(formerly The Manufacturers Trust Company)

(northwest corner of 43rd Street)

Architect: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

Developer: The Manufacturers Trust Company

Erected: 1954

510 Fifth Avenue

By Carter B. Horsley

This modest, understated, simple, underdeveloped, boxy bank building is a modern landmark that advanced the clean lines of Lever House, also designed, two years earlier, by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and solidified its glass-curtain-wall revolution in urban design.

Clarity is the key and polish the password here.

By using clear, untinted, large windows, separated by very narrow, projecting aluminum mullions, and thin dark-green glass spandrels, a very high degree of transparency creates an open air of friendliness, an ideal promotion for a client such as bank. The second floor banking level is set back from the windows to enhance the feeling of open space.

As John Tauranac noted in his "Essential New York, A Guide To The History And Architecture Of Manhattan's Important Building's Parks And Bridges," (Holt Rinehart Winston, 1979), this building marks a revolution in bank architecture where the impregnable gives way to the inviting.

In his autobiography, "The Spaces In Between: An Architect's Journey," (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1973), Nathaniel Alexander Owings, one of the architectural firm's name partners, recounts the history of this "glass lantern" project, which was influential in the firm's ascendancy to the pinnacle of corporate design:

"Louis Skidmore was entirely responsible for bringing this major commission to us. Hap Flanigan, chairman of the board of the Manufacturers Trust, was an old friend, and he brought us to the site..., nearly at the epicenter of prestige of upper Manhattan. Skid, sensing the opportunity for a masterpiece, conceived the idea of a competition among our young and eager designers. Here was an opportunity to shake up the conventional architects' approaches to banking. They were encouraged to come up with whatever popped into their heads, and the history and tradition of banking be damned. Charles Evans Hughes III, grandson of the jurist, won hands down. His four-story, glass-walled bank, an apartment and a garden on the roof, featured as the central drama of the scheme a great bank vault, traditional symbol of banking. With a circular many-layered door, fastened together with great glittering rivets and bolts, the gleaming polished-steel vault stood in full view of the public as the sculpture feature of the composition. It was the special creation of industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss. No other element of a bank is more complicated or complex, and, with its shining tooled steel, more beautiful. Other innovations followed, such as the brilliant t idea introduced by Gordon Bunshaft, of abstract sculptor Harry Bertoia's monumental metal screen running the entire length of the second-floor banking level. Gordon Bunshaft devised one of the finest spaces conceived by man since Santa Sophia, particularly in the subtle spacing of columns, making them either disappear or gain prominence in the design. Mike Rapuano, my classmate at Cornell in landscape architecture, designed a beautiful park on the penthouse roof. The final result was the creation of a noble space with a noble park on top. Lewis Mumford called the glass bank a lantern, and surprised us all by relating the design to the Victorians and to the eighteenth century dreams of all glass cities. Mumford spun a glamorous and exciting aura around Skid's bank and suggested facets of creative genius of which neither Skid, Hughes, or Bunshaft had ever dreamed."

In the 1990's, the bank unfortunately began to subdivide its space and the great sense of openness was diminished although it remains a gem.

On October 30, 2009, Joey Arak, senior editor at Curbed.com, ran an item on this building with the headline "Modern Fifth Avenue Gem Now a 'Big Box Opportunity.'"

"A tipster," the article continued, "noticed a for-lease sign up in the window, which steered us to the listing, which led us to a phone call with broker David Badner, who told us Chase bank declined to pick up the option on the final year of its lease. Elie Tahari owns the building (and occupies the top floors) and is willing to lease out just the old Chase space or the entire building, hence the big-box potential. Badner tells us several 'major apparel retailers' have scoped out the space. Would the building become any less significant if, say, Baby Gap moved in? (11/1/09)

In a March 10, 2010 article in The New York Post, Lois Weiss reported that "Vornado Realty Trust is swooping in to buy the landmarked 510 Fifth Avenue."

"Sources," the article continued, "say the real estate investment trust led by Steven Roth and Michael Fascitelli is trying to work out a deal for the five-story jewel box on the southwest corner of 43rd St., which has a small Chase branch in the mezzanine. Designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, this 61,159 footer was the first glass bank in Manhattan when it was completed in 1954 for Manufacturers Hanover Trust. Taken over by Chase, the building was sold to Tahl-Propp Equities in 2000 for $22 million while its 145,000 feet of excess air rights were retained by Chase. City records show a current mortgage for $33 million. The owners, represented by Norman Bobrow & Associates, have had a difficult time capitalizing on the building's retail potential due to the landmark status that protects features such as the giant vault door."

