Inside the Art Market: Trophies Old and New

The entire façade of this building is clothed in ornament, like hieroglyphs on the columns and walls of temples in ancient Egypt.

—Description of the Guaranty Building (1898), Buffalo, New York

Old office buildings are mostly bleak in appearance. The worst examples, the sort you see being torn down all over Manhattan these days to make room for generic towers of glass and steel, seem only to visualize—in brick and stone long darkened by soot—all the monotony and dreariness of office work in a big city. Good riddance, one thinks.

It is thus no surprise that old buildings managing to evade the wrecker’s ball usually have architectural distinctions worthy of landmark status, thus making them untouchable. All others—such as apartment blocks, factories and storefronts, abandoned mental hospitals and other buildings in varying stages of blight and decay—are duly abandoned, condemned, demolished and forgotten.

In this way developers and architects have become the true urban planners of our time. The skylines they envisage require large parcels of land from which old buildings must be cleared. Often this means whole clusters being pulled down in one fell swoop. Such was the case in the 1970s when twenty-five acres of tenements on the Upper West Side of Manhatthan had to be bulldozed to allow the glistening new Lincoln Center complex to emerge, encompassing Avery Fisher Hall, the Metropolitan Opera House and the New York City Ballet. Whether or not you admire the architecture of Lincoln Center in all its sprawling, monumental appearance, at least it offers culture as a redeeming virtue.

A visitor to Chicago can’t help noticing how different it seems from other major cities in its regard for architectural heritage. This city is truly a wonderland of striking and distinguished old buildings, lovingly preserved and revered, even if overshadowed by all the flashy boutiques and the shiny new office towers.

At 230 North Michigan Avenue, for example, sits a 37-story art deco masterpiece dating from 1929, darkened with age but still stunning and useful. Designed by Burnham Brothers, the building was by legend meant to resemble “a dark green champagne bottle with gold foil on top.”

Today the building carries a more somber air of mystery and formality: one ponders what business was transacted within the walls of this curiously-named Carbide and Carbon Building. The original owner must surely be long gone and out of business, and yet their name remains prominent on the facade, as if enhancing the design with elegant lettering. More than anything the building symbolizes early 20th century American industrialization and might, evoking the grittiness and bare-knuckled ambitions of that era, indeed of Chicago itself. It is thus a charming throw-back, even if one might well be shocked to know the environmental sins committed in years past by the carbon and carbide business.

Not far away in the Loop sits the old Marshall Field department store building, another ornamented gem with elaborate ironwork decorating the façade. Marshall Field was a majestic company of luxury goods and lavish window displays, the Field family among the social elite of Chicago and suburban Lake Forest. And yet like so many other grand department stores in major cities throughout the country Marshall Field became an extinct brand: folded ingloriously into Macy’s, its name but a dim memory in the annals of retailing. In some cities an old building like this—put up at great expense as a symbol of grandeur and class but now outdated, and occupying a whole city block of precious real estate—might be doomed. But not in Chicago, where the building has been landmarked and will thus survive, even if Macy’s itself goes under.

Chicagoans thus seem generally to take an enlightened view of architectural heritage. Perhaps this is because in the past they have allowed glorious old buildings to be lost through indifference and neglect, and now they regret it.

They understand well that you couldn’t possibly recreate the opulence and artistry of the finest old buildings that remain in the city, many of them designed by renowned architects. How could you now afford the hand-crafted and old-world design flourishes, the elaborate moldings, the heroic frescoes and paintings, the carved wooden paneling and the parquet floors, perhaps above all the stunning and lavish lobbies of polished granite that seem worthy of being preserved in museums as period rooms?

Why would you destroy all that?

Buffalo, New York, is a far cry from Chicago. It is a city once prosperous but long in decline. But like Chicago it has also managed to preserve many of its finest old buildings. On a trip there in recent years I visited the spectacular Guaranty Building, designed at the turn of the 19th century by the great Louis Sullivan, one of the first skyscrapers in the city. Sheathed in terracotta blocks with eye-dazzling decorations, it had fallen into decay in the 1970s and would have been demolished except for the efforts of New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Buffalo may be an afterthought of industry and commerce, blighted by poverty and urban decay, but its glory days can still be recalled, however dimly, in places like the Guaranty Building and various Frank Lloyd Wright structures such as the Fontana Boathouse (1905) on Black Rock Channel, recently restored. There is also a wonderful filling station (1927) designed by Wright and now tucked within the Pierce-Arrow Museum, the latter commemorating the short but glorious history of this Buffalo firm, once one of the greatest names in luxury automobiles.

On a trip to Buffalo a few years ago I was taken by a client to an old fire station that her son had just bought and was restoring. It was an enormous task, the building a lovely relic of startling beauty and period details but in severe disrepair. Perhaps it had been spared because there was no need to tear it down, as there is so little development activity taking place in Buffalo.

And then there is New York City, which seems to exult in being the graveyard of old buildings and architectural cast-offs.

