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Aalto-designed conference center heard again at Landmarks Commission

November 15, 2015

Your support is needed! Please send a letter supporting designation of the Aalto Conference Rooms to the LPC before the November 26 deadline.

On November 12, DOCOMOMO NY/Tri-State testified before the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission in support of designating the Edgar J. Kaufmann Conference Center, designed by Alvar and Elissa Aalto in 1963-64, an interior landmark. The hearing was part of the Commission’s Backlog 95 Initiative, in which it is accepting public comments on whether to designate or remove from the calendar historic properties that have been under consideration since before 2010 but not acted upon—95 in all. After a protracted campaign to save the Aalto rooms from demolition in 2000, public hearings were held in 2001 and 2002 with no action taken by the LPC at either. Its owner, the Institute of International Education (IIE), has argued against designation, claiming that due to security concerns, the center is not publicly accessible, a requirement for an interior landmark. This is our final chance to persuade the Commission of the importance of this site and the fact that there is a history of public access.

In addition to DOCOMOMO NY/Tri-State, others who provided testimony in support of designation at the recent hearing or submitted letters include: The Consul General to New York from Finland; the Society of Architectural Historians; the American Institute of Architects; the Preservation League of New York State; the Historic Districts Council; local Community Board 6; Kenneth Frampton, Ware Professor of Architecture at Columbia University; Barry Bergdoll, Meyer Schapiro Professor of Art History at Columbia University and Curator of Architecture & Design at MoMA; Andrew Dolkart, Director of the Historic Preservation Program at Columbia University; and architects Steven Holl and Robert A.M. Stern along with many others. That said, more letters are needed, particularly from those who have had access to the Aalto conference rooms at any time. 

Located on the twelfth floor of the IIE headquarters at 809 United Nations Plaza, the conference center with its 4,500 sf of meetings rooms, a lecture hall, and elevator lobby is one of only four Aalto-designed projects in the US. In 2014, DOCOMOMO NY/Tri-State celebrated the 50-year milestone of the center by having its Modern Affair fundraising event in the space, which showcased the beautifully-refined signature elements—a gentle undulating plaster ceiling, bent birch wood details, cobalt wall tile, and sculptural lighting. These features exemplify Aalto’s distinctive Scandinavian interpretation of the International Style. Alvar and Elissa Aalto designed the interior from their studio in Helsinki and supervised fabrication in Finland of various wood elements, brass hardware, hanging copper lighting, and cobalt Arabia tiles, as well as furnishings manufactured by Artek.

At the hearing, Caroline Rob Zaleski, representing DOCOMOMO NY/Tri-State as a board member, testified that “The rooms were carefully designed to accommodate the public in a contained facility with its access separated from the office floors below via an elevator; furthermore, there is an elevator vestibule with a reception desk, a coatroom, restrooms, and a small kitchen for catering services. These amenities have allowed the IIE to promote the conference center as an event venue to select not-for-profit groups. Ongoing public access has been the case since the center opened in 1964 to much national and international press acclaim.”

The Commission is accepting written comments until November 26.
Letters can be mailed to the attention of Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan at the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, Municipal Building, 1 Centre Street, 9th Floor North, New York, NY 10007.
Or send via email to:

NYC LPC Summary of Edgar J. Kaufmann Conference Center (large pdf) – includes photos of the center
DOCOMOMO NY/Tri-State Letter of Testimony, submitted Nov 12, 2015 (pdf)
Photo slideshow from DOCOMOMO NY/Tri-State’s Modern Affair at the Kaufmann Conference Center
Door has closed on Aalto Rooms,” The Architect’s Newspaper: June 11, 2008 

Photo by Wijnanda Deroo
Photos from DOCOMOMO NY/Tri-State's A Modern Affair fundraising event, held in 2014 in the Kaufmann Conference Center. Bottom photo: Michael Trencher, a professor of architecture and an expert on Alvar Aalto, describes the room's significance. Event photos by Andrew Hinderaker.