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News April 2016

Landmarks Preservation Commission hears Ford Foundation upgrade plans

April 25, 2016

As the saying goes, the devil is in the detail, and that is especially so when the detail is in a Modern building. Last week modifications to Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo & Associates’ 1967 Ford Foundation building were presented to the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission. The bulk of the proposed changes address fire and life safety code compliance and current accessibility standards. Plans also call for complete replacement of the non-original atrium plantings (which we wrongly reported as original in our previous news) with species that come closer to the vision that landscape architect Dan Kiley had for the garden and can thrive in this particular glasshouse environment—something that Kiley’s selection failed to do. On the whole, DOCOMOMO NY/Tri-State applauds the Ford Foundation’s commitment to their one-of-a-kind building and the un-sexy but necessary upgrades it requires. (Moving to a new location had been considered.) However, some of the proposed changes, while seemingly minor and well intentioned, would mar the original design intent and result in the loss of original building fabric. Such changes beg additional study. 

In an effort to make more of the garden wheelchair accessible, plans call for inserting a new brick path along the glass wall at the south side of the atrium that would terminate at a new wheelchair lift and replacing steps of another path with ramps. The new path would interrupt a singular moment where the interior garden meets the sidewalk with only plate glass separating the two. The mechanical lift would make the glass-enclosed loggia on the east side of the atrium accessible, from which a wheelchair user could continue to the newly ramped north path before confronting more steps and having to circle back to exit. Is the trade off of valuable garden space for still-compromised accessibility worth it?

Other changes that DOCOMOMO NY/Tri-State questions involve the removal of original building fabric—namely two large brick planters, one inside and the other outside, and the replacement of the building’s remarkably intact brass-and-glass front doors with wider ones for the purpose of accessibility. Of the latter change, could the original door configuration be automated?

At the Landmarks hearing, the Commission voted unanimously to approve the changes with the exception of the path at the south side of the atrium. There they asked the team to explore options that have less impact on the garden.

The team behind the Ford Foundation’s “mission-driven renewal” is the international architecture firm Gensler. Their scope of work extends well beyond the Landmark-designated garden and lobby. The Ford Foundation’s desire for a less hierarchical office plan and to free up space for other non-profit tenants means change for much of the twelve-story building. They aim to re-use as much of their existing Warren Platner-designed furniture as possible and retain light fixtures, brass finishes, and even an outmoded telephone booth.

For a limited time, you can see the full April 19 presentation to the Landmarks Preservation Commission HERE

For a more complete review of the changes, see Alexandra Lange’s excellent piece for CurbedNY, “Inside the Proposed Changes to the Landmarked Ford Foundation” (April 18, 2016)

Evan Bindelglass of YIMBY blog offers a detailed account of the testimony and comments from the hearing,
Landmarks Approves Upgrades for Ford Foundation Building, 320 East 43rd Street” (April 20, 2016)

Top two photos of the Ford Foundation's Landmark-designated interior in April 2016. Photos by M. Marvelli. Bottom rendering of the proposed atrium as presented to the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Courtesy Gensler.