Natalie de Blois rarely received her due during a 50-year career. Now, a new zoning law in Manhattan’s Midtown East is helping a bank tear down one of her greatest achievements.
A building that architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable once called a “post-war miracle” could soon vanish from the streets of Manhattan. And if 270 Park comes down, so will a key part of the legacy of pioneering female architect Natalie de Blois. De Blois, who joined the renowned architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) in 1944 and passed away in 2013, helped design headquarters for the Lever Brothers, Pepsi-Cola, and Union Carbide. The Union Carbide office, located on Park Avenue, eventually became the headquarters of JPMorgan Chase. Last week, the company announced it will demolish the building in order to build an even taller one with more space for its employees.
The 52-story tower built in 1961 is a classic example of corporate Modernism, with steel ribs, glass walls, and black spandrels. One of the building’s most notable features, its two-level lobby, was conceived as a creative work-around for the railroad tracks that ran underneath the structure from Grand Central Station. SOM had to sink columns between the tracks and place the elevator block above ground. De Blois once said that the biggest challenge she had when designing the plans was figuring out where to put mechanical and electrical services, since the tracks made it impossible for the building to have a basement.
De Blois worked in a male-dominated field, and the way she was treated by her peers keenly reflected that fact. When she rejected the romantic overtures of a male co-worker, the man told their boss, Morris Ketchum, that they couldn’t both possibly continue to work in their small, shared office. Ketchum told de Blois she would have to be the one to leave, despite the fact that she had been with the firm longer.
Later in her career, de Blois was excluded from lunch meetings held in men’s clubs. Much of the work she did was attributed to Gordon Bunshaft, another architect at SOM and a frequent collaborator, who once told her to go home and change before a meeting because he didn’t like the color of her outfit. De Blois’ designs now span the globe, from the Terrace Plaza Hotel in Cincinnati to the Hilton Hotel in Istanbul. But the Union Carbide building is one of her most renowned contributions to New York City.
According to ArchDaily, if the plans go through to destroy it, the ensuing tower will be “the world’s largest and tallest building ever to be intentionally demolished,” and the new office JPMorgan Chase has proposed would add 1 million square feet of space. The demolition plans were enabled by a new zoning rule for Midtown East, which allows companies to buy the development rights (or “air rights”) of nearby buildings to increase the height of proposed developments. This is a boon for the city’s coffers, as developers have to contribute a minimum of $61.49 per square foot of unused development rights, funds which are to be used for public improvements. But Kyle Johnson, a board member of Documentation and Conservation of Buildings, Sights and Neighborhoods of the Modern Movement (DOCOMOMO)’s NY/Tri-State division, worries that any neighborhood gains will be offset by the flood of new foot traffic.
“There’s a bit of a wrinkle in that,” said Johnson. “Whether you make wider stairways, or subways, or sidewalk space, to what extent are provisions going to compensate for the increased density that’s going to result? In some ways, the zoning of East Midtown is backwards from a city perspective.” He added, “In recent years, we’ve seen office development moving to new locations that were seriously underutilized. That makes more sense than increasing the density of an area that has already been developed to its full extent.”
As Alexandra Lange points out in Curbed, other de Blois buildings have been landmarked: the Pepsi-Cola Building was granted protected status in 1995. “But should SOM, with designers like Bunshaft and de Blois, be penalized for being too good, for working too much?” Lange asks. “Their buildings define postwar New York style, a style that, when repackaged in television shows like Mad Men, seems plenty modern enough for these times.”
DOCOMOMO is urging the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate 270 Park as a landmark building before plans for demolition begin. In a letter sent last week to Meenakshi Srinivasan, chair of the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, the group called 270 Park one of the most “iconic corporate office buildings in New York,” and said that the organization feels strongly that the building “played an important role in the evolution of modern, world-class cities, and it continues to enrich the urban realm.”
What perplexes Johnson and DOCOMOMO’s Executive Director Liz Waytkus is why JPMorgan Chase is insistent on tearing down 270 Park rather than simply relocating to another, larger building. “They left one Gordon Bunshaft building in the Financial District for Midtown,” Johnson pointed out. “They could move to another location and have another distinguished tower by another architect. They don’t have to demolish one building to build the next one.”
Advocates for the building have also pointed out that 270 Park Avenue was renovated in 2011 to obtain an LEED Platinum rating from the U.S. Green Building Council. At the time, it was the largest renovation project to achieve such a status. Typically, tearing a building down to create something more efficient has a greater environmental impact than simply reusing or retrofitting the structure. Now, JPMorgan Chase is planning to down a building they have already retrofitted, which makes the potential environmental impact even more stark. As Lloyd Alter pointed out earlier this week, “When it comes to the expensive stuff that wears out, like mechanicals and electricals and finishes, this building isn’t 57 years old; it’s six years old. It is barely out of warranty, let along fully depreciated.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio has expressed satisfaction with JPMorgan Chase’s building plans, saying that the proposal reflects the city’s “plan for Midtown East in action,” and that it will bring “good jobs, modern buildings, and concrete improvements.”
But it’s hard to believe that the destruction of 270 Park—and perhaps similar towers in the future—will somehow make for a better city. “You can’t just say [the new zoning] is a win for New York,” said Waytkus. “In what way? We need more information before we can just sweep some important buildings under the carpet in the name of progress.”