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Four Seasons Restaurant's Iconic Modernist Design Is Safe

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Architect Annabelle Selldorf appeared in front of the Landmarks Preservation Commission on Tuesday to present a series of proposed alterations to Philip Johnson's 1958 lauded modernist interior, The Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building. The usually well-received Selldorf, commissioned by building owner Aby Rosen's RFR Holdings, presented a plan to change the carpeting throughout the restaurant, modify an original walnut panel in the Pool Room, and remove a glass partition added to the Grill Room by Johnson in 1983 in favor of returning the site's original planters. "I've never been so nervous to make a presentation," Selldorf said as she took her place in front of the commissioners and a packed audience. Her nerves were founded in good instincts: the alterations were reamed.

Selldorf's presentation began with a plan to swap out the restaurant's current carpeting with a grid-design floor covering of red and black hues. The more dramatic—and contested—of the alterations discussed included changes to fixtures appointed by Johnson in the restaurant's two main rooms.

First, Selldorf proposed adjusting the walnut panel that looms above the Pool Room and frames the view out to Park Avenue from the mezzanine level. The plan included creating pivoting wood forms within the larger panel which, if open, would allow for a more open-concept feel, blurring the lines of distinction between the mezzanine level and the lower Pool Room's revered 60- by 60-foot interior. Second, Selldorf proposed removing an intentionally cracked glass partition installed by Johnson in the Grill Room 30 years into the restaurant's tenure. The partition was erected to replace a row of low planters where, by some miracle, even ivy couldn't thrive. Selldorf proposed reinstalling planters to facilitate flow between the Grill Room's bar area and adjacent tables. "[The glass partitions] bring up the idea of authorship," Selldorf opined of Johnson's late addition, "If you write a book and add a chapter 30 years later, you might be writing differently." An interesting point with which few, if any, of the people she was facing agreed.

Not surprisingly, the commissioners and audience took least issue with topical tweaks to the prized and aging space. Ultimately, the LPC gave the green light to RFR and Selldorf to install new carpeting, with the stipulation that the textile pass through the commission for the final say. The planters and pivoting panels (click for big) were another story.

The room was crowded with architects and preservationists, venerable in their trades, who wanted to speak on behalf of maintaining the Four Seasons as-is. Belmont Freeman, an architect and adjunct professor of architecture at Columbia University, expressed that "some work" could be "unobjectionable, if done cautiously." (The restaurant, after all, is nearly 60 years old.) But, he continued, the proposals to alter and remove the walnut and glass panels "betray an understanding of the design of the restaurant … and do violence to that design." On behalf of the New York Landmarks Conservancy , Alex Herrera agreed that Johnson's original design intent should be honored. Regarding the glass panels threatened by the return of planters, he asked, "Why replace distinctive with ordinary in one of the great rooms of America?"

For many speaking on behalf of the restaurant as-is, the space is more than an iconic room. It is, according to Robert A.M. Stern, a "cultural emblem of the highest order," and RFR's attempt to alter the lauded landmarked interior represents a larger debate over the place of architectural heritage in a city with shifting motives. "What is at stake here is not the fate of a restaurant," Edgar Bronfman Jr., whose grandfather oversaw the rise of the Seagram Building, said, "What is at stake here is whether ownership trumps preservation, whether deception triumphs over transparency, and whether the wealth, power, and influence of a building's proprietors can trample both the fundamental integrity of an historic space and the commission created to protect and serve such spaces." Last year's Le Tricorne debacle, when Rosen insisted on having the Picasso stage curtain removed from the restaurant at the potential expense of its ruin, lingered on the room's mind.

When all who had signed up to speak had voiced their concerns, the commissioners spoke up. "We can only opine about what decisions [Johnson] might have made" regarding updates to the walnut and glass panels, Commissioner Bland said, ruminating that creating pivoting panels would have an adverse affect to Johnson's very measured intentions in the Pool Room. But it was Commissioner Gustaffson who put the pivoting panels to rest, "The context of the Four Seasons is special and complete. It is unified, it is unique, it is integral, and in some sense, it is without equal. The context is also a perfect square. The context is also a perfect space."

At the end of the two-hour hearing, the only concession the commission made to RFR and Selldorf remained the okay to change the carpet. The installation of pivoting walnut panels and the proposal to remove Johnson's 1983 glass room divider was cast aside permanently. When asked how she thought the meeting went, Phyllis Lambert, an integral character in the Seagram Building's rise who remains one of its most important advocates today, said she was "entirely grateful." "It was beautiful," she said, before getting whisked off to one of many congratulatory chats.

[UPDATE: RFR issued the following statement to The Post, "We respect the commission's vote this afternoon and look forward to working with them on restoring the Seagram Building's restaurant space to its former glory."

Aby Rosen, not so eloquent, spoke to the Times regarding the decision, " 'Somebody should have gotten up to say, "I want to congratulate Mr. Rosen, who has the financial wisdom to save something great in this town," ' ... I'm going to do what I think should be done. I'm spending 20 million bucks restoring it.' " Ugh.]
· All Four Seasons Restaurant coverage [Curbed]
· Landmark Commission Denies Aby Rosen's Bid To Renovate The Four Seasons [Eater]

The Four Seasons Restaurant

280 Park Ave., New York, NY 10017 212 754 9494