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The Rape of 2 Columbus Circle

Edward Durell Stone's marble museum gets chintzed

Protests by Major Preservation Groups Continue to be Ignored

Illustration of building by Robert Miles Parker

Illustration of Huntington Hartford's former museum at 2 Columbus Circle by Robert Miles Parker

By Carter B. Horsley

Does New York City need a marble-clad small building with Venetian motifs and a curved façade fronting on one of its few major important intersections and Central Park, an edifice designed by a major architect whose work is not much in evidence in the city?

Allied Works Architecture's rendering of redesign of 2 Columbus Circle

Rendering of Allied Works Architecture's planned redesign of Edward Durell Stone's

marble museum at 2 Columbus Circle

The city's Landmarks Preservation Commission has not thought so and has incredibly and wrongly not designated it an official landmark despite the fact that it is more distinctive and highly visible than probably 90 percent of the buildings it has made "official" landmarks, either individually or within "historic districts."

View of Stone's building from the north

View from north of Edward Durell Stone's 2 Columbus Circle, center, with One Central Park Plaza tower, right

The city's role in this sorry tale is significant for one of its agencies occupied the building for many years until recently and through malignant neglect permitted it to deteriorate.

View from the southeast

View up Broadway, showig rear of 2 Columbus Circle, left, and Trump International Hotel and condominum tower, right

The building is in the lee of the Columbus Center, twin-towered, mixed-use project nearing completion just to the west on Columbus Circle. This building is also directly across Columbus Circle from the Trump International Hotel and condominium tower and, not surprisingly, Donald Trump, offered to buy this site for development of another "Trump" "luxury" project.

On April 1, David W. Dunlap wrote an article on the front page of "The Arts" section of The New York Times entitled "A New Look for a 10-story Oddity," in which a rendering of a redesign of the building, shown above, appeared. Describing the existing Stone-designed structure as "an abandoned work of romantic modernism that has irritated and amused New Yorkers for 30 years," Mr. Dunlap reported that the Museum of Arts and Design, which was formerly known as the American Craft Museum, had acquired the building and commissioned a redesign that would create facades that would be scrims of bright terra cotta.

The new design by Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture of Portland, Oregon, Mr. Dunlap continued, "would for the first time fill the inside of what is now a nearly windowless building. Slits and openings between the four-inch terra-cotta panels would give museumgoers views of Central Park and allow pedestrians to glimpse the galleries through a diaphonous veil. Vertical glass channels, filled with artwork, would penetrade the 10-story structure." The design was submitted March 31, 2003 to the City Planning Commission, which must approve the sale of the building. The museum plans to move from 40 West 53rd Street.

The building was erected in 1964 as the Gallery of Modern Art by Huntington Hartford, an heir to the A. & P. supermarket fortune. Mr. Hartford's museum lasted only five years, however, and in 1969 Mr. Hartford turned the building over to Fairleigh Dickinson University, which in 1970 used it to house the New York Cultural Center.

In their brilliant book, "New York 1960, Architecture and Urbanism Between the Second World War and the Bicentennial," (The Monacelli Press, 1995), Robert A. M. Stern, Thomas Mellins and David Fischman devote a few pages to discussing this property, and noted that "The New York Cultural Center had a short, brilliant life under the directorship of Donald Karshan, and then Mario Amaya, who was appointed director in 1972 and turned it into a Kunsthalle, mounting 150 different shows and attracting large crowds but also running up big, unrecoverable costs," adding that the museum was closed in 1975 and put up for sale.

View from 35th floor of Mandarin Oriental Hotel

View from 35th floor cocktail lounge of Mandarin Oriental Hotel at the Time Warner Center looking down Central Park South and overlooking the former New York Cultural Center

In describing the building, the authors provided the following commentary:

