At Columbus Circle, Going Round & Round Over a Building's Fate
"The board of this new museum should reflect on whether or not a work of architecture is a work of art also and deserves to be protected," says Moe. "I am just astonished frankly that art museum people can take that view."
Hotchner is unmoved.
The museum, she says, is proceeding apace to "create a great public space."
That's what Tom Wolfe remembers. In a conversation this week, he pointed out that, at age 74, he is one of the few voices in the drama old enough to have experienced the white marble elephant in its glorious prime. It was a temple of luxury from a courageous architect revolting against the orthodoxies of his time.
Stone's anti-modern decorative streak is best preserved in a celebrated design for the American Embassy in New Delhi. But 2 Columbus Circle is seen by more Americans daily. Wolfe, who excoriated strict modernism in his 1981 book "From Bauhaus to Our House," waxes gleeful about Stone's use of forbidden veneers, ornate railings and regal gold and red carpets on gallery floors. There was also a restaurant and a lounge, which afforded New Yorkers access to views over Central Park.
"You felt like you were on top of the world, like all was well in the world," he says. "You were in a white marble building."
Little of the glory that Wolfe remembers survives. On a tour two weeks ago with Laurie Beckelman, director of MAD's New Building Program and a former chair of the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission, I took in the postcard view of Central Park framed by Venetian kitsch. The rest of the building exuded the charm of a bunker.
Long galleries bounded by a solid curved wall reflected the front facade. From each of seven levels, steps led a half-story down to small, oddly shaped landings, which led to more stairs. By flashlight, paneled walls looked grim rather than deluxe. Pipes had burst, and Beckelman said she had seen water cascading down the stairs. Glimmers of natural light passed through grimy portholes. Only a basement theater, entered through original brass doors, suggested bygone glamour. Beckelman said the museum planned to restore it.
Hyperbole is part of the debate as long as Stone's place in history is unresolved. Wolfe calls him "probably the most distinguished American modernist." Hotchner sees him as "relatively significant." Either way, MoMA's Riley cautions, "No architect is so famous that you would say all his buildings are worth saving in perpetuity. Everybody's work is uneven."
Stone's son Hicks, who followed his father into the field of architecture, favors preservation, but even his views are conflicted.
"Dad was out of fashion for a while," he acknowledges. "Even I at times have been made uncomfortable by the aesthetic of 2 Columbus Circle."
Right now, two issues give him pause. Like Moe, he is appalled that "an institution whose central mission is to preserve cultural artifacts is in fact determined to demolish what is probably its most valuable artifact." He also worries that cutting into the structure to add light could destroy the structural integrity of the building.
Stone, who died in 1978, is quoted in Paul Heyer's "Architects on Architecture: New Directions in America" as saying: "If our flights of fancy found receptive audiences and each of us were encouraged to be an individual our lives would be enriched. . . . Americans need more than ever to cultivate the open mind."
The building is an oddity and the issues are complex. But in the current impasse, open minds would be a better legacy for all.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company