How a whisky magnate’s daughter fought to build a skyscraper that still takes the breath away
I must confess that I am not a huge fan of skyscrapers – or ‘cloud busters’ as they were first described in Chicago in the 1920s. However, on my first visit to the Seagram Building in New York, I was completely won over.
Samuel Bronfman, founder and president of the Canadian firm Distillers Corporation (which acquired Seagram and took on its name in 1928), understood the effect a company’s buildings could have on its brand. In 1934 he moved the drinks firm’s head office to the recently completed Art Deco Chrysler Building in New York. Then, in 1950, having occupied the Chrysler Building for many years, he decided it was time to build a headquarters owned by the company itself.
The real estate firm Anton Trunk recommended the purchase of the site of the Montana on Park Avenue, knowing Bronfman favoured the locale. In 1951, 375 Park Avenue, the Montana and its site as well as neighbouring buildings were acquired from the 373 Park Avenue Corporation for US$4 million.
Three and a half years would pass between the acquisition of the site and the signing of the contract with the firm of architects that would design the new building.
Samuel Bronfman commenced the process by commissioning Lou R. Crandall of George A. Fuller, a major construction company, to come up with a blueprint for a prospective design in collaboration with architects, Kahn & Jacobs, and the real estate firm, Cushman & Wakefield. On 28March 1952, Crandall signed an agreement with Joseph E. Seagram & Sons Inc for the demolition of the Montana at 375 Park Avenue and presented a study entitled ‘Project Skytop’. This involved various options – from a multi-tenanted building of around 1 million sq ft to a building of 331,000 sq ft exclusively occupied by the owner.
A realtor’s study found that rents for prospective tenants could reach as much as $5.50 per sq ft, while the owner’s obligations could be leveraged at an average of only $2.30 – providing a strong argument that Seagram should opt for a larger building, despite the increased construction costs.
Now the search for a major firm of architects to head the scheme intensified. Many of the largest firms fought to be appointed, including Frank Lloyd Wright, who apparently wrote to Samuel Bronfman’s brother, Alan, suggesting he was the obvious choice.
After a protracted period of time, Pereira and Luckman emerged as Bronfman’s choice. Bonfman was drawn towards the charismatic Charles Luckman, who had acquired the site opposite Seagram’s for Lever House when he was president of the Lever Company, and had daringly commissioned architects, Skidmore Owings & Merrill. On 13 July 1954 the New York Timesannounced ‘Park Avenue to Get New Skyscraper’.
Bronfman’s daughter, Phylis Lambert, had been working primarily as an artist in Paris. On receiving an image of the proposed new building from her father, she wrote him an eight-page letter dated 28June 1954, strongly urging the abandonment of the Luckman proposal. The letter stated: “No No No! I find nothing whatsoever commendable in this preliminary plan”. Phylis made a plea instead for a building of “lightness and eloquence”. Her overwhelming concern was for the spirit of the future building: it should be a “building that expresses the best of the society in which you live”. Phylis concluded by telling her father that he had a great responsibility, not only for his company and its employees, but for all people in New York and the rest of the world. She was 27-years-old at the time.
Impressed by Phylis’s knowledge and passion, Samuel Bronfman’s response was to ask his daughter to return home, where she was given the mandate to find a suitable firm of architects.
In her search, names like Marcel Breuer, Naum Gabo and Louis Kahn appeared – but it was when she was introduced to Philip Johnson that a flicker of light first appeared. The list of architects who she thought could and should design the building was short. Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe became her main contenders. Wright was there initially – but belonged to another world.
In a letter written on 30 October 1954, Phylis made the final choice: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was to collaborate with Philip Johnson. “You might think his austere strength is terribly severe,” she wrote; “it is and yet all the more beauty in it”. The decision had finally been made. From 1954 to 1958, Phylis Lambert was immersed in the process of helping design the Seagram Building.