Last week, as Baltimore and other places took steps to avoid Charlottesville-style confrontations by removing Confederate monuments, President Trump took to Twitter to express his indignation at the “history and culture of our great country being ripped apart.”

“The beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed,” the former real estate mogul tweeted, “and never able to be comparably replaced!”

Many statues of the Confederate soldiers that the president now mourns are cookie-cutter models, created by New England companies and sold to towns both north and south of the Mason Dixon line, as The Washington Post's Marc Fisher has reported.

And Trump has not always had a reputation as a defender of the arts.

“I don't think Trump had much of an interest in art,” said Barbara Res, who worked for Trump for 18 years as a construction executive. Res joined Trump's team soon after one of his earliest and most controversial forays into Manhattan real estate, which was labeled an act of “esthetic vandalism” in a New York Times editorial.

In 1980, the brash 33-year-old developer instructed workers to destroy two giant Art Deco bas-relief friezes of nearly naked dancing figures and to remove a 20-by-30-foot geometric grille built into the doorway of the Bonwit Teller building, which Trump was razing to construct his namesake tower. 


View of the Bonwit Teller department store in New York City. (Associated Press)

Trump bought the building in 1979 and could do what he liked with the pieces, Res noted.

But that didn’t stop outrage in the art world. The works were “extremely significant,” recalled Penelope Hunter-Stiebel, an expert in the history of design who said she negotiated with Trump's representative, Louise Sunshine, and met with Trump himself to acquire them for the Metropolitan Museum of Art before watching in disbelief as the sculptures were “jackhammered to smithereens.”

The bas-reliefs were prime examples of French Art Deco, she said. The metalwork grille, designed by architect Ely Jacques Kahn, represented a new American model, which was more modernistic, abstract and geometric. Together they represented a “stylistic shift,” Hunter-Stiebel said, that would echo in architectural design across the country.  

Hunter-Stiebel thought she had arranged a “sweetheart deal” — a win-win for the art world and the upstart developer that could act as a model for combining conservation and new construction. She arranged with Robert Miller, who owned a gallery opposite the site, to value the artwork, while she pursued the public-relations benefits: Based on Miller’s evaluation of $200,000, the developer would receive a tax deduction for his donation; the Met would get the works.

Then, without warning, the deal — reportedly contingent on the removal process not being too costly to Trump — fell apart.

First, the grille disappeared,

“When I called in distress,” Hunter-Stiebel said, “I was told the grille was sent to a salvage yard in New Jersey.” The Met sent a truck to retrieve it, she said, but no trace of it could be found.

Then workers took jackhammers to the limestone sculptures.

“It was a big surprise,” said Hunter-Stiebel, remembering the call from Miller telling her what was going on. “We saw it happen.” Nine months pregnant, she left the Met in a taxi, and, after she was held up by traffic, ran for 10 city blocks, hoping to preserve the iconic works. Miller even tried to offer “a wad of cash,” she said, to save the works and was told by workers they had to be demolished because a “stupid woman” from a museum was intervening.

Sunshine, the Trump Organization negotiator, did not return recent calls for comment about how the decision was reached.

What ensued was a public battle over the aesthetic and financial value of the pieces, with Trump rep “John Barron” (a pseudonym Trump sometimes used to represent himself) declaring that appraisers had dismissed them as “without artistic merit” and that saving them would cause construction delays and be too costly.

“Can you imagine the museum accepting them if they were not of artistic merit?” Ashton Hawkins, secretary of the Met’s Board of Trustees, told the New York Times. A spokesman for then-mayor Ed Koch argued the developer had a “moral responsibility to consider the interests of the people of the city.” 


The Bonwit Teller building, at 721 Fifth Avenue in New York City, on July 18, 1956. (Associated Press)

John P. Barie, the architect who led the Trump Tower design team, recalled a conversation with Trump about saving things deemed “of value” from the Bonwit Teller building and also said he believed Trump worked with a salvage company. Although there were rumors Trump had used the Kahn metalwork in Trump Tower, Barie said it “was NOT incorporated into the design.”

So the ultimate fate of the giant decorative grille remains a mystery.

As for the bas-reliefs, Res — who said Trump later told her “no one was willing to work with him” on saving the pieces — wonders whether they could have been taken down intact by what she called the “many undocumented and not-so-good workers doing the demo.”

Although Trump never showed much interest in art, Res said he did get involved in the finishes of his new buildings: “Hence the abundance of mirror and brass.”

But at least one member of the Trump's old team took an interest in the artwork. Sunshine, with whom Hunter-Stiebel said she negotiated, rescued the head of one of the dancing figures.

She put it on display at her Miami Beach apartment. 


Louise Sunshine, a powerful real estate developer who worked for Donald Trump for 15 years, on the balcony of Miami Beach penthouse in November 2015. Sunshine keeps several mementos of her time with Trump in her house, including this piece of the bas-relief from the former Bonwit Teller building. (Angel Valentin for The Washington Post)

Read more about Trump's acquisition of the Bonwit Teller building in "Trump Revealed"