"....The walls of the Venetian-inspired vertical palazzo were perforated with portholelike openings at the corners, base and crown to suggest rustication inspired, according to Stone, by Saint-German-des-Prés, a Romanesque church in Paris. At the ground floor, the building was carried on columns to form an arcade. The top two floors, where the restaurant was located behind a loggia, opened to a view of Central Park. Ada Louise Huxtable likened the overall effect to a 'die-cut Venetian palazzo on lollypops,' while Olga Gueft said that the building's 'red-granite-trimmed, green-marble-lined colonnades, these rows of portholes like borders of eyelet hand-embroidered on a marble christening robe are too winsome for heavyweight criticism.'...The arrangement of a stair gallery wrapped around a core was similar to that of Howe & Lescaze's Scheme Six, proprosed for the Museum of Modern Art in 1931. Filtered natural light was introduced through the glazed perforations at the corners, a technique that worked well with Abe Feder's artificial lighting, while also producing tantalizing glimpses of Central Park without distracting the viewer from the art. The lobby lfoor was paved in terrazzo, into which were set the discs that had been cut out of the marble when the exterior arches were formed in contrast to the white-painted anonymity of the Museum of Modern Art's galleries. Hartfords' were paneled with walnut and other hardwoods and thickly carpted or elaborately finished in parquet de Versailles and marble. A pipe organ was included in one of the double-height galleries. Though Hartford's collection did not include any paintings by Gauguin, the ninth-floor Polynesian restaurant, the Gauguin Room, included a tapestry based on one of the French master's paintings."

Mr. Hartford was one of the more colorful figures in New York City during the 1960's and 1970's, a regular on the nightclub scene and an irregular in the art world, who was not enamoured of much of "modern" art and favored representational art. His museum was quite lush and the Gauguin Room was one of the handsomest restaurants in the city and had spectacular views of Central Park.

Eventually, the city took it over for use as a visitors' center and headquarters for the city's Cultural Affairs Department. The city agency, however, moved out in 1998 and the building has since been vacant. The city's Economic Development Corporation awarded the building to the craft museum last year and Mr. Dunlap noted that the museum estimates it will cost $50 million to acquire and renovate the building.

View from the northeast

View from the northeast of curved facade of Stone's building

The redesign would do away with the existing building's white marble façace, its famed "lollypop" columns and filigree porthole and arched loggia.

In his article in The Times, Mr. Dunlap quoted Holly Hotchner, the director of the Museum of Arts and Design, as stating that the choice of a terra cotta façade with a warp-and-weft pattern 'speaks to who we are.' Of course, one could argue, Olga Gueft's comment about Stone's "embroidery" might be used to counter that justification for a redesign. Mr. Dunlap also quoted Mr. Cloepfil, the architect of the proposed redevelopment, as maintaining that "we are trying to maintain its monumentality, but at the same time make it a more ephermeral body, so it begins to merge with Columbus Circle," a comment that is a little strange given the "monumentality" of the building's new and not yet finished monumental new neighbor to the west, the twin-towered Columbus Center.

View from the northwest

View from several blocks to the northwest on Broadway

Mr. Cloepfil has designed the new Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis and an expansion of the Seattle Art Museum. Allied Works Architecture was one of four firms on a short list for the project including Smith-Miller +Hawkinson Architects, Zaha Hadid, and Toshiko Mori. The museum had initially considered a list of 11 architects, including William P. Bruder Architect, Kennedy Violich Architects, Koning Eizenberg Architecture, Lake/Flato Architects, Peter Marino & Associates Architects, Office dA, and Wendy Evans Joseph.

Ironically, the Allied Works Architecture design probably would have been a grand way to complement Stone's building if it had been used on the site of the Trump International Hotel and condominium tower as the two "white" small buildings would have nicely framed the gigantic twin-towered mixed use building now nearing completion between the two sites. Of course, such a proposal is ridiculous since Donald Trump reclad the existing Gulf + Western building for his shiny tower.

The new design is not without interest and some grace, but it is not called for in this circumstance. Some have described the Stone building as a folly. Follies are whimsical and goodness knows cities need a sense of humor. This was not just a folly, of course, but an attempt to create a new and important cultural asset for the city and certainly it was infinitely more attractive than the former New York Coliseum that dominated Columbus Circle until its recent demolition to make way for the much larger Columbus Center project. Stone's oeuvre was marked by Classical inspiration mixed with Middle Eastern accents and sought to create an aesthetic that was bright and graceful. While his "white" buildings did not have the sculptural qualities of those of Le Corbusier and his many disciples, they were light and airy and pretty.

Clearly, the building has suffered over the years and a new institution needs to accommodate its interiors to its needs and a lively, active museum is preferable to a closed structure. One solution perhaps would be to preserve Stone's north, curved façade. To rape this building to justify the egregious failure of the Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate it a landmark would be to compound the insult.


