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Towering soberly over Park Avenue, the Seagram Building looks out on a city that changed around it and because of it. Following its completion in 1958, the building set the standard for corporate skyscrapers and urban open space for decades to come.
The Seagram Building was designed by the renowned German émigré Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, in collaboration with the soon-to-be well-known American, Philip Johnson. While it was built to house the North American headquarters of Seagram, the Canadian distillery and beverage company headed by Samuel Bronfman, the company offices only ever occupied the lower 13 floors. The rest of the space in the slim tower was rented out as conventional commercial space, a common practice in corporate skyscrapers. Although Bronfman originally tapped another architect for the commission, in 1954 his daughter, Phyllis Lambert, convinced him to hire Mies. Serving as the Director of Planning for the project, Lambert was an active and influential force in the design process—a rare role for a woman in the 1950s.
Mies’s only New York City design, the Seagram Building’s spare facade, set back 100 feet to create an open plaza, embodies his aphorism “less is more.” It is also an example of his vision, first articulated in the 1920s, for a “dark building in the city.” This effect is produced by the equally spaced bronze I-beams that run uninterrupted on the facade. While they help stabilize the glass curtain wall, their primary function is to produce a consistent aesthetic image. The monochrome effect of the building is aided by tinting the glass to match the bronzed metal spandrel panels. To help ensure the consistent look of the facade, the interior blinds can only be set in three positions. These intricately planned design choices add to the monumental impact of the 38-story tower, which, as Mies described it, was the shade of an “old coin.”
In comparison with this heavy image, the use of glass and travertine for the entrance lobby level achieves a subtle and rich interplay of light reflections on the plaza, evening out the visual transition to the dark mass overhead. At night, only half the building is dark, as the interior lights create an x-ray effect. In addition to the sleek tower, the building also includes a symmetrical lower section, with two wings that extend beyond the tower and reach down to meet the slight slope of 52nd and 53rd streets. The service tower that runs up the east side of the main tower is clad in stone panels, clearly marking the rear of the building.
The Seagram Building contributed to the transformation of Park Avenue from a residential to a corporate address after World War II. Mies’s tower and plaza formed a sharp contrast to the typical response to the 1916 Zoning Law still in effect at the time of its construction, which generated the familiar “wedding cake” towers that stepped back from the property line as they grew taller. By setting the Seagram Building back from the street, Mies provided light and air, as well as a new urban space. Juxtaposed with the then ubiquitous brick walls of Park Avenue, this deep space, with its serene pools and fountains set before the dark surface of the facade, was a shock to the city’s sensibility.
The plaza played a crucial role in the building’s reception and began a trend that was codified in the 1964 New York City zoning law, which allowed for bigger buildings in exchange for open—often unusable, and ultimately unpopular—public spaces. In contrast, New Yorkers appropriated the low wall and steps that define the perimeter of the Seagram plaza almost immediately. As William H. Whyte observed in his influential study, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, the height and width of the wall and stairs, as well as the drama of the plaza were perfect for sitting, sunbathing, and socializing. The plaza also created a processional entry to the building, whose glass-encased lobby was recessed beneath the base of the tower.
Johnson was responsible for designing the building’s interiors as an elegant extension of Mies’s exterior. The Swenson pink granite of the plaza seamlessly enters the building and crosses the lobby before shifting to travertine on the walls of the elevator shafts. The effect parallels the inspiring emptiness of the plaza. Travertine and rich wood paneling, which gave off a uniform bronze glow, are also found on the upstairs elevator lobbies and in the spaces occupied by the Seagram offices, which also included furniture designed by Mies. Johnson turned to graphic designer Elaine Lustig Cohen to produce a complete graphic identity for the Seagram, including a unique typeface used on most of the building’s signage, inside and out.
