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Keeping tabs on our favorite bank: 510 Fifth Avenue

October 18, 2011

510 Fifth Avenue, which you may know as the Manufacturers Trust Company Building or by the nickname Manny Hanny, had two important datelines this month. On October 4th the building’s inclusion on the World Monuments Fund’s 2012 Watch List was announced and on October 11th the NY State Appellate Court denied the City and Vornado Realty Trust’s motion to dismiss the Article 78 suit working its way through the NY Supreme Court.

More on the latter:
(At the end of this post there is a timeline of events related to 510 Fifth Avenue to help you keep tabs.) When the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the interior of 510 Fifth Avenue this past February thirteen speakers testified in favor of designation for the bank’s first and second floors. There was near uniform agreement on the elements that make the building what it is: the openness and visibility of the interior from the street, the side-by-side escalators ascending to the second floor just behind the Fifth Avenue façade, the set-back, floating second floor mezzanine that helps visually unite the two banking floors into one all-encompassing space, the 43rd Street entrance vestibule and the famous visible vault with its Henry Dreyfuss-designed door. The Commission’s designation report identified these same elements as significant, among others, in its “Summary” and “Findings and Designation.”

In May the Commission issued a Certificate of Appropriateness (CofA) to the building owner, Vornado Realty Trust, which permitted significant alteration or compromise of these same elements. Following a design by SOM—the firm behind the original design (Gordon Bunshaft/SOM, 1953-1954)—the Vornado plan would add a new wall running east-west to accommodate two first floor retail tenants, severely compromising the openness and transparency of the original design, as well as requiring two new entrances on the Fifth Avenue façade where none existed. The plan reorients the escalators 90 degrees and moves them further into the building so that they are no longer a sculptural element visible from Fifth Avenue. The 43rd street entrance vestibule is eliminated, as is the long black granite-clad wall that defined the vault area. A short east end segment is to be retained, a vestige or prop wall for the Dreyfuss safe door.

DOCOMOMO NY/Tri-State has testified at each hearing, from the 1997 exterior designation to the March 2011 CofA, and was surprised to see the extent of the alterations the sitting Commissioners approved (not all the commissioners were present for the vote). It was our contention that if Vornado modified the proposed tenant arrangement to prioritize preservation of the landmarked interior’s key elements the most compromising of the alterations could be avoided or minimized. Other preservation groups and individuals were equally surprised by the Commission’s decision, the impact of which became even more apparent when photos of the gutted interior and missing 2nd floor slab started to circulate in June. (Reconstruction of the 2nd floor was necessitated by the relocation of the escalators and removal of the load bearing vault wall, requiring a redesign of the floor structure.)

In early July, the Coalition to Save Manufacturers Hanover Trust, a group spearheaded by Theodore Grunewald, teamed with the nonprofit Citizens Emergency Committee to Preserve Preservation (CECPP) to bring legal action against the Commission and Vornado through an Article 78 appeal. An Article 78 appeal basically asks a judge to void the Certificate of Appropriateness issued by the Commission in May. CECPP also requested a stop work order and copies of all the Commission’s documents relating to the 510 Fifth Avenue actions. At the request of CECPP’s attorney, DOCOMOMO NY/Tri-State submitted a letter of support in early September stating the importance of the building and reiterating points from our testimony letters about how the destruction or gross alteration of the critical design elements noted above will dramatically compromise 510 Fifth’s landmark qualities. The outline below follows the legal action to where it is today. The Appellate Court’s recent ruling confirms the plaintiff’s legal standing and allows the case to go forward. You can help with much-needed funding for this legal challenge by making a donation to CECPP on its website http://savelpc.org/.

NYC preservation law, under which the commission operates, does not dictate the degree to which a designation document must be followed in Commission decisions. But it does state that the Commission must exercise consistency in decision-making. Commissions, by nature, exhibit in varying frequency and degree, some capriciousness. The backgrounds, opinions or allegiances of individual commissioners are part of the commission dynamic, with the requirement of consistency to keep them at least somewhat in check. The 510 Fifth Article 78 suit is looking at the difficult balance between the LPC acting as a commission of mediation and opinion on a CofA request and upholding the protections it put in place when designating the building.

The final outcome on 510 Fifth Avenue is especially significant to the preservation of Modern architecture through designation because so often transparency is an integral aspect of the design. This could not be truer than for Manufacturers Trust Company’s “Glass Branch” on Fifth Avenue. The interior and exterior were conceived as inseparable and a meaningful designation will uphold that design intent.

TIME LINE

2010
October
Vornado Realty Trust purchases 510 Fifth Avenue from Tal Prop Equities.
October 31
70-ft bronze screen by Harry Bertoia removed by its owner JPMorgan Chase (Chase sold building to Tal Prop Equities in 2000, retaining ownership of two Bertoia artworks.)

2011
February 1
Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) public hearing on interior designation
February 15
LPC designates interior of 510 Fifth Avenue
March 9–11
Vornado and its architect SOM present proposed design for retail conversion to local preservation groups prior to LPC public hearing
March 15
LPC public hearing on Vornado’s Certificate of Appropriateness (CofA) application
March 24
Nomination of 510 Fifth Avenue to World Monuments Fund 2011 Watch List submitted
April 12
LPC Public Meeting – Vornado/SOM present 1st round of revisions to CofA submission
April 19
LPC Public Meeting – Vornado/SOM present 2nd round of revisions to CofA submission.
LPC Commissioners approve submission, grant Certificate of Appropriateness
June
Vornado begins demolition at 510 Fifth.
Mid June
First and second floor interiors are gutted and mezzanine slab is demolished. Some finish materials are reported to be in storage, to be returned as part of renovation.
July 7
CECPP files Article 78 suit in NY State Supreme Court
July 12
NY State Supreme Court Justice Lucy Billings issues temporary restraining order to stop demolition at the site that “results in loss of building’s irreplaceable elements.”
August 22
Justice Billings denies separate motions by the City of NY and Vornado to dismiss the case and affirms decision to stop demolition work at site until the merits of the case are decided.
August
Stop work order expires when CECPP fails to produce a required bond of $370,000
October 4
World Monuments Fund 2011 Watch List announced; 510 Fifth Avenue is included.
October 11
NY State Appellate Court rejects City of NY/Vornado motion to stay the proceeding in State Supreme Court. Decision recognizes plaintiff’s legal standing and allows case to go forward.

Graphic courtesy: Coalition to Save Manufacturers Hanover Trust
June 22, 2011 photo: © James Biber
.