On January 7, 2004, Ada Louise Huxtable (see The City Review article on one of her books) wrote a column in The Wall Street Journal that included a color rendering of a revised façade design for the building. Her column attacked efforts to preserve Stone's design, which she said has a "certain toy-like charm," and supported the new design:

"I have been watching, with wonder and disbelief, the beatification of 2 Columbus Circle, né the Huntington Hartford Museum, a. k. a. the lollipop building (so-named, for better or worse, by me). This small oddity of dubious architectural distinction, designed by Edward Durell Stone, has been elevated to masterpiece status and cosmic significance by a campaign to save its marginally important, mildly eccentric, and badly deteriorated façade - a campaign that has escalated into a win-at-any-cost-and-by-any-means vendetta in thename of 'preservation.' Never has that term been so taken in vain....Inspection has found the façade so badly deteriorated that it can't be saved; it would have to be rebuilt - a copy or reproduction would have to replace it."

One might counter, however, that the building's façade problems result most likely from the city's mismanagement of the property and that such a blatant disregard for preservation should not be casually rewarded.

Tom Wolfe and Robert A. M. Stern

Tom Wolfe, left, the noted writer, and Robert A. M. Stern, right, the noted architect and architectural historian, were the main speakers at a July 14th, 2005 "People's Meeting" to protest the continued failure of the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission to calendar a public hearing on 2 Columbus Circle.

On July 14, 2005, a public meeting was held at the General Society for Mechanics and Tradesman Library in midtown to protest the continued refusal of the landmarks commission to hold a hearing on the building. Three days before, seven major preservation organizations sent a letter to Mayor Michael Bloomberg asking him to support such a hearing. The organizations were the Muncipal Art Society, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the New York Landmarks Conversvancy, the Preservation League of New York State, the World Monuments Fund, the Historic Districts Council and the New York/Tri-State Chapter of DOCOMOMO. In a press release, the organizations stated that they "find it hard to understand why a building with such significant and widespread support is not worthy of a fair and impartial landmarks hearing before its exterior features are gone forever." The press release also noted that "Bernadette Castro, New York State Parks Commissioner and State Historic Preservation Officer has stated that 2 Columbus Circle 'does appear to meet the criteria for listing on the State and National Registers of Historic Places,'" adding that "A state review board could vote on listing the building this September."

At the July 14, 2005 meeting, a letter was submitted by several architects including Jordan Gruzen, Paul Byard, Frances Halsband, Teb Liebman, Peter Samton and Tod Williams stating that Landmark West, a civic organization that helped organized the July 14 meeting, "has gone to the barricades to save the sad, idiosyncratic, dysfuntional and lifeless building that Edward Durell Stone designed in 1964 at 2 Columbus Circle...The building...has a chance to be resurrected by the Museum of Arts & Design....By retaining its massing and introducing a cultural use at Columbus Circle, the Museum would maintain the scale of the building and add life and vitality to what is now, with the completion of Time Watner, a predominantly commercial center....In June the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of the State of New York rejected the request by Landmark West to re-argue the twice previously dismissed petitions....This is a building of great potential value, but not in its present state."

Deputy Majority Leader of the City Council Bill Perkins told the July 14th meeting that "The refusal of the Landmarks Preservation Commission to hold hearings on the future of 2 Columbus Circle demonstrates a shameful disregard for the will of the people and the Commission's charter-mandated responsibility." "The Preservation League of New York State placed this building on its 'Sevel to Save' list; the National Trust for Historic Preservation....named the building to its 2004 list of '11 Most Endangered Places'; and this week the World Monument Fund added it to its 'Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites'; yet the LPC won't even hold a hearing. This abuse of power must not stand.

Anthony M. Tung, a former member of the landmarks commission, told the July 14th meeting that the failure of the commission to calendar a hearing on the building "is a gross dereliction of duty."

Francis Morrone, an architectural historian, said that 2 Columbus Circle "may be the very best building ever erected on Columbus Circle.

Robert A. M. Stern, the architect, told the gathering that the commission's refusal to schedule a hearing was "frankly inexplicable." The building, he declared, "stands outside the canon" and "it questions rather than answers."

Tom Wolfe, the author and journalist, said he spoke that morning with Huntington Hartford on the telephone. He said that Mr. Hartford, who is 98 years old, said that significantly altering the building was "a disgrace."

The "stonewalling" of the commission on this building is shocking and unexcusable. It is a lovely building designed by an important architect at a major site and has a substantial cultural history. It worked fine as a small museum originally and still can. The proposed recladding by the Museum of Arts & Design, formerly the American Crafts Museum, is not needed, inappropriate and not better than the existing facade.



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