Landmark Seagram Building Celebrates 50 Years

August 19, 2008


NEW YORK, NY— One of New York City's biggest celebrities-38 stories tall and a city block wide-is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

The Seagram Building, looking every bit as elegant and refined as the day it opened in 1958, remains the embodiment of its architect's famous observation that "less is more." Also known for its supporting roles in major movies and television shows over the last half-century, this svelte, bronze beauty ranks at the top of Manhattan's architectural Pantheon along with other monumental icons like the Empire State Building, Flatiron Building and Chrysler Building.

Seagram Building Seagram Building, NYC

Photo courtesy of Maki Isayama

Every day, camera-toting "archi-tourists" mingle with crowds of sun worshippers on the plaza outside the building, fashionably located on Park Avenue at 52nd Street. Designed by renowned German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in collaboration with Pritzker Architecture Prize Laureate Philip Johnson, its construction took nearly 4 years. The structure's sleek design and classic, understated elegance brought a European influence to the United States and forever changed the landscape of architecture.

At the time it was built, the Seagram Building was the world's most costly skyscraper because of its use of expensive materials and lavish interior decorations, which included bronze, travertine, and marble throughout. The monolith cost $36 million to build and used 3.2 million pounds of bronze in its construction.

"The Seagram Building was the first modern building in a major metropolitan city to have a bronze curtain-wall," Frank Farella, the building's property manager, said during an interview recently. "Many architects have tried to duplicate it, but no building can compare to it."

For more information about the Seagram curtain wall, please visit the Architectural Design Handbook on the Copper Development Association's Web site.

Recognized as one of the purest manifestations of the International Style of architecture, the office tower's façade consists of alternating bands of bronze plating and amber-tinted glass windows, which are separated by bronze-toned I-beams running vertically like mullions to the building's apex. The Seagram Building, labeled the "Building of the Millennium" by The New York Times, was the first bronze-clad skyscraper and perhaps will be the last of its kind.

"You look at any modern skyscraper today and you won't find bronze extruding from the façade," Farella says. "There isn't a copper manufacturing plant big enough that could produce all that copper, and it would cost billions of dollars to build."

The building was originally designed to serve as the headquarters for the Canadian distillers Joseph E. Seagram & Sons - at one time, the world's largest producer of distilled beverages. Phyllis Lambert, the daughter of Samuel Bronfman, Seagram's CEO, is credited for having Mies van der Rohe commissioned for the project.

Today, the 700,000-square-foot building leases space to many international commercial entities, including serving as the headquarters for several major banking corporations - Wachovia Bank occupies nine floors - and financial institutions from around the world. Seagram was acquired by RFR Realty in 2000, and close to 3,000 people work in the building during the business day.

Even the views of the building's plaza from street level are impressive. The open plaza, which provides a broad setback from the busy street and features twin 70-foot long reflecting pools, inspired New York City to rewrite much of its office-district zoning in 1961 to encourage similar open public spaces in new projects.

The public area has become a social gathering hub for businessmen and women meeting for lunchtime trysts, taking in mini concerts in the summer or celebrating the annual holiday tree-lighting festivities in the winter. Artists and sculptors have also exhibited their work here.

The Four Seasons Restaurant, which Philip Johnson also designed, and the recently renovated Brasserie Restaurant are located on the building's ground floor. Four Seasons is famous in its own right, having hosted countless celebrity A-listers over the years including Presidents going back to John F. Kennedy, philanthropists such as Brooke Astor, and actors like Spike Lee and Denzel Washington. Pablo Picasso's original backdrop for the "Le Tricorne" ballet hangs in the corridor that separates the Four Seasons' two dining halls.

Formal landmark status was bestowed on the Seagram Building in 2006 when it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. With this designation, all of the building's ornaments and embellishments, down to the most minute objects including the type of light fixtures, hardware and bathroom fittings used, are required to be replaced as originally specified.

"You can't touch any of the finishes in the lobby," Farella says. "The venetian blinds covering the windows are also uniform in their settings. They're either fully up, half closed or fully closed. Even the gingko trees in the plaza are landmarked."

The Seagram Building has won multiple awards from the American Institute of Architects, the New York State Association of Architects and the Municipal Art Society. Earlier this year, the 50-year-old structure earned the coveted BOMA/NY Pinnacle Award, the real estate industry's highest honor. Farella adds that the building is in contention for awards in the Regional and International categories as well.

"It may be one of the most photographed buildings in the world," Farella says.

Today, the building serves as an example of modern architectural style for pre- and post-graduate architect students. The NYC & Company, New York State and American Institutes of Architects, the Landmark Commission and international design groups sponsor walking tours of the historic site to architect enthusiasts from all over the world.

"After all these years, the Seagram Building remains one of the classic architectural icons of our time," says architect Wayne Seale, western regional manager for the Copper Development Association. "The bronze exterior has aged beautifully - you wouldn't know it was built a half-century ago. We should all look so good when we're 50."

Besides its architectural contributions to history, the Seagram Building has been featured on the big screen, making cameos in movies like Breakfast at Tiffany's, The Best of Everything and Birth.

This spring, scenes for the movie Duplicity, a drama featuring Julia Roberts and Clive Owens, were filmed inside the Seagram Building. The entire 20th floor office space was transformed into a set for a few days.

"I get at least two or three phone calls a week from location scouts," Farella says. "This building is constantly being earmarked for movies. I'm not just the building manager - I'm also the location scout coordinator!"

References to the Seagram Building in popular culture

Source: Wikipedia

In the first episode of 1960s television series That Girl, Ann Marie works at the magazine stand in the lobby, which is also the location of the offices of Newsview Magazine, where her boyfriend Don Hollinger works. The opening credits of the first season show Ann walking north on Park Avenue and walking into the building.

The building and fountain form a backdrop to a scene in the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany's.

In Company, a Stephen Sondheim musical, the protagonist, Bobby, is compared to the building.

Novelist James Phelan places his fictional Global Syndicate of Reporters (GSR) headquarters in the building. Phelan, once an architecture student at RMIT, cites Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson as two of his favorite designers. Several scenes of the second Lachlan Fox thriller, PATRIOT ACT, are set in The Four Seasons Restaurant.