manufacturers hanover trust preservation fight

(C) Esto

[Hat tip to Grant N. for alerting me to this…]

The New York Times this week reported on the landmark battle over Manufacturers Hanover Trust, an iconic work by Gordon Bunshaft of SOM from 1954.  One of the first all-glass curtain walls in the city (and still one of the best), the bank was a completely new idea in retail finance, emphasizing transparency, lightness, and clarity instead of monumentality.  Not only was it technically advanced (note the nearly 60′ tall hanging glass curtain wall?), but it represented an important moment in the rise of the middle class.  Banks no longer marketed themselves as impenetrable fortresses–with this building in particular they began to market themselves as open, available, and friendly.  Nothing could more clearly demonstrate the socio-economic changes in the post-war era.

Among the more important elements of the building’s street presence were a pair of escalators that brought customers up from the ground level to the second floor banking hall–a piano nobile that had more to do with views and efficiency than with procession.  Paired with those escalators, the bank’s vault was located in the corner, with the giant steel door plainly visible from the street.  Security was put in quotation marks, framed by the lightweight glass envelope and plainly visible, but only as part of a larger, more open experience.

Those two elements are in the way of plans to convert the ground floor into retail space.  The escalators aren’t well aligned to divide the street level into the desired pair of lettable spaces, the existing doors are in the wrong places, and the vault takes up valuable space.  Current plans call for the escalators to be rotated 90°, for new doors to be installed, and for the vault to be cut well back.  Apparently, though, the vault door will stay, a nod to the building’s original retail banking function.

(C) Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill

The building was landmarked in 1997, and on the face of it these alterations are the sorts of things that most landmark legislation was designed to prevent.  In this case, the buyer canvassed former and current landmarks staff members about the potential alterations before buying the property, according to the Times article.  That’s ruffled some feathers, and understandably so, as it gives the appearance of insider influence.  Whether or not this was the case, it raises a larger issue about whether preservation efforts need to–or should–allow flexibility to ensure that buildings are not only preserved, but that they can continue to be occupied in viable ways.  In this case, while there are clearly problems with transforming a fifty-year old layout into something that works in 2011, its an open question whether such drastic alterations are really the only option–could there be possibilities for a double level store, perhaps?  Personally, I think it would make a rather nice Apple Store.

One thing that’s always intrigued me about the Ezra Stoller image above–note the carefully drawn curtain along the Fifth Avenue facade.  What’s behind it?  One of the building’s columns.  Stoller always seems to have found ways of including very subtle references to the subject’s structure.

UPDATE:  The World Monuments Fund has included the building on its 2012 Watch List