“Sometimes the best way to restore a historic structure is to reuse it.”

Uttered by the NYC Landmarks Commissioner these words seem reasonable and reassuring, especially when a building is landmarked, but here is the reality...

The Manufacturers Hanover Trust glass cube on Fifth Avenue is finance made transparent. Designed in 1954 by S.O.M. it was landmarked in 1997 implying that New York would forever have this jewel box to admire. And when a building is a glass box, achieving an unimaginable degree of transparency, the inside is as important to protect as the exterior. Much has been written about the loss of the Bertoia bronze screen, destruction of the black granite wall behind the safe displayed in the Fifth Avenue windows, the reorganization of the interior, moving of the escalators and the like. [AN, Design Observer, NYTimes]

But this miraculous vision of modern banking is gone; maybe not 'Lehman Brothers' gone, but certainly 'Bear Stearns' gone. Whatever low tier clothing manufacturer occupies the space will enjoy only a portion of the building's real glory. Couture has just become knockoff.

Banking halls have a proud history of reuse in New York, and many (maybe even most) manage the fit without annihilation. Trader Joe's lives comfortably in the South Brooklyn Savings Bank at Court and Atlantic; Cipriani uses the 42 Street Bowery Savings Bank as an event space; Williamsburg Savings Bank has a flea market on weekends; the twin banks at 14th and Eighth are a men's spa and (formerly) food shop Balducci's; the East River Savings Bank on Lafayette Street features clothing outlets; even Pentagram occupies a former Lincoln Trust building at Madison Square Park (full disclosure; I designed this one).

The difference, of course, is opacity. These traditional banks are vault-like treasuries, fortified palazzos where exteriors can maintain a facade of respectability even while the interiors hawk discounted produce. While some are intact, others (like Pentagram) were long ago disassembled. The public realm barely notices the private realm's transformation.

MHT doesn't have the luxury of discrete interiors and exteriors; it's all one diffracting gem. So the ludicrous and cynical notion that 'the best way to restore a historic structure is to reuse it' is a platitude that ignores the reality of context. And landmarks are all about context.

Goodbye MHT.

Thanks to ESTO for permission to use these images.
They are all that remain of the original building.