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Changes at the Ford Foundation

January 18, 2016

The Ford Foundation has announced it will be undertaking renovations to the tune of $190 million to bring its iconic home on East 43rd St up to current building, fire, and accessibility codes, improve energy efficiency, and to reorganize office space to better match the organization’s culture and mission. As part of an overall renewal plan for the organization, relocating to a different building and even a different city was considered, but in the end, according to Foundation president Darren Walker, it was decided that “the value of this unique building and location is more than just financial.” 

Indeed, the history of the Ford Foundation is closely intertwined with the building it occupies. In the 1940s, the Ford Foundation found itself transformed into the world’s largest philanthropy after the deaths of Henry Ford and his son Edsel. The decision was made to move to New York, where Henry Ford II commissioned Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo to design a Modern building fit for such an organization. It was their first job as the new heads of Eero Saarinen’s former firm, which they took over after his death. Completed in 1968, the twelve-story building is composed of glass, Corten steel, and granite, with a soaring 134-foot atrium lined with terraces and plantings designed by landscape architect Dan Kiley, and individual offices outfitted with modernist furniture designed by Warren Platner and Charles and Ray Eames. In 1997 the Ford Foundation Building became the “youngest” city landmark to be designated, a title which it held until 2011. Its interior was also designated at that time, one of only 117 city-wide.

Although Kevin Roche is still practicing today (at age 93! – more about that below), he did not get the job for the upcoming renovations. His firm will serve as an adviser to the international architecture firm Gensler. So what will stay and what will go? According to David Dunlap’s report in The New York Times, as much of the furniture will be reused as possible. Individual offices on each floor will be replaced with open workspaces, the presidential suite will shrink by half, and the building will get a new visitor center, art gallery, and event space. While Kiley’s garden terraces will remain, the original plantings will be replaced with ones selected by landscape architect Raymond Jungles, a change that is cause for concern. Such changes to a designated interior will require review and approval by the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission at a public hearing, which is expected to be held early this year.

A Sensible Makeover for the Ford Foundation” by David Dunlap, New York Times, December 16, 2015

Transforming a landmark into a center for social justice” Equals Change blog, Ford Foundation, December 16, 2015

Atrium of the Ford Foundation, Kevin Roche, 1968. Photo courtesy Ford Foundation.