At Columbus Circle, Going Round & Round Over a Building's Fate
By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 29, 2004; Page C01
NEW YORK -- In the annals of preservation, few buildings have generated as quirky a battle as the one raging over 2 Columbus Circle, a beleaguered piece of New York architecture whose intended new owner -- the Museum of Arts & Design -- plans to erase the legacy of a rare American modernist to bolster its own image.
At risk is a decrepit 1964 building by Edward Durell Stone, the controversial architect who also gave Washington its John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The Manhattan building isn't great, and maybe the architect wasn't either. Nonetheless, this week, the National Trust for Historic Preservation declared the structure one of the "most endangered" places in America.
The designation raises an impassioned local preservation debate to national stature. The issues -- cultural stewardship and the determination of merit in a building too new to be truly historic -- are played out in many other cities.
The Columbus Circle building, which is owned by the city, was designed in the architect's late flamboyant phase. It has a curved facade of white marble adorned with a Venetian-style balcony, portholes and an arcade of abstract arches known from Day One as "lollipops," thanks to architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, then at the New York Times. Though the 10-story building overlooks Central Park, it is all but windowless.
The list of supporters and detractors would make a dinner party worthy of "Bonfire of the Vanities," with writer Tom Wolfe at the head table. (He penned a 4,000-word screed on behalf of preservation last fall in the Times.) Robert A.M. Stern, dean of Yale's School of Architecture, warned that "a world-class landmark is threatened with defilement." National Trust Director Richard L. Moe calls the building "a wonderful work of a great American."
Opposition comes from a series of mayors interested in ridding the city of the property for a price and a coterie of progressives who think the building's time has passed. Holly Hotchner, director of the museum formerly known as American Craft (and now saddled with the acronym MAD), describes Stone's work as a "mausoleum." Huxtable, the doyenne of architecture critics, revisited her views earlier this year in the Wall Street Journal. She declared that the building was not Stone's best and figured the structure was probably too far gone to be preserved.
The Museum of Modern Art's architecture curator, Terence Riley, believes the newly revived Columbus Circle deserves better. He also opposes invoking the public's goodwill on behalf of mediocrity. In his view, Stone's building has failed on every count.
"You're talking about a patient that has been on life support for so long that none of the doctors are still alive," Riley says.
Stone designed the building for A&P supermarket heir Huntington Hartford's Gallery of Modern Art, which was to be an alternative to MoMA. The building was savaged by critics, and the museum failed after five years. Ownership passed eventually to the city, which filled it with office workers.
Vacant since the late 1990s, the structure now languishes, an eyesore in full view of the gleaming new Time Warner Center. Scaffolding protects pedestrians from the risk of falling marble. Chain-link fencing prevents the homeless from camping between the "lollipops." But for the actions of local preservationists, including what Hotchner calls a "nuisance" lawsuit now being appealed, the museum would have started remaking the building last month.
The Museum of Arts & Design is crammed into three small floors of a building opposite MoMA on 53rd Street, with no space to display its permanent collection of more than 2,000 objects. The Stone building offered four times the gallery space, plus room for offices, educational facilities, expanded shop and more -- presuming changes. The museum has raised half the $50 million it needs for the work. Hotchner won't reveal the price it will pay the city. A key point is the freedom to remake the site.
The museum has already held an architectural competition, passing up Zaha Hadid, this year's Pritzker Prize winner, in favor of an emerging talent, Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works in Portland, Ore. Cloepfil would preserve Stone's curve and mass but also infuse the dark box with light by carving 30-inch channels into the structural concrete. He says he wants to "extend the memory of that building as an iconic object." The marble facade would be replaced with a layering of custom-made terra cotta. Digital images show a building that is still white, but more ethereal. It's Stone, but it's not.
How does it feel to alter a notable American modernist? Cloepfil, who has been called a neo-modernist, responds carefully: "I don't believe it's one of his best buildings. I think Columbus Circle deserves a better piece of architecture."
The Trust and its allies disagree passionately.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company