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The Butchered Lobby


Before                         &                        After


By Carter B. Horsley

While the relatively plain, almost drab facades of many Italian villas and palazzos belie the riches within, the interiors of most American atrium-less office buildings are generally reflected somewhat in the facades.

An exception was the through-block, 30-story office tower erected by Gerald D. Hines Interests in 1985 at 40 West 53rd Street and 31 West 52nd Street. Designed by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo & Associates, the pink-granite façade appeared quite flimsy, indeed clumsy, particularly so since Hines had a reputation as the foremost American developer of quality office buildings in the 1970's and 1980's.

While the disappointment with the tower's cladding was major, the project had one incredible redeeming feature: the grandest lobby in midtown.

A splendiferous space that would make Croesus smile, the red-and-gold-mosaic clad space, shown above, was several stories tall and its west side was a huge, full-height, multi-paned window overlooking a through-block park with its superb sculpture, "Lapstrake." by Jesus Bautista Moroles that was commissioned by the E. F. Hutton Corporation when it was the building's initial major tenant.

In their book, "The Art commission and the Municipal Art Society Guide to Manhattan's Outdoor Sculpture," Margot Gayle and Michele Cohen note that this "ancient ruin...consists of polished granite slabs alternating with rough-hewn circular blocks stacked tier on tier with a jaunty tilting irregularity." The landscaped park, shown below, is very attractive even if it is a bit unnecessary as it abuts the sunken plazas that wrap around the CBS Building and is near the Avenue of the Americas.

The entrances to this office building are nicely treated as small but tall loggias that open onto its magnificent lobby whose walls and ceiling and columns exude a sumptuously reddish-rose glow and warmth. The effect is more astonishing because of its Gothic Cathedral-like soaring height, which seems even higher because it is rectilinear in plan and because Roche has employed some of his scale-obscuring tricks. Like his United Nations Plaza hotel/office complex on First Avenue, the fenestration pattern in the lobby is deceptive and multiple panes constitute a floor.

Furthermore, with the exception of the arched openings to the elevator banks, this space in monochromatic, further robbing the visitor of easy visual clues, such as banding or artworks, with which to gauge the scale, and the thin columns are capped with splayed capitals that almost seem to melt into the ceiling, additionally blurring the visual focus. The building has occasional art exhibitions on freestanding panels near the west window wall in the lobby, which have been of high quality, but unfortunately conflict with the glory of the space and are unnecessary.

The design of the building's exterior was especially noticeable since the fairly squat tower was just to the east across an attractive through-block park and plaza from Eero Saarinen's famous "Black Box," the CBS Building. Furthermore, the building was just down the block from the famous "21" Club on 52nd Street and from the Museum of Modern Art complex on 53rd Street.

Given such an elegant and prestigious setting, one would have thought that Hines, who also built the "Lipstick" building with its supremely sleek façade at 885 Third Avenue, would have laid a golden rather than a rotten egg here.

The Byzantine touches have become a Roche preoccupation, but are best, indeed gloriously, realized here. (The subsequent galleria of Roche's Morgan Building at 60 Wall Street offers an interesting variation on this Post-Modern theme in a completely different temperature and the architect employed yet a third variation in his reconstruction of the Central Park Zoo.

Roche's touches are less successful on the exterior. The rough-finish granite cladding appears thin enough that it could be mistaken for painted cardboard. The stepped pyramidal roof, shown below, almost works, but is truncated at the top, further indication of budgetary constraints, most likely.

As Croesus blinked, the Deutsche Bank became the major tenant in the building and changed its name to the Deutsche Bank Building.

The Deutsche Bank Building's exquisite lobby and the superb Moroles sculpture easily outweighed the building's overall aesthetics and contributed greatly to an already important block.

They did, that is, until the late summer of 1997 when the building decided to lop off the top of the lobby and convert that space to offices, dismasting the awesome columns and destroying one of the greatest interior spaces ever created in the city.

Perhaps the Deutsche Bank, or whoever the landlord is who made this decision, would like to fill in all of the nave of St. Patrick's Cathedral except for the bottom 8 feet, or convert Radio City Music Hall into a 100-theater multiplex, or take off the spire of the Empire State Building, or convert Carnegie Hall into 10,000 listening booths for the sales of CDs.

Many blasphemous and terrible acts of public vandalism have, sadly, been perpetrated in this city: the demolition of the former Penn Station, the Madison Square Garden building on Madison Square, the Singer Tower on Lower Broadway, the Savoy Plaza Hotel across from the Plaza Hotel, and the destruction of many great movie palaces to cite the most infamous.

A spokesman for architect Kevin Roche said he was "not interested" in making a comment on the alteration.

This interior destruction ranks with such preservation calamities. Part of the problem is that the city's landmarks preservation law, which does permit designation of interior spaces, does not allow consideration of structures less than 30 years old. Part of the problem is also that no one, especially the city's prominent civic activists and preservationists and architecture critics, has raised a decibel of protest.

I protest!

Damn the Deutsche Bank or whoever approved and authorized this desecreation!

In early 1998, the lobby was renovated in an attempt to disguise its radical surgery. A new ceiling was installed in the lowered lobby and it had a mosaic and sculptural treatment similar to the original, but the delicate proportions are now gargantuan and completely out of scale. What once was glorious is now merely curious, sadly. (3/8/98)


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