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MAS Supports Interior Designation of Modernist Masterpiece


Manufacturers Hannover Trust Company

This morning the Landmarks Preservation Commission held a hearing on the designation of the interior of the Manufacturers Trust Company Building. The Municipal Art Society testified in support of the designation (Read the testimony). A number of preservation organizations were on hand to support the designation, along with the building’s owner, Vornado and a representative of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

The small glass building, located at Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street, is widely recognized as a modernist masterpiece. Erected between 1953 and 1954, the initial design for the bank was the result of an in-house design competition at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, for which the sculptural glass-walled scheme of the young Charles Evans Hughes III – who went on to become president of the Municipal Art Society – was selected. Gordon Bunshaft, who also designed the nearby modernist landmark Lever House, was the lead architect.

The design was a radical departure from typical bank buildings of the era, which were generally heavily-ornamented masonry buildings. SOM conceived of a transparent glass structure, with the prominent display of the massive gleaming steel bank vault the only indication of its use. The highly visible interiors are famous for the “floating” mezzanine, luminous ceilings, site-specific Harry Bertoia screens, and other interior features that created a pristine modernist aesthetic.

The preservation challenge with a transparent building is that any significant change to the interior would significantly alter the exterior. While the commission had designated the building’s exterior in 1997, there was increasing concern that imminent changes in use would impact the building’s architecture. Furthering those concerns was the loss of site-specific art, particularly a sculpture by Harry Bertoia. JPMorgan Chase retains ownership of the art, which was removed from the building at the end of 2010, when their lease ended.

MAS argued today that not only was the interior eligible for designation based on its own merit, but that it was also critical for the Commission to designate it in order to ensure that any alterations are sympathetic to this world-class piece of architecture.

MAS has long appreciated this modernist gem. In 1955 the building was awarded a “Plaque of Commendation,” which MAS awarded annually to the year’s “most distinctive contribution to the civic beauty of New York.”