HDc Testimony on the Interior of the Manufacturer's Trust Company
February 1, 2011
Statement of the Historic Districts Council before the Landmarks Preservation Commission
In support of the preservation of the interior of 510 Fifth Avenue
As a New York City Designated Interior Landmark
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. Here was a place where you could experience the radiant glory of finance in literal form. In his design, Bunshaft substituted the associational metaphoric luminosity of the Grecian temple form with actual luminosity. 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.