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510 Fifth Avenue: Not a win, but a legal settlement with some positives

February 9, 2012

On February 8, a settlement was announced between Vornado Realty Trust and the preservationists who took the bold step of becoming plaintiffs to preserve 510 Fifth Avenue—the Manufacturers Trust Company bank branch building at 43rd Street. Their legal action, initiated last July, sought to prove that the Certificate of Appropriateness issued by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in April 2011 dramatically compromised the landmark-worthy qualities the Commission intended to protect when it designated the bank (exterior, 1997; interior, 2011).

While the settlement falls far short of the “win” that Robin Pogrebin suggests in the New York Times Arts Beat, there are several credit-worthy outcomes. Vornado agreed not to build on top of the building, to request that the Commission include the black granite vault wall in the interior designation, and to extend the glass portion of the wall it will construct to divide the first floor into two separate leases. What’s getting the most press attention, however, is Vornado’s promise to work in cooperation with JP Morgan Chase to bring back the 70-foot long golden arbor screen by Harry Bertoia, originally part of the second floor banking lobby, and a smaller Bertoia sculpture that once floated over the paired escalators.

On the shortfall side, there is no agreement or stipulation as to where the Bertoia screen and sculpture will be placed when the space is overhauled for retail use. (The primary tenant is Joe Fresh, an apparel retailer). More disappointing from DOCOMOMO NY/Tri-State’s perspective is that the settlement fails to reverse what were the troublesome aspects of the redevelopment plan highlighted in our testimonies: dividing the space, which negates the openness and transparency of the original design; pivoting the escalators 90 degrees and moving them further into the building so they are no longer a sculptural element visible from Fifth Avenue; removal of the 43rd Street entrance vestibule; and the introduction of new entrances and signage on the Fifth Avenue façade—once distinguished by its elegant, unbroken regularity and transparency. 

The return of the Bertoia sculptures provides an opportunity to restore a major component of the original interior scheme. It is now appropriate for the Landmarks Preservation Commission to hold a public hearing on this evolving designation—both the addition of the vault wall, and particularly, placement of the Bertoia works. We call on Commissioner Tierney to do so. Bertoia’s bronze screen was designed as part of the bank’s interior architecture. Given the building’s transparency, one could argue its exterior architecture as well. It is important that the interior designation be modified to incorporate the Bertoia sculptures, protecting both presence and location going forward.

Aside from what we’ll see when the two-story construction fence comes down, the legal effort has a supplementary benefit. NY State Supreme Court Justice Lucy Billings’ October ruling on what constitutes a plaintiff’s “standing” may have positive bearing on future lawsuits involving designated buildings. The Coalition to Save Manufacturers Hanover Trust, a group spearheaded by Theodore Grunewald, teamed with the nonprofit Citizens Emergency Committee to Preserve Preservation and individual petitioner Eric Allison to bring legal action as the demolition work commenced last summer. Attorneys Albert K. Butzel and Michael S. Gruen led the legal team. What these individuals and entities accomplished by forcing the issue into court was extremely important for “Manny Hanny” and for the future of preservation. DOCOMOMO NY/Tri-State commends and thanks them all.

For excellent coverage and more photos see Glass Half Full in the Architect’s Newspaper, February 11, 2012.

For more details on lawsuit, and a timeline, see 10/19/11 post: Keeping tabs on our favorite bank: 510 Fifth Avenue

Manufacturers Trust 510 Fifth, Location: New York NY, Architect: Skidmore Owings & Merrill
Manufacturers Trust 510 Fifth, Location: New York NY, Architect: Skidmore Owings & Merrill
Manufacturers Trust 510 Fifth, Location: New York NY, Architect: Skidmore Owings & Merrill