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Monday, January 07, 2008

Travesty in Travertine

No Fall from Grace, Thickens and Sickens and Travesty in Travertine were all competing titles for this story. The W.R. Grace Building at w 42nd street, was commissioned by the W.R. Grace Corporation, designed by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and completed in 1971 (the resemblance to the Solow Building at 9 West 57th St. is no coincidence - the initial, rejected design for the facade of that building was used by Bunshaft for the Grace Building). A casual perusal of Internet sources will give relatively neutral to positive reviews of this building. Wikipedia's entry is perfunctory. 50 stories with signature curved sloping bases (the same on 43rd Street) - click here for photo. Exterior in white travertine.
But if you dig further, you will find many architects HATE this building. Architecture critic Paul Goldberger said: "The Grace Building's front - I call it swooping, others call it a ski-jump - is an arrogant, exhibitionistic form that breaks the line of building-fronts that is important to any New York City Street ... Mr. Bunshaft, it would seem, cares nothing about Bryant Park or about anything except the shape of his own building, which from the northwest, at the corner of 43rd Street and Sixth Avenue, looks like nothing so much as an immense piece of furniture squeezed awkwardly into the wrong place. At that corner, as a zoning bonus permitting extra height, is one of the coldest and most unwelcoming plazas any architect has created anywhere." The AIA Guide to NYC calls it "a disgrace to the street."
But the plot thickens and sickens. W.R. Grace and Company was founded by William Russell Grace (1832-1904) in 1854 in Peru - he had left Ireland due to the Potato Famine. He moved to NYC in 1865. He was also the city's first Roman Catholic Mayor, serving two terms - 1880-1888. Initially the company was in fertilizer and machinery. Later there were acquisitions of chemical companies and here the problems started.
It was found that in the 1970s the W. R. Grace Company had improperly disposed of trichloroethylene, an industrial solvent, which entered the groundwater of Woburn, Mass, causing six deaths from leukemia and numerous illnesses in the town's families. They were indicted in 1987. However, this is only the start - Grace was also plagued with asbestos injury claims and lawsuits as a result of vermiculite mining in Libby, Montana (the vermiculite was found to contain asbestos). In 2001, they filed for bankruptcy protection. The U.S. Department of Justice determined that Grace had transferred 4-5 billion dollars to spin-off companies it had purchased just before declaring bankruptcy (the bankruptcy court ordered the various companies to return nearly $1 billion to Grace). This story has been the subject of TV, PBS and NPR specials and even a film (A Civil Action, starring John Travolta).
The company, now located in Maryland, no longer has offices in the Grace Building. W.R. Grace is still in business, is traded on the NY Stock Exchange and has a valuation of $1.5 billion. So far, there's been grace for Grace ...

8 comments:

Lucy said...

One of those stories that make you really doubt that there is anybody really responsible driving the car, so to speak.
I knew someone who worked in that building, and obviously many people do work there. They make the best of it but it really is a fancy bunker...
unfortunately there are many buildings like this on 6th avenue in midtown, even less thought out.

Lorelai said...

So who uses the building now? I was just recently wondering about this building as well- it's a name that makes you curious!

Brian said...

lorelai;
There are a number of office tenants including, I believe, Time Warner.

beth said...

My dad used to work in this building until he retired in the early '90s (he worked for a company that owned textile mills). It was the first office building I'd been in that creaked in a high wind. I know HBO used to have offices in the building but I haven't been there in a while now so I'm not sure if that's still the case.

Brian, do you know anything about 9 West 57th St. (the one with the big number 9 in front)? It's almost a duplicate of this one - amazing that a building so reviled would have a twin in the same city!

Rambling Round said...

I think the sloping exterior looks rather graceful.

Brian said...

Beth - the resemblance to the Solow Building at 9 West 57th St. is no coincidence - the initial, rejected design for the facade of that building was used by Bunshaft for the Grace Building. I add this to the posting - I forgot to include this when writing the story. There's a slot of story in this place.

Rambling - The building is better like by the populace at large than by the critics. It one of the first buildings I was acutely aware of. It's unique profile and the stark contrast with buildings around it makes an impression on those who are not particularly interested in architecture.

Steve said...

The sloped facade has a nice, almost subversive elegance about it. :-)

Anonymous said...

I wokred in this building from about 1966 to 1978 when I got married. I worked for a company called Grantieville which was the New York sales office for a South Carolina textile mill. I have great memories of the job and the area.