Modernist Architecture on Park Avenue (NYC)

In 1961, the Municipal Art Society (MAS) and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) jointly published Ada Louise Huxtable’s pocket guide, “Four Walking Tours of Modern Architecture in New York City.” One tour focused on modernist buildings that were erected in the Post World War II era on the stretch of Park Avenue from 46th to 59th Streets, when residential buildings, some only 20 or 30 years old, began to be torn down. The result, according to architectural critic Huxtable: several gems like the Seagram Building and Lever House, and many more substantial but less distinguished designs by Emery Roth & Sons and Kahn and Jacobs

On Saturday, May 17th, I joined tour guide John Arbuckle, president of the New York/Tri-State Chapter of DOCOMOMO, an international organization dedicated to preserving modern architecture, on a MAS sponsored walking tour to retrace Huxtable’s steps. The idea was to pause before these iconic Park Avenue buildings, listen to Huxtable’s commentary and criticism, reflect on subsequent changes to the buildings, and contemplate their fate in the light of the revised Midtown East rezoning in August 2017 which already has resulted in one of the buildings, Union Carbide being slated for demolition.

We paused before the Union Carbide building, (270 Park Avenue), erected in 1960 and designed by Gordon Bunshaft and Natalie de Blois of the New York Office of Skidmore Owings & Merrill (SOM). “They are taking down a perfectly functional building,” Arbuckle said, adding that the building was retrofitted and LEED Platinum certified as energy efficient in 2012. Although lists of threatened buildings were submitted to the New York City Landmarks Commission, only one building in the zoning district, the Citicorp Center (now known as the Citigroup Center), which ironically was not on the list, was eventually landmarked.

Many preservationists objected to Union Carbide’s demolition. Why, NYT critic Paul Goldberger asked, was it to being torn down after being recently retrofitted? Tearing it down, opponents said, suggested that sustainable design is a low priority.

Standing on the grand plaza of the Seagram Building (1958), at 375 Park Avenue, set 90 foot back from the avenue, we look upward at its stunning bronze and amber glass façade. “People don’t make curtain walls of bronze; they just make sculptures,” Arbuckle commented, reflecting on architect’s Mies van der Rohe’s brilliant choice of materials. Huxtable had extraordinary praise for the Seagram building, calling it “one of the finest structures of this century.” It was fortunate that Phyllis Bronfman Lambert, daughter of Seagram’s CEO Edgar Bronfman, convinced her father to reject the first design for the building by another architect, Arbuckle explained, holding up a photograph of a rather garish design — one that contrasted vividly with van der Rohe’s bold austerity.

Across Park Avenue was the imposing, green Lever House (1952) at 390 Park Avenue, designed by SOM’s Gordon Bunshaft, head of the NY Office for decades, with its trendsetting tower resting on a two-story base and its glass curtain wall architecture. The building uses space spectacularly and creates a feeling of openness, especially on its ground floor. “This design could never have been approved if the company was interested in obtaining maximum rental area,” Arbuckle said. Lever House underwent a major restoration in 2003 with a complete curtain wall replacement replicating the original design.

Arbuckle paused before a site that he called “another sad story.” It was formerly an auto showroom designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1955 and it was Wright’s only visible work in New York City before the Guggenheim Museum. “In March of 2013, the Landmarks Commission was considering designating the site as a NYC landmark. In early April, the owner demolished it.” It is now a nondescript jewelry store.

At 500 Park Avenue, we arrive at the last of the Gordon Bunshaft SOM designs on the tour, a structure built as the world headquarters for Pepsi Cola in 1960. Huxtable called it: “An elegant example of the international style,” adding that “the building asserts its presence with quiet dignity and pride.” The adjacent 40-story tower designed by James Polshek (completed in 1984) complements the original design. As of 1995, the building was designated a landmark.

I am left thinking about another Bunshaft building, the Heinz Research Center, (1958), located on the Northside in Pittsburgh, PA. Almost three years ago, Brooklyn-based Crow Hill Development Corporation, led by Fabian Friedland (full disclosure — my husband architect Shael Shapiro is a partner in the project), purchased the building with its glass curtain wall and signature Bunshaft tower resting on a two-story base. The building overlooks the Allegheny River, and has sweeping views of Pittsburgh’s bridges and downtown skyscrapers.

When it opened, in addition to stainless steel kitchen and lab facilities on several floors for the H.J. Heinz Company, the building’s lobby and offices were filled with glamorous Florence Knoll furniture from the 1950s and with a large painting in the two-story lobby commissioned from artist Stuart Davis, which included a jumbled 1957, a reference to Heinz’s “57 Varieties.”

Ada Louise Huxtable did not write about Bunshaft’s Heinz building in Pittsburgh but I am very certain that she would have loved the building had she done so.

Union Carbide Building (270 Park Avenue)
Seagram Building (375 Park Avenue)
Lever House (390 Park Avenue)
Pepsi Cola Building (500 Park Avenue)
Heinz Research Building (Pittsburgh, PA)

All photos by Shael Shapiro

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roslyn bernstein

roslyn bernstein

An arts and culture journalist for Guernica, Huff Post, Tablet, etc, Roslyn Bernstein’s books include Engaging Art, Illegal Living, and Boardwalk Stories.