty the place looks as it reaches age 50. Paint has chipped on the railings along the staircases and mezzanines. Faux leather wall panels and ceiling downlights have shifted off kilter. Swaths of plaster have cracked, and travertine walls and floors are marked with stains.

Not even Belmont Freeman, a Manhattan-based architect who will renovate the Philip Johnson–designed interior in July, realized the extent of the damage when original client and guiding spirit Phyllis Lambert contacted him last fall. “My original reaction was, ‘What does it need? It’s fabulous!’” he said, and added, laughing, “But then, I’d never been there in broad daylight, sober.”

While giving a tour recently in harsh morning light, he pointed out a mixture of dire and cosmetic problems throughout the Landmarks Preservation Commission–protected restaurant that opened in 1959. “The most beat-up areas are the ancillary spaces” on the ground floor, he explained. In the foyer, lobby, and cloakroom, ceiling plaster sags, travertine is grimy, and light fixtures with glass or anodized-aluminum coverings are failing. Square footage is wasted on two walnut phone booths and a telephone-switchboard alcove where the phones were torn out long ago. “It’s strange how the spaces were re-purposed over the years,” Freeman said.

The three-martini lunch of the Mad Men years.

Then he headed into the restrooms, where Philip Johnson’s luxurious finishes have held up relatively well: pink marble and Brazilian rosewood in the women’s room, French walnut and gray-black marble in the men’s. But in the women’s powder room, white glass counters and Saarinen tulip chairs are chipped. And the men’s urinal partitions “need help,” Freeman said, as they’re stained with uric acid.

His five-person firm, Belmont Freeman Architects, has spent months strategizing how best to save or replicate the Four Seasons’ historic fabric while improving circulation routes and mechanicals. This summer, the team, with contractor F.J. Sciame Construction Co., plans to recycle walnut from the phone booths while converting them into closets for catering equipment.

Textured glass and anodized aluminum sheets on the lights will be salvaged or reproduced for LEDs or other high-efficiency bulbs. William Armstrong Lighting Design and the fixtures’ original manufacturer, Edison Price, are collaborating with Freeman on the upgrades, and researching the original schemes by renowned modernist lighting designer Richard Kelly.

In the women’s room, intrusive brushed-metal trash cans will be replaced with slots cut into the marble counter. Replica faucets will come from Speakman—which still manufactures Johnson’s original design—and Knoll is sending over new Saarinen tulips. Fortuny is supplying a copy of its original feather-pattern fabric at $200-some a yard for the powder room walls, supplanting a recent wall-covering that Freeman calls “some kind of fake suede—it’s gross.”

The room has seen better days, though soon to return to Johnsonian glory.

The architect declined to disclose the project budget. “It’s not a public number,” he said, “in fact, it’s not a known number yet.” There are obvious urgent matters: Bronze door levers flop weakly when pressed, and panels are detaching from the Pool Room walls. The famous billowing window curtains of pink, gold, and silver chains “are failing because of metal fatigue, and the original source is long out of business,” said Freeman, who is scouring jewelry manufacturers for potential replacement strands.

He has also been supervising test-stripping of the upstairs metal railings. “Some misguided soul painted the bronze a chocolate-brown at some point, so it didn’t have to be polished,” he said. The thick coating obscures Johnson’s playful metal specs: He set spindly steel rods within the railings’ thick bronze frames. Until a sample section railing was recently cleaned, Freeman said, “no one realized that Philip Johnson had mixed metals here, the way he did on the window chains, the way you’re not ‘supposed’ to mix metals. It was exhibit A of his over-the-top aesthetic. But for years, it all looked bronze.”

Freeman sees opportunities for further brightening in every room and corridor. “It’s so much fun to luxuriate in the potential, the details here,” he said, noting that the original carpet was a bold plaid, not tame scrollwork, and Johnson’s bar stools were pale saddle, not dark, leather. The restaurant will remain open during the summer as Sciame staff sneak in for shifts of a few hours a day. “It’s difficult and frustrating to do it piecemeal, but these spaces are occupied seven days a week,” said co-owner Alex von Bidder. The logistics of future overhauls will be even harder to orchestrate. Von Bidder has shut down the restaurant for renovations just once before, when the kitchen was rebuilt ten years ago.

Lambert, who oversaw Johnson’s design in the 1950s and commissioned occasional furnishing updates from him for decades thereafter, said that Freeman’s downstairs assignments are desperately needed. “I’ve seen problems there for some time,” she said, and the brown paint on the railings “is completely mad—I can’t remember when that happened, and why.” Happily, the space is now getting the close attention it deserves.

Eve Kahn