What a Traversty

New York's Landmarks Preservation Commission approves resurfacing of modernist 140 Broadway plaza

Preservationists claim that using granite for 140 Broadway's plaza will decontextualize Isamu Noguchi's Red Cube sculpture. (Can Pac Swire/Flickr)

The third time’s the charm for engineers NV5 and preservation consultants at Higgins Quasebarth & Partners. On February 5, the team, this time joined by stone conservation expert George Wheeler, successfully argued before New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) for permission to swap the stone out at the Manhattan plaza of the landmarked 140 Broadway building.

The former Marine Midland Building, an international-style office tower designed by Gordon Bunshaft and SOM in 1967, is distinctive for how its imposing black massing “floats” above a plaza of what was originally travertine surrounding Isamu Noguchi’s distinctive Red Cube. The travertine pavers were replaced with pink granite in a 1999 renovation, and the project team went before the LPC to propose a new shade of granite closer to the original stone.

That drew the ire of preservationists and some of the commissioners, who asked why travertine wasn’t being used instead. Much of the presentation (available here) from 140 Broadway’s ownership and project team dealt with that question.

The pitch was that granite, with a compressive strength of nearly three times that of travertine, would be a much more durable replacement. Travertine’s pockmarked nature also renders it particularly vulnerable to freeze-thaw cracking and salt blooms because water easily impregnates the porous stone. The team maintained that five-inch-thick travertine pavers would be needed to meet all of their aesthetic and safety concerns, and that because of the voids under the plaza, the pavers can only be two-inches thick. While Bunshaft had chosen travertine to evoke the feeling of a Roman plaza, the presentation made it clear that New York’s climate was much harsher than Rome’s.

Photo of a grey plaza and black tower

The existing plaza and entrance at 140 Broadway. The pink granite installed in 1999 is currently failing. (Maciek Lulko/Flickr)

The comprehensive analysis was done after the ownership team’s prior two LPC presentations in March and November of 2018. Commissioners had previously declined to vote on the proposed granite replacements and suggested that NV5 and Higgins Quasebarth look further into travertine. As preservationist Theodore Grunewald noted, the reason 140 Broadway’s plaza was before the LPC was that the granite installed in 1999 was also failing and that there was no guarantee that it wouldn’t happen again.

Travertine plazas are still in use at Manhattan’s W.R. Grace Building and Solow Tower Building, both designed by Bunshaft, but the project team noted that the drainage systems and sloped “skirt” at the base of each tower helped facilitate the quick movement of water off of the vulnerable stone beneath.

Ultimately the commissioners voted to approve the use of Tudor Gold Granite, although there were some concerns about the need to choose a color closer to the original travertine. Commissioner Adi Shamir-Baron, the only nay vote at the hearing, noted that the commission’s role was to preserve moments in time, regardless of viability, and not just upgrade the city’s properties with “space-age materials.”

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