In restoring Lever House plaza, Ken Smith brought Noguchi back into focus.
By Allen Freeman
Curiosity seekers flocked to Lever Housethe soap maker's unprecedented headquarters building#151;when it opened in Manhattan in 1952. "People acted as if this was the eighth wonder of the world," wrote Lewis Mumford in The New Yorker shortly after the building's opening. Mumford described the building as a "house of glass approached through an open forecourt that is paneled with glistening marble, punctuated by columns encased in stainless steel, and embellished by a vast bed of flowers and...a weeping willow tree."
Lever House was New York City's first skyscraper built under a new zoning regulation that allowed a building to rise without setbacks if its tower occupied no more than a quarter of the site. Stretching along the west side of Park Avenue between 53rd and 54th Streets, the building has a 24-story, slab-shaped tower and a one-story base elevated on piers over a plaza (Mumford's "forecourt"). The rectangular base is rimmed by a roof garden and is open at its center to the plaza below.
Mumford's glowing critique didn't mention that the building's architectsSkidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) chief designer Gordon Bunshaft (1909-1990) and his associatesconsidered the flowerbed and weeping willow as stand-ins for a set piece designed by Isamu Noguchi, the renowned Japanese-American sculptor (1904-1988). Noguchi had drawn two schemes and built and photographed models showing that the plaza's planter base was to become a marble plinth for a fountain and a Noguchi sculpture. Fountain plumbing had been roughed in under the plaza, and construction drawings and cost estimates were in the works.
For reasons now unclear, construction of Noguchi's landscape elements, including benches on the plaza, was postponed, and an interim planting scheme, probably by SOM's resident landscape architect Joanna Dimon, was in place for the building's opening in the summer of 1952. That was the landscape Ezra Stoller captured in his iconic photographs, first published that July in Architectural Forum, and that Mumford described in his New Yorker column. Construction drawings, dated late Au- gust 1953, suggest that Noguchi's schemefountain, sculpture, and seating in the plazastayed alive for another year, but the building's managers abandoned the idea of implementing it by the end of December.
In the early 1980s, Lever House became a target for demolition and replacement because the building's volume failed to occupy the allowable zoning envelope, but the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, an agency with clout, came to the rescue by designating the building a historic landmark in 1982. A decade later, an ill-advised proposal would have converted the plaza into an atrium for a hotel to be built on an adjacent parcel to the west. Finally, in 1998, RFR Realty, Lever House's new owners, set about to restore a landmark that Preservation magazine later described as looking "pretty crummy." RFR Realty, however, focused on a precedent-setting replacement of the entire curtain-wall system and was open-minded about restoration of the landscape. Fortunately, the new owners turned to Ken Smith, ASLA, who was a champion of modern-era landscapes and had written about the preservation of Dan Kiley's work at Lincoln Center.
"I was told to do whatever I thought best," says Smith, who took as his first order of business learning the original designers' intent and tracing the landscape's history. He pored over documents in the archives at Columbia University's Avery Library and contacted SOM and the Isamu Noguchi Museum and Foundation in Queens before presenting the clients with three alternatives: Restore the plaza as it appears in Stoller's 1952 photos; build Noguchi's sculptures and seating in the plaza; or restore the plaza planting bed and carry out Noguchi's seating scheme.
Smith's clients were enthusiastic about the notion of finally executing Noguchi's plans, but the Noguchi Foundation scotched the idea because it for-bids posthumous fabrication of Noguchi sculptures. The foundation staff did, however, approve fabrication of Noguchi's seating, which they considered part of the architecture. In the end, Smith approximated SOM's planting scheme, inserted authentic Noguchi sculptures, and had Noguchi's seats fabricated as they were detailed half a century ago. "SOM had drawn up the seating, and I think it had even been priced," Smith says. No planting scheme, however, is known to survive. Photographs and written descriptions were Smith's only guides.
One weekday in late summer, while waiting for Ken Smith to join me at Lever House, I saw three construction workers bring their brown-bag lunches into the plaza, spread out on one of the recently installed Noguchi benches, and munch sandwiches while surveying the scene along Park Avenue. It's a scene worth noting because that kind of casual use was unlikely until recently. Smith arrived and explained: "Critiques of this plaza during its first 40 yearsparticularly the postmodern critiquessaid it was sterile and barren. When I saw the seats in the Noguchi scheme, I said, well, this is what's missing. In fact, the seats make a huge difference."
