Update 1/17/17: This post initially stated that the LPC excluded a colonnaded hallway and seating area near the lobby from the designation. The LPC included the colonnaded hallway, but excluded the seating area and the elevator hallway that connects the lobby and the Ambassador Grill. The post was updated with additional reporting to support these changes.
Today the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) voted unanimously to landmark Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo Associates' Ambassador Grill and Lounge and Hotel Lobby at the United Nations Hotel.
The vote came after preservationists mobilized to seek protection for the interiors: A sequence of lush and mirrored spaces that today evoke the glamour of the disco era. New owners Millennium Hotels and Resorts, who bought the space five years ago and renamed it One UN New York, were set to convert the rooms to a more contemporary style. The Ambassador Grill and Lounge and Hotel Lobby opened in 1976 and 1983, respectively.
In light of development pressure, the LPC moved swiftly to calendar the item in September, and the commission heard (all positive) public testimony from the likes of Docomomo, Robert A.M. Stern, Alexandra Lange, and others, in November.
To the regret of many preservationists, the LPC decided not to include a seating area adjacent to the lobby's colonnaded hallway and the elevator hallway that connects the two landmarked rooms.
"I'm happy the LPC called out the columned hallway, perhaps limiting the alteration of the lounge, but it's disappointing the [non-designated] areas didn't come up in the commissioner's deliberations today," said preservation activist Theodore Grunewald. "While we know that virtually no historic preservation battle is ever '100 percent,' and that preservation requires flexibility and must include [necessary] compromises, the exclusion of the seating area is still troubling."
At today's vote, which took all of 15 minutes, LPC researcher Matt Postal called Roche and Dinkeloo’s work “lavish” and "exceptionally well preserved, [some of] the best public spaces of the 1970s and 80s in New York City.”
Like all city landmarks, the rooms have one final hurdle to clear: The City Council will vote in the coming weeks to officially adopt—or in rare cases, refute—the LPC's designation.
This article appears on HoverPin, a new app that lets you build personalized maps of geo-related online content based on your interests: architecture, food, culture, fitness, and more. Never miss The Architect’s Newspaper’s coverage of your area and discover new, exciting projects wherever you go! See our HoverPin layer here and download the app from the Apple Store.
Today the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) solicited input on the future of the city's best-known—and most threatened—postmodern interior.
The commission heard testimony from its research department and members of the public on ONE UN New York Hotel's (formerly the United Nations Hotel) Lobby and Ambassador Grill & Lounge, two glittery disco-era spaces designed by Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo Associates.
As recently as January, the spaces inside the Midtown East building were set to be demolished by property owner Millennium Hotels and Resorts.
Local luminaries like Robert A.M. Stern, Belmont Freeman, and Alexandra Lange, as well as a bi-coastal Docomomo contingent spoke in favor of landmarking. The item would be the first postmodern interior to be designated a New York City landmark, and the "youngest" after Roche and Dinkeloo's Ford Foundation (1963-68) which has interior and exterior landmark status.
The Ambassador Grill & Lounge, a small U-shaped restaurant in a windowless basement (1976), sports inset light fixtures, vaulted faux skylight clad in trellised mylar panels, and more shiny surfaces than Studio 54, all of which create the illusion of capaciousness and light. Along East 44th Street, the hotel lobby (1983) features a stepped glass dome roof accessed via a freestanding marble-columned hallway. The LPC’s research department called the connected rooms some of the "best public spaces" of New York from that period.
The researchers' conclusions were reflected in public testimony that invoked the glamour of the rooms and their role in the see-and-be-seen public life of the city. Liz Waytkus, executive director of modern architecture preservation organization Docomomo, called Roche and Dinkeloo's interiors “among the best” public spaces of the era. In contrast to the severity of modernism, the fluid spaces reflect a “humanistic” energy not often associated with the architecture of the time.