The highlight of Johnson’s interiors is his designs for the Pool and Grill rooms of the Four Seasons restaurant. Housed in the lower podium and accessed either from the street or the tower’s lobby, Johnson’s design is severe without being sterile, with enough gold, marble, and wood to prevent one’s eye from straining or wandering. It is a tour de force of modernist luxury, from the anodized aluminum chains used as curtains to the ebonized oak paneling. Both rooms were fitted with iconic modern furnishings, including Eero Saarinen’s tulip tables and Mies’s Brno chairs. Industrial designer Garth Huxtable and his wife, architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, designed the table service. Originally hanging in the corridor leading to the Pool Room was a large-scale curtain purchased by Phyllis Lambert for the space: Pablo Picasso’s Le Tricorne, painted in 1919 for the Ballets Russes. Suspended above the Grill Room bar was a site-specific wire sculpture by Richard Lippold.
The building’s cache, the refined interior, and the restaurant’s unique take on contemporary American fare (with James Beard as a consultant) quickly earned the Four Seasons a powerful clientele. It became the site of countless power lunches for the city’s corporate, entertainment, and publishing elite almost from the moment it opened in 1959. Its ambience was so beloved and highly regarded that it was only the second restaurant interior granted landmark status by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. Johnson, who maintained offices in the Seagram Building until 1985, supervised necessary modifications and refurbishments of the Four Seasons’ interiors for several decades after the building’s completion. After his death in 2005, the restaurant’s owners hired Belmont Freeman to serve as the Four Seasons’ house architect, continuing Johnson’s program of understated interventions, most hardly visible to patrons.
Johnson also designed the Brasserie restaurant, located on the opposite (north) side of the building from the Four Seasons. After a fire in 1995, the space was reimagined by architectural firm Diller and Scofidio. Whereas the initial design used dark materials and space to challenges one’s visual expectations, Diller and Scofidio deployed video cameras at the entrance and monitors above the bar to alter one’s vision and sense of space in the below-grade restaurant; a deft, if somewhat invisible update of Mies’s interpretation of the individual’s place in the modern metropolis.
The Seagram Building has changed ownership twice since its completion. In 1979 the company sold it to the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Assocation (TIAA), while maintaining its offices in the tower. A decade after TIAA took possession, it sought—and received—landmark designation for the Seagram Building. In 2000 the building changed hands again when TIAA sold it to German developers Aby Rosen and Michael Fuchs, who had previously purchased the equally iconic Lever House, across Park Avenue. Despite undertaking major restorations of the building’s bronze-clad facade and the plaza’s pools, their tenure as landlord has not been without controversy. In 2014, Rosen alarmed preservationists when he announced plans to remove the fragile Picasso curtain, ostensibly for repairs to the limestone wall behind it. Eventually, Rosen agreed to pay for its removal and restoration. Le Tricorne now hangs in the New York Historical Society. In 2015, Rosen proposed what he described as minor changes to the Four Seasons interiors but the Landmarks Preservation Commission rejected them on the grounds that they would compromise the integrity of Johnson’s original scheme. By the summer of the following year, the Four Seasons had moved out of the Seagram Building (the Brasserie closed a few months earlier) and the restaurant’s contents were auctioned off in the summer. Replacement restaurants opened in the summer of 2017.
Mies’s design for the Seagram Building has often been copied but rarely equaled, not even by the architect himself.
Jordy, William. “The Laconic Splendor of the Metal Frame: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s 860-880 Lake Shore Drive and his Seagram Build.” In American Buildings and Their Architects: The Impact of European Modernism in the Mid-Twentieth Century, 221-278. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.
Lambert, Phyllis. Mies in America. New York: H.N. Abrams, 2001.
Lambert, Phyllis. Building Seagram. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013.
Pogrebin, Robin. “Landmarks Commission Rejects Plan to Change Interior of Four Seasons.” New York Times, May 20, 2015.
Stern, Robert A.M., Thomas Mellings, and David Fishman. New York 1960: Architecture and Urbanism Between the Second World War and the Bicentennial. 2nd ed. New York: Monacelli, 1997.
Tafuri, Manfredo and Francesco Dal Co. Modern Architecture. New York: Abrams, 1979.
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