The flowerbed planter that Mumford described in 1952 is now restored and contains a border of vinca, a stand of boxwood, a Japanese maple, a strip of impatiens, and a stone Noguchi sculpture that seems at home in the plaza. The boxwood, a cross between Korean and European varieties, is good for New York because it stays green in winter, Smith said. Originally, taxus was planted. Different photographs taken in the early years suggest that the weeping willow, possibly lacking sufficient sunlight, was soon replaced with what appears to have been a plane tree. "It was clear that the original intention was to have a sculptural tree rising over a hedge plinth," Smith said. In consultation with the Noguchi Foundation staff, he selected Japanese maple because of its low-light tolerance and its foliage that turns purple in spring and red in fall, and he picked a mature specimen with "good bone structure," as he put it. The ribbon of impatiens is a Smith innovation, a spot of seasonally rotating color bordering the west side of the planter for a dozen feet or so. Smith intended the color to be hidden by the boxwood when viewed from Park Avenue (although that wasn't the case in August when the impatiens had grown leggy). The boxwood is being maintained as a plinth at the height of the base on which the stone Noguchi sculpture rests.
That basalt sculpture and three other Noguchis in the large plaza, plus one in the lobby and another placed on a smaller plaza north of the lobby, are on loan from the Noguchi Foundation. Smith said that his staff built a 10-foot-long model (at a scale in which three-eighths of an inch equals one foot) out of cardboard, clipboard, and paper and made plaster replicas of all the sculptures that the foundation was willing to lend. Foundation staff members visited his office in lower Manhattan over a period of weeks, he said, moving the replicas around to determine the best placement. "This one," Smith added, pointing to the basalt in the planter, "is said to have been Bunshaft's favorite Noguchi sculpture. We lucked out on that."
Smith mentioned that the plaza's terrazzo paving, installed circa 1980 in the same pattern as the original and now in bad repair, is scheduled to be replaced in 2005 after subway work is completed nearby. The fear was that the subway construction might cause cracks in the terrazzo.
Mumford wrote in 1952 that much of the tower's third-floor space was given over to a cafeteria for Lever House's 1,200 employees and that the adjacent roof garden was a lunchroom extension, a place to take in fresh midtown Manhattan air and play shuffleboard. Last summer the one-time cafeteria was being built out for executive offices. Outside, along the roof garden's edge, linear planters were filled with a hedge of Ilex glabra, its color approximating the building's blue-green glass. The hedge is maintained at a height that enables a standing person to see over it but provides a sense of enclosure for those who are seated.
A large raised planter extends along the south side of the roof garden, on 53rd Street. "When I arrived here in 1998," Smith said, "the planter was filled with English ivy, very flat, plus some clumpy midlevel crabapples and a few big locust trees. I edited out the crabapples and added the smaller locust trees that you see. And then we planted the bottom level with six or seven different varieties of evergreen azaleas. In the fall, it is a wonderful display, and in the winter they stay green. May is a riot-pink, red, and white, but no orange. It is not a plinth like below. Based on Mumford's description, we think it was intended to be looser."
Lever House turned out to be the beginning of a beautiful professional friendship. Indeed, Bunshaft and Noguchi went on to collaborate on the gardens and courts at the Connecticut General Life Insurance Company campus in suburban Bloomfield, Connecticut (1956-1957), the sunken gardens at Yale's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (1960-1964), the Chase Manhattan Bank Plaza (1961-1964), and the IBM headquarters in Armonk, New York (1964).
As Smith and I walked along East 53rd Street, he said, "The biggest surprise for me was that the project wasn't given to me as a preservation project. The building was landmarked; the plaza was landmarked; but the plantings were not." And yet Smith preserved the spirit and general form of SOM's design while bringing Noguchi into the picture. Last year, Smith's firm received an ASLA design award of merit for restoring the plaza and roof garden. "It's great to see Noguchi and Lever House come back," ASLA's jurors commented.
Smith certainly sees it that way. "The best part of the job was finding all the Noguchi stuff," he said. "Lever House was Bunshaft's and Noguchi's proving ground."
PROJECT CREDITS Owner:
RFR Realty. Landscape architect: Ken Smith Landscape Architect (Ken Smith, ASLA, Tobias Armborst, Elizabeth Asawa, Yoonchul Cho, Yumi Lee). Landscape historic research: Landscape Agency New York. Architectural design consultant: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Noguchi consultant: The Isamu Noguchi Foundation. Art consultant: Richard Marshall. New York public agency: Landmarks Preservation Commission. Interior architect (lobby renovation): William T. Georgis Architect. Architectural graphics: Pentagram Design. General contractor: Tri-Star Construction. Landscape contractor and maintenance: Town and Gardens.
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