Oculus - Fall 2011 - (Page 35)
Because the second fl oor stops short of the
street walls, cantilevering off interior columns, it
appears to fl oat within a single loſt y space. White
marble cladding on the columns inside the space
almost dematerializes them when seen from the
street against the luminous ceilings.
Surprisingly, SOM was not entirely responsible
for this iconic interior, as it was for subsequent
Manhattan branch banks. Since the fi rm didn’t
have an interiors division in the early 1950s, the
elegantly severe furnishings were done in collaboration
with Eleanor Le Maire, a distinguished interior
designer who’d worked with Manufacturers Trust.
In 1997, the building received exterior land-
Ezra Stoller’s iconic 1954
portrait of Manufacturers Trust.
branch bank noted for its iconic
transparent design is now the
subject of heated preservation
BY JOHN MORRIS DIXON, FAIA
he Modern ideal of a transparent building envelope
was never more vividly realized than in
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s branch bank at Fiſt h
Avenue and 43rd Street – originally Manufacturers
Trust, later Manufacturers Hanover, and until
last year, Chase. Ada Louise Huxtable recently
characterized it as “a structure where exterior and
interior were conceived as one thing, unifi ed and
inseparable, to be seen and understood as a continuous
visual, spatial and aesthetic experience.”
T e current owners, Vornado Realty Trust, are
now reconfi guring the building to accommodate
two retail stores facing Fiſt h Avenue.
Gordon Bunshaſt ’s original design refl ects a
specifi c set of circumstances. T e bank needed
more public interior than the square footage of the
site, hence the two banking fl oors. T e structure’s
transparency met the bank’s desire for an “inviting
look” that appeared progressive and would appeal
to a broad range of customers.
Such a transparent glass cage would not have
worked just anywhere. A site that faced north and
east, largely in the shadow of taller structures,
eliminated the need for blinds or tinted glass.
Suffi cient interior light intensity to sustain the
transparency was provided by continuous luminous
ceilings, an innovation that was just being
perfected in the early 1950s.
Interior Motives: Activity & Growth
mark designation, applying only to the envelope.
Although the building’s banking fl oors were
clearly visible from the street, the Landmarks
Preservation Commission (LPC) didn’t designate
the interior until February 2011, aſt er the last
banking occupant leſt and the current owners
sought retail tenants.
For the proposed new occupancy, the LPC
approved alterations to both interior (dividing the
space in two, among other changes) and exterior
(mainly two new entries cut into the Fiſt h Avenue
front). While the proposal would restore key elements
of the interior to their original appearance,
it would do so by re-creating them aſt er the gutting
that has already taken place. In July, the advocacy
group Citizens Emergency Committee to Preserve
Preservation fi led a lawsuit charging that Vornado
Realty Trust and the LPC disregarded an obligation
to protect the interior.
Ironically, SOM is the owner’s architect for
the current architectural alterations, exterior and
interior. Moreover, one of the bank’s 1950s requirements
was that the public interiors be adaptable to
retail use. But a space so plainly designed as one
whole volume would be seriously compromised by
being divided in two.
T is issue of Oculus will go to press before the
preservation drama plays out. But it’s clear that
– whatever happens – this landmark is assured a
place in the history of Modern architecture.
John Morris Dixon, FAIA, left the drafting board for
journalism in 1960 and was editor of Progressive
Architecture from 1972 to 1996. He wrote the
Midtown Manhattan portion of the original 1967
AIA Guide to New York City. In recent years he
has written for Architectural Record, Architecture,
Architect, and other publications. Dixon received
AIANY’s 2011 Stephen A. Kliment Oculus Award
for Excellence in Journalism.
Fall 2011 Oculus 35
©Ezra Stoller / ESTO
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Oculus - Fall 2011
A Word from the Editor
Center for Architecture
One Block Over
Opener: The New Office Space
Small Spaces, Transforming Results
The Lure of Pop-ups
A Giant, Hardly Sleeping: Pro Bono Sector
Index to Advertisers
Oculus - Fall 2011
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