In a November 2, 2010 article in The Wall Street Journal, Ada Louis Huxtable, the architecture critic, wrote that "It's time to stop worrying about whether New York has enough 'starchitecture' and consider the ways in which we are destroying or sabotaging the architecture we already have through neglect, ignorance, disfigurement, willful disregard and the sacrosanct belief that nothing takes precedence over the investment opportunities encouraged by Manhattan's stratospheric real estate values."

"I am not talking," the article continued, "about the loss of quaint cobblestoned Greek Revival streets or gentrified brownstone neighborhoods. The concern here is for the precedent-setting modernism perfected in New York in the mid-20th century. It set the standard for corporate and commercial construction world-wide and is increasingly recognized as a major American contribution to the architecture of our time. The problem is not restricted to thoughtless demolition; there are ways of altering or changing these buildings that destroys them just as effectively but in a more subtle and insidious fashion. The latest and most alarming example of the prevalence and general acceptance of this practice is in process at the building at the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street, originally built for the Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company in 1953-54, and occupied until recently by its successor, JPMorgan Chase. This small, five-story structure is a one-off gem created for a client willing to embrace what was then a radical design, combining art and architecture in a notable act of corporate patronage that went far beyond convention and the bottom line. It also represents the moment in which one of the most cherished ideals of the modern movement, the transparent, all-glass building, was realized.Earlier glass-walled buildings, like Lever House, were opaque, reflecting the sky and surrounding structures in their sleek, vitreous facades. With the Manufacturers Hanover Trust building, we have a structure where exterior and interior were conceived as one thing, unified and inseparable, to be seen and understood as a continuous visual, spatial and aesthetic experience. It was an achievement made possible by modernist architects' use of new materials and technologies."

"The building," the article added, "was designed by Gordon Bunshaft of the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, after an in-house competition with a $50 prize was won by a younger firm member, Charles Evans Hughes III, who came up with the concept of a glass box featuring the dramatic display of the bank's vault behind the glass facade. The basic idea was developed and detailed by Bunshaft, who was also the architect of Lever House, now an official New York City landmark. A 70-foot-long gilded screen was commissioned from the noted sculptor Harry Bertoia to separate the public from private offices on the main floor, located on the mezzanine level. A luminous ceiling suffused the area with light so that it seemed to float above the lower level. Bertoia also executed a hanging piece for the top of the escalator leading from the entrance below. In a startling departure from traditional bank practice, the safe-deposit department was moved from the basement to the ground floor, its massive security door upgraded by industrial designer Henry Dreyfus to an awesomely handsome object of highly polished stainless steel, fully visible behind the Fifth Avenue plate glass wall."

Ms. Huxtable noted that "All this did not go unnoticed."

"The building's opening was covered internationally by the professional and popular press, from the most technical publications to mass-circulation magazines like the Saturday Evening Post. The architecture critic Lewis Mumford called it a crystal lantern, an ideal expression of the modern world. It attracted between 90,000 and 100,000 nonbanking visitors in its first year.Like Lever House, the building also received landmark designation; in 1997 it was officially confirmed as an outstanding example of the International Style. But there's a catch: Only the exterior is protected. This omission means that the Landmarks Preservation Commission has no power to approve or prevent changes to the interior, even those planned for elements that are integral to the building's design. Those changes are underway now and they can destroy the building almost as effectively as the wrecker's ball. Although hearings have been scheduled by the Landmarks Preservation Commission on designating the interior, no action has yet been taken. Technicalities in the law have apparently held up what should have been a logical step to complete the process. This failure highlights a critical dilemma built into the designation process that was not foreseen in the original 1960s landmarks legislation. The primary interest then was in older buildings; the unique conditions that would arise with modernist architecture were far in the future. Miraculously, the building's singular concept has remained intact until now, surviving interior modifications over the last 56 years, and all the mergers in which it changed ownership from Manufacturers Hanover Trust to JPMorgan Chase, which has been using it as a branch bank. In 2001, Chase sold the building to Tahl Propp Equities, retaining ownership of the Bertoia sculptures. They negotiated an agreement allowing the art to stay in place until Chase ceased to occupy the space, at which point it would be removed. It is unclear whether Tahl Propp Equities still owns the building, since there have been rumors of negotiations for a sale to Vornado Realty Trust. But with the complications and intricacies of real-estate transactions in New York, just what is going on and what agreements still exist remain unclear. There is no doubt, however, about what is happening now that Chase has vacated the premises; there are obviously destructive redevelopment plans in progress. The Bertoia screen wall has been dismantled and removed by Chase. So has the sculpture above the escalator. A computer-generated drawing has been circulating that appears to be a promotional tool prepared for the current owner, showing the building's transformation into a predictable big-box retail store in which the landmarked facade is the same but the interior becomes a chaotic jumble of clichéd marketing images."