Even buildings with an illustrious history and wondrous details must fight for survival amidst the clamor of new construction here, especially in midtown Manhattan. One shudders to think of what monstrosity would now be sitting on the corner of 57th Street and 7th Avenue had not a campaign of civic outrage thwarted efforts to tear down Carnegie Hall in the 1960s. It took the great violinist Isaac Stern—who had made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1943—to teach the developers a lesson in civic battle over historic real estate. “Think of Tchaikovsky conducting there at its opening, in 1891!” Stern pleaded, rallying public support that eventually saved the building.

The 60s was a bleak decade indeed for architectural preservation in New York. Against all reason the original Pennsylvania Station (1910), designed by McKim, Mead and White, with a grand waiting room that “looked like a Piranesi etching,” was wantonly razed and removed to a landfill in New Jersey in order to clear a swarth of West 34th Street for the wretched bat cave that replaced it. The “new” Penn Station encompasses Madison Square Garden and a truly hellish underground maze of rail lines and squalid, airless waiting rooms, offering a travel experience to be avoided at all costs.

Even people who never even saw the original Penn Station miss it. Happily, such public longings for the old place have led to the development across the street of the magnificent James Farley Post Office building (1912), also designed by McKim, Mead and White, with its imposing front steps, Corinthian columns and soaring interiors. It’s a poetic turnabout, perhaps, but it doesn’t mitigate the 60s teardown.

Not that any developers felt remorse. For having succeeded with the old Penn Station, they next took a crack at the ornate and truly glorious Grand Central Station (1910), proposing in the late 60s a new tower to rise above the old terminal. Among the outraged protests was this one from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis:

“Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud monuments, until there will be nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children?”

Amidst a flurry of lawsuits over its development, the Supreme Court, in its first-ever ruling on historic preservation, saved Grand Central in 1978. To get a sense of what monstrosity would have taken its place one has only to look nearby at the ghastly Pan Am Building (now the MetLife Building), looming like a curse over Grand Central, with fabulous, unobstructed views in every direction. This 60s eyesore designed by Walter Gropius and others was reviled by architectural critics as perhaps the ugliest skyscraper ever built in Manhattan, a rare distinction.

Uptown, at 56th Street at 5th Avenue, the lovely Bonwit Teller department store, built in 1929, fell in 1980 at the hands of Donald Trump, then merely a rapacious and greedy developer. He coveted the Bonwit store for the site of his garish new Trump Tower. In a New York Times article of 2014 entitled “The Store That Slipped Through the Cracks,” the lyrical old Bonwit building was remembered in this reverie:

Plain as the building might be, the entrance was like a spilled casket of gems: platinum, bronze, hammered aluminum, orange and yellow faience, and tinted glass backlighted at night. In 1929 American Architect magazine called it ‘a sparkling jewel in keeping with the character of the store.’

Of some artistic note were the Art Deco limestone bas-reliefs of dancing women high on the facade of the building. They were fifteen-feet tall, charming if modest in value, but well worth preserving. Trump promised them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for its sculpture collection. But then in a fit of arrogance and impatience he reneged on his promise and ordered demolition to proceed before the reliefs could be removed. Hence they were “jackhammered to bits.”

Timid, genteel preservationists and art lovers were dismayed, but they were no match for the rampaging Trump. In a cruel twist of irony, he somehow managed to have his name emblazoned in giant letters on the side of a new tower in Chicago, breaking with local tradition against such unseemly promotion. Despite howls of protest the name remains, looming like a hex sign.

Traveling down 5th Avenue and away from the “billionaires row” banality of 57th Street today one arrives at Rockefeller Center, the heartbeat of midtown Manhattan. Tucked within this maze of buildings dating from 1940 lies number 50 Rockefeller Plaza. At first blush it is just another tower like all the others in this sprawling tourist mecca.

But the entrance here takes your breath away. For here looms an enormous and almost surreal sculpture by the great Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988), a ten-ton allegory in stainless steel entitled News.

By way of the back-story, 50 Rockefeller Plaza was to be the new headquarters of the Associated Press; and so a commission was held for a work of art on a suitable theme to grace its entrance. Noguchi won easily with News, depicting workers communicating headlines and news flashes by telephone and wireless in a frieze bursting with energy. It’s a masterpiece almost hiding in plain sight; but still it seems to lift the spirits of all who by pass by, perhaps in the same way those ill-fated friezes once did in the old Bonwit Teller building.

This gets me thinking how much one can learn about art from looking at buildings, both old ones and new. What is it about the old ones that makes them often seem so much more engaging than flashy new towers and museums? Maybe it’s the ornamentation factor.

Architects once had far simpler challenges and opportunities in decorating the buildings they designed. After all, they were working mostly in stone and brick, materials that could be adorned with gargoyles, griffins, tiles and all manner of decorative lettering. Such old buildings were like blank canvases awaiting decoration inside and out, the more elaborate and exotic the better.

