Since opening in 1976, 1 United Nations Plaza has been an experience like tumbling into a kaleidoscope. Designed inside and out by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Kevin Roche with partner John Dinkeloo of Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo & Associates, the building boasts the glittering interior spaces of the Ambassador Grill & Lounge and the UN Plaza Hotel lobby, which combine 1970s New York City opulence and the geometric lines of late modernism. Current owners Millennium Hotels and Resorts are now undertaking renovations on the hotel, and that glitzy interior is under threat of demolition.
In response, architecture preservation group Docomomo US announced Monday that it has filed a Request for Evaluation (RFE) with the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). The RFE is for the spaces to be designated as a New York City Interior Landmark, thus averting their imminent destruction. That the restaurant and lobby were in danger of losing their prismatic character has been public knowledge for years; Robbie Whelan reported in 2012 for the Wall Street Journal that Millennium Hotels had “decided to strip the lobby of hundreds of square feet of mirrored wall surfaces and replace most of the restaurant’s fixtures.”
Liz Waytkus explained at Docomomo US why immediate action is now essential, and why the group is asking the public to contact LPC to express support for the design’s preservation:
Late last week, Docomomo US learned Millennium Hotels and Resorts who currently manage the spaces have begun exploratory work inside the Ambassador Grill and haphazardly removed sections of the metal paneled drop ceiling revealing sprinkler heads. This alarming work is being performed without the necessary New York City Department of Buildings permits and in a poorly executed manner that threatens irreplaceable historic fabric.
At first glance, the interior by Roche is gaudy and overwhelming, a blitz on the eyes, lacking the finesse of his glassy Ford Foundation nearby. Spend some time with the rooms, however, and you realize that the huge feeling of height is an illusion, the expansion of the space a clever play with shape, amplified by features including an atrium of concentric octagons. It’s more conservatory than mirrorball, bringing in the light, and making it dance across the crystalline angles.
In 1976, Ada Louise Huxtable wrote for the New York Times that the ceiling “which appears complex, is simple design ingenuity,” noting how a “kind of greenhouse roof is set into it, and above the glass are pentagonal mirrors and myriad small lights that make a fantasy of reflection and illumination.”
This week, Alexandra Lange at Curbed argued that the LPC “has historically been loath to landmark interiors, but here is one that is (as required) a public space, over the 30-year age limit for consideration, largely intact, by a still-living and Pritzker Prize-winning architect responsible for numerous New York City monuments, that is still wanted for its original purpose.” (The building was owned by the city until the mid-1990s, so this is the first major renovation.)
Back in 2012 in the Docomomo US/New York-TriState Newsletter, Kyle Johnson, one of the RFE authors, compared the precarious future of the UN Plaza Hotel interior, whose fate “appears to be sealed,” with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hoffman Auto Showroom, which at the time had “hope” for preservation. It was in fact the Wright showroom that went first, being demolished in 2013. There’s still time for the other interior to have a different destiny, and for the UN Plaza Hotel to be protected in a way that the Hoffman Showroom was not.
A documentary on Roche’s work called The Quiet Architect is slated for release next winter, and there’s definitely an opportunity for the architect — who is now in his 90s — to receive more attention for his lifetime of work, from the 2012 New American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to his vital contributions in completing Eero Saarinen’s final work after his death in 1961. The LPC now has a chance to secure this intact, significant, modernist space in the city’s architectural history.
Read more about the Request for Evaluation for the UN Plaza Ambassador Grill and Lounge and Hotel lobby filed with the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission at Docomomo US.