No Landmark

Alvar Aalto’s U.N. interiors are in limbo—again

East News Preservation
Alvar Aalto's interiors for 809 U.N. Plaza. (Wijnanda Deroo / images via DoCoMoMo : New York | Tri-State / montage by AN)
Alvar Aalto's interiors for 809 U.N. Plaza. (Wijnanda Deroo / images via DoCoMoMo : New York | Tri-State / montage by AN)

Today the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) added ten new items from its backlog to the official roster of New York City landmarks. While the commission protected Dutch Colonial farmhouses, the Bergdorf Goodman building, and the mega-glamorous Loews movie palace in Washington Heights, it declined to designate a rare and important interior by Alvar Aalto, the Finnish modern architect.

The Edgar J. Kaufmann conference rooms, lecture hall, and elevator lobby at 809 U.N. Plaza, designed by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto and his second wife, designer Elissa Aalto, demonstrate pure modern ingenuity. A cobalt-tiled lobby leads visitors to a 4,500-square-foot flexible space divided by an ash partition into two conference rooms and a 300-person lecture hall. The 12th-floor space commands sweeping views of the East River, but custom-designed louvers protect the interior, complete with Alvar’s custom light fixtures and furniture, from excessive glare. One particular delight of the space is an abstract, curved birchwood sculpture that evokes the forests of Finland. Completed in 1964-65, the interiors are one of only four projects by Alvar in the U.S. and his only surviving work in New York.

The item was first discussed at a public hearing in 2001, and again in 2002. The rooms, as former Architect’s Newspaper (AN) editor Julie Iovine detailed in a 2000 piece for the New York Times, could be dismantled and preserved elsewhere—or not. Without landmark protection, its owner, the Institute of International Education (IIE), are free to do whatever it likes with the space.

LPC communications director Damaris Olivo told AN that legal issues around public access to the space preclude the rooms from designation. Although privately owned, the rooms can be rented for events consistent with the IIE’s mission of promoting international discourse around and through education.

John Arbuckle, chair of the docomomo New York | Tri-state chapter, said in an email that the organization is “very disappointed” with the LPC’s announcement. The local chapter is figuring out how it will to respond to the commission’s decision.

Including the Kaufmann conference rooms, thirteen items were considered as part of the LPC’s Backlog 95, a plan to address almost 100 historic districts and properties that have lingered on the agency’s calendar for years, sometimes decades. Although ten properties were landmarked, a decision on a Con Edison–owned powerhouse designed by McKim Mead and White was deferred, while a Bronx church and Aalto’s interiors were removed from the calendar entirely.

The Jackie Robinson YMCA Youth Center, a vernacular-style townhouse on East 85th Street, Bergdorf Goodman, the Loew’s 175th Street Theater, the Excelsior Steam Power Company Building (Manhattan), Brougham Cottage, the Lakeman-Cortelyou-Taylor House (Staten Island), St. Barbara’s Roman Catholic Church, and an Italianate building on Broadway (Brooklyn), as well as the Protestant Reform Dutch Church of Flushing (Queens) were all upgraded from backlog properties to landmarks.

AN is following the fate of Aalto’s rooms closely; readers should check back soon for updates.

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