Glass and steel towers today, on the other hand, don’t allow for such ornamentation: you might say they are the ornamentation. The Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, for example, a brilliant and blinding confection of curved steel designed by Frank Gehry, requires nothing further on its sleek surfaces in order to make an architectural statement. It is stunning and breath-taking, to be sure; but instead of embracing you like many old brick and stone buildings often do it stands aloof, magisterial in its own bubble of metallic perfection.

Gehry’s buildings, after all, comprise a global franchise: what might be called The Frank Gehry Collection. It includes the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the Louis Vuitton Foundation and many other lavish corporate and institutional commissions. Like dozens of architects the world over, Frank Gehry can, with his very name, imbue a building with something extraordinary: instant landmark status. This was also true of Frank Lloyd Wright in his day, but few others had that kind of star power. Today, any architect worth a fig must think of himself as a brand. That’s how you get the plum commissions.

The art market today operates along the same lines.

It, too, has become all about name-brand recognition. Thus one looks at the “skyline” of the international art market and sees mostly the glittering towers, the high-priced paintings and sculpture that dominate the auction sales and the art fairs, garner all the headlines and seize the attention of collectors old and new. All else in the vast landscape of the art market seems to have fallen into the shadows.

Thus works of art once revered as desirable and mainstream are now deemed increasingly outmoded, unwanted, of diminished value and significance. Who wants to collect English furniture these days? Tapestries, porcelain, Silver, folk art, portrait miniatures, Japanese hanging scrolls, Korean screens, antiquities? It’s as if a new generation of collectors and art enthusiasts shaping and defining the art market can only relate to works of art with sure-fire investment value and future salability potential. The art market seems more and more to celebrate and promote new trophies rather than old ones.

But there is plenty of romance in old works of art, as there is in old buildings. And the more I think about it, maybe you just have to look closer to appreciate their qualities.

This thought came to mind on a recent trip to Philadelphia to see the Barnes Museum. I was planning to stay at a hotel near City Hall, that mammoth municipal building smack in the middle of things, with the statue of Benjamin Franklin on top designed by Alexander Calder’s grandfather, also a sculptor. There was a particular hotel that I was eager to stay in, the Loews. But the attraction for me was all in the building’s former life—as a bank.

For here was the old Philadelphia Savings Fund Society Building (1929), a 36-story masterpiece of art deco architecture and design, in its time one of the most striking modernist buildings in America. It had lasted many decades as a grand architectural symbol; but the banking upheavals of the 1980s had doomed the old PSFS, and the building faced extinction.

In my room I found a brochure that told the building’s history, with this insightful snapshot:

 “The architects, George Howe and William Lescaze, made certain every detail was perfect, from the marble and granite from 32 different countries to the rare woods used throughout. Cartier designed-clocks were on each floor, making a dramatic statement. The $8 million cost was an overwhelming amount during the Depression. Today, the building’s materials and features would be near impossible to afford.”

It was an eerie experience sleeping in an old bank building, but also a comforting one. The place had the feel of a museum, and I wanted to look around as much as possible before leaving.

Thus before checking out in the morning I wandered up to the 33rd floor, the top floor of the building. It was quiet and deserted, out of the way and used mostly now for company meetings, wedding receptions and the like. But the original appointments of the building had been carefully preserved. Here was the old bank in its prime: the boardroom tables and chairs, the original wooden Venetian blinds, walls made of Macassar ebony, rosewood paneling on which oil portraits of the bank’s directors hung in all their glory.

I learned from my brochure that it was here that the most senior executives of the bank worked, as if in a private men’s club on Pall Mall in London: they enjoyed their own private dining room, a solarium, a mammoth boardroom and many other spaces. The setting was apparently so exclusive that other top PSFS executives never set foot on the floor. Even the elevator operators didn’t ascend to this lofty realm, as my brochure informed me:

“According to urban myth, the elevator operators would get out of the car on the 32nd floor, to have the passengers go to the 33rd floor alone. As the elevator door closed the operator would yell: ‘You’re on your way, gentlemen!’”

The floor was haunting. Wandering around it I was reminded of those wonderful Busby Berkeley films of the 1930s such as 42nd Street and Footlight Parade, with all their period charm, sleekness, theatricality. From miles away you can see the giant PSFS sign on the roof, glowing bright red in the evenings. During the Depression the lights stayed on to reassure the bank’s customers “that their money was safe and secure during hard times.”

Before finally leaving I had a chat with the concierge, whose knowledge of the building made her seem more like a museum docent. Loews, she informed me, had wanted to take down the PSFS sign, embedded in the building’s design, and put up their own. But they were told no by the city.

The building, after all, wasn’t just some real estate trophy being leased by a hotel chain. It was the PSFS Building, a landmark, and would always remain so.

—Ronald Varney

(Image: The Philadelphia Savings Fund Society Building (PSFS) located at Market St. and 12th St., in Philadelphia, PA. built from 1929-32. The Architects were George Howe and William Lescare. Getty Images.)