2 Columbus Circle after its renovation was completed in 2008.
“Painful”, “freaking hideous”, “heartbreaking”, “an awful piece of crap”, are some of comments I received in response to last Friday’s blog post, Goodbye Columbus , about the renovation of by Brad Cloepfil of Edward Durell Stone’s famous building at 2 Columbus Circle. So how did a classic building come to be replaced by such a mediocre one? It’s a sad tale. Architecture lovers rallied to save the original building multiple times. Architecture critics and architects of all stripes wrote passionately about importance of Stone’s design. Yet, amidst much controversy, the New York City Landmark Commission refused to hold a public hearing. Denied a voice in the process, the renovation was approved and the public lost a valuable landmark. The irony is that the new tenant is the Museum of Architecture and Design.
Of course not every building that claims to be landmark deserves the title. So how does one decide if a building deserves to be declared a landmark? The criteria for preservation should depend upon whether a building has some combination of aesthetic, cultural, or historical significance.
The historical arguments were made by groups such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which named 2 Columbus Circle as one of America’s 11 “most endangered” buildings, stating, “Radically altering 2 Columbus Circle would create a gaping void in the record of design and urbanism in the city, state, nation, and world.” The World’s Monuments Fund placed 2 Columbus Circle on its 2006 “Watch List” of the 100 Most Endangered Sites on earth.
Another important aspect of Durell Stone’s design is reflected in the importance of the site itself. Columbus Circle is a huge traffic rotary where Broadway, Eighth Avenue, and Central Park South converge. Located at the edge of central park, it becomes a figurative gate way to New York’s most important green space. In response, Stone designed a curved facade for the building that echos the curves of rotary. This circular theme was repeated on the Vermont marble facade which was punctured by small, deep set, porthole windows. But these porthole windows weren’t merely decoration, but an ingenious solution for bringing light into the interior gallery spaces which were hung with paintings from Huntington Hartford Gallery of Modern Art. By clustering the portholes at the edges of the building, Stone simultaneously illuminated the interior with indirect light, preserving the art, while softening monolithic exterior by dematerializing the stone.
Durell Stone’s building was significant in the way that it combined ornament and classical detailing at a time when strict modernism ruled the day. Stone’s building was an idiosyncratic vision that stuck out in a crowd of glass boxes without shouting for attention. This is all gone now, replaced by a slick packaged product of modern glass. What is most galling is that the importance of the site demands a great building. Instead, Cloepfil delivered mediocrity. The city deserves better. We owe it to the memory of Stone’s building. Our lost monument.