Docomomo’s Jessica Smith read a statement on behalf of Robert A.M. Stern. Stern offered “strong support” of designation, noting that Roche designed both the building itself and its interiors. He called the grill and lobby “masterworks of modernism produced by a master at his prime,” comparing them to surviving postmodern peers like Sir John Soane's Museum in London and Adolf Loos’s American Bar in Vienna. Smith also read a statement for Curbed architecture critic Alexandra Lange, who said her research on postwar American corporate design suggests the rooms represent a “key moment” in late modern design. "The interiors change scale and increase the sensuality of a pair of large skyscrapers that draw the prismatic curtain walls of the UN buildings inside, creating a total work of architecture."
To the frustration of many who testified, including Docomomo and the preservation advocacy organization Historic Districts Council (HDC), the commission did not include the lobby’s sunken seating area in the designation. The LPC said it believed the relative lack of original elements in the seating area merited exclusion, as the main lobby and hypostyle corridor under consideration offer a “processional experience” to and from the grill.
The iconic interiors have attracted attention beyond New York City. Daniel Paul, a Southern California–based architectural historian and expert in late modern glass skin architecture, flew in from L.A. to attend today’s meeting. Early this morning, he went to the hotel to check on the state of the interiors. Millennium, he said, has altered the space substantially but not irreversibly. In the grill, the faux skylight is covered in a semi-opaque “cheap-looking” plastic, while the neon acrylic wine racks were replaced by wood features. The bar’s tivoli lights are gone, and its mirrored backdrop has been replaced with wallpaper.
Despite the recent changes, Paul, a Docomomo member who with Waytkus drafted the RFE (a Request for Evaluation, the first step in the landmark process), said that Roche and Dinkeloo’s work is one of the most intact “high design” spaces of the era. “Taste goes in cycles,” he said. "When the cycle of appreciation takes a dip, that’s when these spaces are the most vulnerable." Roche has offered to work with the property owners pro bono to see how the distinctive features could be preserved while updating the space to their satisfaction. (Update: In an email to Paul during the hearing today, Roche stated that his office would be willing to do an initial consultation pro bono but then "see where it goes.")
Representatives from Millennium did not comment at today's meeting.
As the discussion concluded, LPC chair Meenakshi Srinivasan stated that the commission would do further research and vote at to-be-determined meeting.
On April 19, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) approved the $190 million renovation to the Ford Foundation Building at 320 East 43rd Street. The building, designed by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates with its iconic atrium by designer Dan Kiley, has been largely untouched since it was completed in 1967. In 1997, the LPC designated the exterior, atrium glass walls, and garden of the foundation headquarters as official landmarks. The new upgrades are mostly focused on bringing the building up to code and will be conducted by Gensler with Bill Higgins of Higgins Quasebarth & Partners as consultants, while Raymond Jungles Studio will handle the plantings.
This undertaking will include doubling conference space and dedicating two floors to other nonprofit organizations, creating a new visitors center, art gallery, and public event spaces, and reducing Ford’s own office area by one-third.
Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, said, “This means more accessibility for people with disabilities; [and a place that is] more open to visitors and the public, including a visitors center and art gallery; more open to our colleagues and sister institutions through expanded meeting facilities; and a more open working environment for our own staff to encourage collaboration and reduce hierarchy.”
However, at the presentation in April, commissioners and Historic District Council (HDC) director of advocacy and community outreach Kelly Carroll had reservations. Carroll pointed out that many of the buildings the HDC reviews have little evidence of their former glory, while the Ford Foundation still retains its original brass doors, planters, modernist tile pavers, and signature indoor-outdoor flow—a rare gift. “An approval [to remove features] today can easily be a regret a generation from now,” she said. In particular, she voiced concerns over removing planters—which are currently ADA compliant—and suggested that the team look into automating the bronze doors rather than tossing them.
Others, such as Tara Kelly of the Municipal Art Society, expressed similar concerns and suggested more greenery on the facade and entrance on 42nd Street. In the end, commissioners voted to approve changes. The renovation is expected to be complete by 2019.