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Reading Between the Lines of the Testimony in Favor of Saving the Four Seasons's Restaurant

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While New York's Landmarks Preservation Commission debated the extent to which architect Annabelle Selldorf could modify or change the interior of the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building in Midtown Manhattan, considered a high-water mark for renowned International Style architect and MoMA curator Philip Johnson, the only thing that wasn't up for debate was that this is a very, very important building. Preservationists, professors, neighbors, and some of New York's most celebrated architects, including Robert A.M. Stern, came out in support of preserving the original design of the proportionally perfect interiors. While universally praising Johnson's work, the support statements also brings up some especially juicy aspects of the well-trod preservation versus development debate.

Robert A.M. Stern of Robert A.M. Stern Architects
Stern's meaningful, heartfelt discourse on what the restaurant means to the building and the city, delivered by a representative, suggests he's a great guy to ask for a recommendation letter.

I fear that the proposed alterations of more than simply tweak and freshen a detail here and there but instead threaten to fundamentally alter the character of the incomparably dignified setting for dining, a meticulous and brilliant composition where every detail was carefully considered, from the design of the custom tabletop items to the placement of the trees. The Four Seasons quickly captured the mood and spirit of the city. From the day it opened it has been a major destination point for New Yorkers as well as American and international visitors — so much so that is it now more than just a restaurant: it is a cultural emblem of the highest order, serving as an important representation of the best the city can produce and the best is has to offer. The renovation of the treasures of our heritage of mid-century Modernism is one of the most urgent tasks facing us today. Modernist gems like the Seagram Building and the Four Seasons restaurant are older than Pennsylvania Station when it was demolished in 1963.

Ricardo Scofidio of Diller Scofidio + Renfro
Scofidio's statement basically said that support of the original layout should be a fait accompli, but considering the controversy generated by his firm's role in the razing of the American Folk Art Museum, his pro-preservation stance comes with a slight asterisk.

The Four Seasons Restaurant is a perfect design, and to date kept intact through outstanding stewardship. But if this stewardship has replaced and proposed changes to the interior are accepted, one must ask where will it end? It is not necessary to repeat all that has been said and written about the excellence of the present interior. I will only point out that there is no reason to destroy the luxurious space and quiet of the private dining room by permanently opening it to the Pool Room … I am extremely concerned that if the proposed changes are accepted, a precedent will be set, a precedent that will make it easy to permit further alterations in the future.

Andrew Scott Dolkart, Professor of Historic Preservation at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation
And, finally, as a scholar who specializes in preservation, Dolkart simply pulls no punches.

This is a case where one must ask why. Why is the owner of the building even considering altering this perfect interior? How does removing the upper walnut panels between the pool room and the private dining room and rehanging them with hinges that will permit views between the rooms that were never intended improve this remarkable space? They do not, so there seems to be no reason why the LPC should permit this change. Similarly, how does removing Philip Johnson's screen, installed when it was obvious that planters were not working in the bar area, improve this room. Johnson, who knew this space better than anyone, knew what was needed and created the screen in a subtle and effective manner. This is a case where the Commission should listen to the landmark —it is perfect as designated and does not need the changes proposed which will add nothing to the masterful design. Please listen to the experts who are most familiar with these spaces and reject the proposed changes.

· Previous Four Seasons Restaurant Coverage [Curbed New York]
· Preservation Watch posts [Curbed]