"A spokesman for Chase has been quoted in the New York Times as saying that the Bertoia sculptures will be stored until a place is found for their reinstallation. All very well, but strange things happen when works of art are packed away," the article concluding, adding that "The removal of the Bertoia screen wall is a perverse form of preservation that begins with a profound misunderstanding of the sculpture's function as an essential architectural element. It is a site-specific piece, commissioned, created and installed for a particular purpose in an architect-specified location. Its loss not only damages the architectural integrity of the building irreparably, it also compromises the sculpture's meaning as art. Beauty is not easy to define, particularly in an age that resists it as simplistic and sentimental. The writer Karrie Jacobs has suggested that in architecture it involves the element of surprise, the unanticipated encounter that gives unexpected pleasure and delight. This was one of the first buildings I ever reviewed as an architecture critic, and it has continued to give me pleasure every time I pass it. The incandescent transparency of the small, glowing jewel box appearing suddenly among the solid, somber buildings that surround it, the open view of its luminous ceilings and the rich, golden contrast of the Bertoia screen clearly visible through the glass walls on the 43rd Street side, have never lost the capacity to surprise and delight. The Bertoia sculptures are gone, and the interior seems destined to be stripped of everything that defined it and made the city a better place. The building has been irrevocably impoverished, and the destruction promises to be complete with its conversion to generic commercial space. As a landmark, it becomes a travesty."

On February 1, 2011, the Landmarks Preservation Commission held a hearing on the possible designation of the building's interior as a landmark.

The Historic Districts Council submitted the following statement in support of the proposed interior designation:

The Historic Districts Council is the citywide advocate for New York’s historic neighborhoods and buildings. HDC is pleased to have this opportunity to support this exciting designation and help preserve this groundbreaking building.

"As an artistic movement, Modernism tends to appeal to the intellect rather than the heart. In architecture particularly, Modernism’s stereotypical austerity can be challenging to the viewer and, like champagne, is often an acquired taste. While few people actually hug buildings, even fewer would ever call most Modern buildings welcoming.  They are sculptural, they are inspiring, they are beautiful, but they are definitely not cuddly.

"510 Fifth Avenue is about as cuddly as classic Modernism gets. The building welcomes the passers-by drawing them in with a shameless, exuberant transparency. In designing this small wonder, Bunshaft and SOM managed to manufacture a wholly different sense of awe than what was produced by the grand marbled banking halls of earlier years.  They removed the mystery of banking while sacrificing none of its seriousness and injected it with dynamic light and movement. In his design, Bunshaft substituted the associational metaphoric luminosity of the Grecian temple form with actual luminosity. Here was a place where you could experience the radiant glory of finance in literal form. It is a masterful conceptual sleight-of-hand and it only works, as Lewis Mumford wrote in 1954, because “nowhere have both interior and exterior been conceived more effectively as a whole, or treated in a more forthright manner” than in this building.  'The great merit of the Manufacturers Trust’s new quarters is that, being all one piece, every part of it tells the same story, and to perfection. This is true of the little things as well as of the big ones.'

"Mumford goes on to detail and praise both the deliberation and restraint of the building’s furnishings and signage, lingering over the materials in the tellers’ counters and flooring. He saves his highest accolades for the second floor, which he calls 'the crown of the architects’ and decorator’s aesthetic achievement.' Mumford rhapsodizes about the now-absent Bertoia screen, claiming it 'lifts the whole composition to a higher plane' and 'it humanizes these quarters…mainly because it suggests something frail, incomplete, yet unexpected and defiant of rational statement, and thus lovable.'  'All in all,' Mumford concludes, 'the Manufacturers Trust Building is perhaps as complete a fusion of rational thinking and humane imagination as we are capable of producing today. As a symbol of the modern world, this structure is an almost ideal expression.'

"HDC urges the Landmarks Commission to complete the task begun 14 years ago and preserve the entirety of this Modern masterpiece. This building has unfortunately suffered from what amounts to a partial designation for years with the insertion of unsympathetic elements such as ATMs and a blizzard of banal signage (a particular bane in a building where function  truly is form). The removal of the Bertoia was the final straw and we hope against hope that perhaps the Bertoia may be replicated or better yet, returned to its intended site.  Whatever may happen to that lone element, if we are to call ourselves preservationists,  we must do all we can to preserve the rest of this modern composition in its entirety. We applaud the LPC for stepping in to save this 'ideal expression' of Modernism before it is truly too late and urge swift positive action so that we may begin the task of helping to steward this landmark’s future."

On February 15, 2011, the commission designated the building's interior an official city landmark.

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