Modern Makeover

Manhattan preservationists object to the renovation of Two Columbus Circle.

Two Columbus Circle, designed by Edward Durell Stone in 1964.

Credit: Ezra Stoller, ?1964 ESTO

When the City of New York announced plans in June 2002 to sell the 10-story marble building at Two Columbus Circle to the Museum of Arts and Design for $20 million, Manhattan preservationists were cautiously optimistic. Commissioned in 1964 by arts patron Huntington Hartford at a cost of $7.5 million to house his Gallery of Modern Art, the building would again be a museum, instead of being demolished for a Trump luxury hotel.

But four months later, the Museum of Arts and Design announced that they planned to renovate the structure, replacing much of its original marble facade with glass and terra cotta. Now preservationists are alarmed by a plan that, if implemented, will permanently alter one of New York's 20th-century modern structures, designed by Edward Durell Stone.

Overlooked for decades, Stone's work now shows signs of a revival. His Conger-Goodyear House, a sophisticated Modernist mansion on Long Island, is being restored, as is a portion of Stone's original facade of the Museum of Modern Art. In February 2003 a local preservationist group called "Landmark West!" held a symposium on Two Columbus Circle that drew over 300 people, including historian Thomas Mellins, critic Reed Kroloff, and writer Kurt Anderson. Architect Robert A. M. Stern, unable to attend the symposium, called the building "a landmark in the history of architectural taste … a pot of paint flung in the face of the high Modernist establishment."

Originally a Bauhaus Modernist, Stone had by the early 1960s developed a decorative style that incorporated neoclassical elements. Delicate screens, rich materials, and bold colors became his trademarks. The Gallery of Modern Art, with its largely windowless facade, walnut-paneled interior, and fanciful Polynesian restaurant exemplifies Stone's style and is "a crucial hinge in Stone's career," says architectural critic Michael Sorkin.

Despite the affection that many now have for Two Columbus Circle, its initial reception was decidedly mixed. Writing for The New York Times on the occasion of the gallery's opening in 1964, Ada Louise Huxtable dismissed the exterior as "a die-cast Venetian palazzo on lollipops," although she praised the interior spaces as a "conspicuous success … an achievement to command considerable admiration." Art critic Hilton Kramer was more hostile, comparing the interior to "a rest home for retired bankers."

In 1969 Hartford donated the structure to Fairleigh Dickinson University, which operated it as an alternative arts center. In spite of its popularity, the gallery was too costly for the university, and in 1975, Fairleigh Dickinson sold it to Gulf & Western, who donated it the following year to New York City as a home for its department of cultural affairs. The department left the decaying structure in 1998, and the building has been vacant since then. Other than a chain-link fence that was erected around the signature "lollipop" arcade, no substantial changes have been made to the building.

When the city made Two Columbus Circle available in 1996, numerous bids came in from developers who planned to destroy the building, as well as bids from two museums. The Dahesh Museum stated its intention to retain the original facade, a plan supported by Hartford's daughter Juliet and philanthropist Brooke Astor, among others. But the city, which seemed to favor a teardown plan, chose the Museum of Arts and Design instead.

At two public hearings in May and June 2003, after the Museum of Arts and Design's renovation announcement, many people pleaded for the building's preservation. Despite these objections, the city's planning commission approved the new plans unanimously early in July, although some of the commissioners did so with reluctance. Commissioner Dolly Williams went so far as to ask at the second hearing: "Why would anyone destroy such a building?" and noted the "overwhelming concern of speakers" at the hearings. "It should be a landmark," she concluded.

In fact, the city's Landmarks Commission has come under criticism for failing to protect the building. Writing for Newsday, historian Jeffrey Kroessler has criticized the commission for "pointedly" ignoring Two Columbus Circle. "Few believed that this commission would have designated it, but three successive chairs have demonstrated a reluctance to let the [preservation] process take its course." The Landmarks Commission has stated that an internal committee reviewed the building for landmark status in 1998 and decided not to recommend designation. Beyond this, the group has declined to comment.

"While many people believe that Two Columbus Circle is an idiosyncratic building, this does not make it a great building," says Holly Hotchner, director of the Museum of Arts and Design, pointing out that the new design will follow the distinctive shape of the original structure. "It weaves together the museum experience and street life in one of the city's most significant urban spaces."

Even opponents to the new scheme agree that the design, by Allied Works Architects, is architecturally significant. But Kate Wood, executive director of Landmark West! says that isn't the point. "The fact is that what's already there is irreplaceable," she says. "For a museum devoted to human craft not to recognize this building's significance is unconscionable."

So far, the Museum of Arts and Design has raised approximately half of the $50 million for the new building. With construction of the new facade slated to begin in spring of 2004, Wood is not giving up her efforts to publicize the building's importance and plight. After all, the building is still city property, and a final approval from the Borough Commission is scheduled for October of this year. "Preservationists have been calling for this building's preservation since 1995," Wood says. "We're just getting warmed up."

David V. Griffin is a freelance writer living in New York, N.Y. 

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