Proposal for Four Seasons Restaurant Renovation Substantially Denied

The proposed interior of the Four Seasons. Image credit: Selldorf Architects

The proposed interior of the Four Seasons. Image credit: Selldorf Architects

Landmarks voted to issue a certificate of appropriateness for new carpeting, while denying plans to alter walnut-veneer transom and lighting, and remove glass partition installed by Philip Johnson in 1983. On May 19, 2015, the Landmarks Preservation Commission considered a proposal to make alterations to the Four Seasons Restaurant, designated an interior landmark in 1989, in the lobby of the Seagram Building at 375 Park Avenue in Manhattan. The Seagram Building, completed in 1958, designated an individual City landmark also in 1989,  is the only New York City structure designed architect Mies van der Rohe, and an icon of the mid-century International Style. Pritzker Prize-winning American architect and van der Rohe acolyte Philip Johnson designed the restaurant interior.

Johnson’s restaurant was the most expensive ever created when it was finished in 1959, at $4.5 million dollars. The landmark is composed of an entrance lobby and staircase, the dining room, named the Pool Room, a bar room known as the Grill Room, and a balcony. The square Pool Room features a bubbling 20-foot-square white marble pool at its center, the bar is separated from the dining room by a partition of laminated cracked glass, installed by Johnson in 1983, after an ivy trellis failed to thrive. A transom of wood panels with a veneer of French walnut separates the Pool Room from a mezzanine.

Architect Richard Kelly, who also collaborated with Eero Saarinen and Louis Kahn, served as lighting consultant on the restaurant.

Landmarks’ designation report states that Johnson carried van der Rohe’s modular International Design into the building’s interior, and “took advantage of the space to create dramatic effects and elegant proportions achieved through varied ceiling heights, a controlled system of circulation through the rooms, and architectonic elements, such as the pool and the bar, which further define distinct volumes within the larger spaces.”

The property is owned by RFR Realty, which assumed full control in 2013.

The plan for the proposed renovations was presented by architect Annabelle Selldorf. Selldorf acknowledged that the proposal had caused controversy, been condemned in an opinion piece in the New York Times, and stirred a “great deal of emotion.”  She said the proposed alterations were intended to restore the grandeur of the restaurant, making it “as lustrous and beautiful as it was meant to look on its first day.” The 1983 glass partition would be removed, and planters would be installed in the space, which Selldorf said would serve the original design. She said her clients determined the existing partition to be an undesirable “obstacle” between the bar and the dining room.

The existing lighting scheme would be replaced by an energy-efficient system. Selldorf said that designing the new lighting would likely “take a long time and require many experts” to match the quality of Kelly’s system. The current blue carpeting would be replaced by a primarily red pattern, closer in line to that originally installed. The walnut panels between the dining and room and mezzanine would be altered to make four operable openings, creating the option to “bring the spaces together.”  Selldorf said seams in the veneer already suggested joints, and with a “surgical intervention,” the panels would not be negatively impacted.  Selldorf also proposed to replace the current blue-gray carpeting with a primarily red pattern.

The project will also entail the repair and refurbishment of elements of the restaurant that have been chipped or otherwise diminished.

Architect and former Landmarks Chair Sherida Paulsen, who had worked under Johnson, recommended  that the applicants retain a lighting designer to ensure any system maintained the existing character, that the glass partition either be entirely restored or that the applicants pursue an entirely new direction, and asked that any alteration to the wood panels be rejected outright. Architectural historian Barry Bergdoll  said John and van der Rohe created “new palette of spaces” with the restaurant, in which the placement of non-structural elements was essential, and must be preserved so future generation could “understand Philip Johnson in his moment of grace.” One speaker read into the record a letter from Robert A.M. Stern, Dean of the Yale School of Architecture, in which he called the restaurant “one the greatest Modern interiors in the world,” and argued that the alterations would compromise the “sense of enclosure and separateness.” Andrew Dolkart, Director of Columbia’s Historic Preservation Program, said the proposed changes “add nothing to this simple, elegant, carefully designed interior.” Architect Belmont Freeman testified that the application betrayed a “misunderstanding of the design of the restaurant,” and the glass partition was a “unique Philip Johnson design” that demanded protection.”

Several preservationists expressed concern that the replacement of the glass partition with impermanent, planters, which they said would be unregulated by Landmark as moveable features, would allow the owners to make further changes without public oversight. John Arbuckle of Docomomo, a group dedicated to the preservation of Modernist architecture, said RFR acquired the building with full knowledge of the “responsibilities to maintain it to a higher public purpose,” and said any renovation should not “visibly alter the architecture or the basic lighting scheme and it concepts.” The New York Landmarks Conservancy’s Alex Herrera argued that the alteration diminished the landmark’s special character and harmed the integrity of the design. Partial owner of the Four Seasons Restaurant, Edgar Bronfman, Jr., called RFR “a capricious and disingenuous owner,” and said that if the changes were approved, they would lead to further alterations.

Commissioner Fred Bland said the commission did not need to consider the design intent behind the separation of the bar and dining room, because the glass partition had been installed by the creator of the space, and further found no compelling reason for making the walnut panels operable. Commissioner John Gustafsson said the dining room was “a perfect square” and “a perfect space,” whose integrity should not be compromised. Commissioner Diana Chapin said the restaurants structural elements possessed “architectural meaning and values,” creating “An intentional sense of space,” and their alteration would cause “irreparable” harm.

Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan noted that the glass partition was identified as a contributing element to landmark in the designation report, which she found a substantial hurdle to allowing removal. Srinivasan noted that the commission often allowed alterations to interior landmarks, and that she believed the Pool Room could potentially be made more “porous,” there was no support for the direction of the proposed changes among commissioners. She led a unanimous vote to issue a certificate of appropriateness, limited in scope to the replacement of carpets.

LPC: Four Seasons Restaurant, Ground Floor and First Floor Interior, 375 Park Avenue, Manhattan (16-8263) (May 19, 2015).

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