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Lower Manhattan’s celebrated 140 Broadway may get unwelcome ornament

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Proposed changes include the addition of planters and street furniture

The former Marine Midland Bank building at 140 Broadway is one of New York City’s undisputed architectural triumphs. The skyscraper, designed by Gordon Bunshaft for Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill, opened in 1968, and was heralded by Ada Louise Huxtable soon after as “New York’s ultimate skin building” and “a demonstration of New York at its physical best.”

She was taken with the design of the building, of course, but the surrounding public plaza (which includes Isamu Noguchi’s Cube, a striking piece of public art that balances, seemingly improbably, on one corner) is what really impressed Huxtable. “Instead of thoughtless destruction through new construction,” she wrote, “there is a calculated relationship between past and present, and between buildings and spaces.”

But now, it appears that harmonious design may be threatened: The Cultural Landscape Foundation reports that the owners of the building plan to ask the Landmarks Preservation Commission to approve changes to the open space, notably the addition of new, circular planters that would be plopped into the middle of the plaza. The building was designated a New York City landmark in 2013, which was well after some changes—including the addition of a gaudy marble plaque honoring developer Harry Helmsley—were already made.

And as Tribeca Trib previously reported, the owners also want the Department of Transportation to approve changes that would discourage street vendors from setting up shop outside of the building; these include adding benches and large planters to the Broadway side of the plaza, and stanchions on the Cedar Street side. A landscape architect working on the redesign said that it was “a way to add more seating and more planting into the plaza space and better activate the space.”

Reactions to these proposals have not been especially enthusiastic; according to Tribeca Trib, Community Board 1’s Landmarks Committee declined to endorse the changes, “saying it would not be in keeping with the plaza’s original design” (protests from street vendors, whose livelihoods would be threatened by the changes, may have also influenced their decision).

Preservationists and architecture critics are also not enthused; as TCLF notes, this addition “would adversely affect the experience of Noguchi’s sculpture, the building, and the plaza, which are compositionally intertwined.” Curbed’s architecture critic Alexandra Lange also weighed in:

140 Broadway is one of New York’s most felicitous combinations of art and architecture, made so by the preservation of empty space around its two sharp-edged objects. I’ve described the Noguchi Red Cube as the brooch on the dark, glittering dress of SOM’s Marine Midland Bank building. The hulking plaque to Harry Helmsley interrupted the lines of the dress but didn’t destroy the effect. The proposed benches along Broadway add an unnecessary belt, and the round planter a competing ornament. The food trucks that line the block are temporary; using an “amenity” like benches to ward them off is a perversion of the generosity of the plaza.

Paul Goldberger also weighed in:

NV5, the firm that’s working on the redesign, will present its plans to the Landmarks Preservation Commission at its next meeting on February 6; we’ll update with more details as they come in.