“Sometimes the best way to restore a historic structure is to reuse it.” The comment came from Landmarks Preservation Commissioner Robert Tierney at the conclusion of Tuesday’s landmarks hearing on revisions proposed by Vornado Realty for interiors of the recently landmarked Manufacturers Trust Building on Fifth Avenue. The statement summed up the mood of the commission with regard to changes in the space, originally designed by Gordon Bunschaft, which include dividing the first floor to make space for two retail tenants. Most of the commission picked apart the specifics while maintaining that the architects from SOM overseeing the renovation were generally on the right track.
The crisp, well-paced presentation from SOM’s Frank Mahan delved into several controversial changes, including destroying all of the black granite wall and interiors that sit behind the Henry Dreyfuss-designed safe door, shifting the escalators from north-south to east-west orientation, and losing the 43rd Street entrance, which would be replaced with two entrances on Fifth. The removal of the granite wall allows for the construction of a partition wall that will separate the space into two retail units. The partition wall will run east to west the length of the 9000-square foot space, dividing it into a 4000-square foot southern section, where the safe and granite wall once stood, and a 5000-square foot space in the northeast corner of the building. Only eleven feet tall, the partition wall is topped by seven-foot high glass panels that stretch to the ceiling. The famous paneled ceiling and its fluorescent glow spans most of the ground floor space and now will continue on through the area once occupied by the safe.
In addition to moving the escalators, the retailer proposes to crisscross them. Instead of a twin sculptural mass (the double escalators were once clad in perforated bronze) two new glass-clad escalators split the traffic to go in different directions. From 43rd Street the profile will form a large “X” shape. No one on the commission responded favorably to the configuration and, needless to say, the preservationists didn’t go for it either.
One aspect that Meredith Kane, representing Vornado, said would not be negotiable was the positioning of the doors, stating that the new retail use necessitated a Fifth Avenue entrance. “The entrance on the side was sort of a discrete hiding of wealth, which is not appropriate for retail,” she said, implying that without shifting the entrances, finding tenants would be difficult and put the project in jeopardy. “Without entrances on Fifth Avenue we won’t be able to do any of the other [restoration] work,” said Kane. The Canadian fashion retailer Joe Fresh will take the larger retail space at street level plus the entire 9000 square feet above. The smaller space does not have a tenant yet.
The SOM proposal also includes a new screen inspired by the Bertoia screen that was removed by the building’s former owner, Chase, when they vacated the building. A new screen made of anodized aluminum references its predecessor but cleans up its organic qualities with sharper lines and flat panels. Still, the proposed efforts to restore and revamp the space did not satisfy everyone.
“Adaptive reuse is not a one way street. In some cases the user needs to adapt to the character of the landmark,” said Christabel Gough, secretary for the Society for the Architecture of the City. “Moving the escalators and demolishing the vault would be equivalent, because of the [building’s] transparency, to demolishing the Fifth Avenue facade of a traditionally composed building.”