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Building Seagram, and the Art of Patronage

Building Seagram, and the Art of Patronage

  • Philip Johnson, Ludwig Mies van Der Rohe, and Phyllis Lambert discuss the Seagram in front of an image of the building model soon after she helped the architects win the commission in 1955.

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    Philip Johnson, Ludwig Mies van Der Rohe, and Phyllis Lambert discuss the Seagram in front of an image of the building model soon after she helped the architects win the commission in 1955.

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    Building Seagram

    Philip Johnson, Ludwig Mies van Der Rohe, and Phyllis Lambert discuss the Seagram in front of an image of the building model soon after she helped the architects win the commission in 1955.

  • The Seagram shortly after its completion in 1958, as photographed by Ezra Stoller.

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    The Seagram shortly after its completion in 1958, as photographed by Ezra Stoller.

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    Ezra Stoller, in Building Seagram

    The Seagram shortly after its completion in 1958, as photographed by Ezra Stoller.

  • In December 1956, construction on the Seagram was about halfway done, with 38 floors framed out, glass inserted on the seventh floor, and bronze mullions attached up to the 14th floor

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    In December 1956, construction on the Seagram was about halfway done, with 38 floors framed out, glass inserted on the seventh floor, and bronze mullions attached up to the 14th floor

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    Building Seagram

    In December 1956, construction on the Seagram was about halfway done, with 38 floors framed out, glass inserted on the seventh floor, and bronze mullions attached up to the 14th floor.

  • A spread from "Building Seagram." In the photo on the right page, Mies and other building committee members visit the site in July 1956 as it was under construction.

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    A spread from "Building Seagram." In the photo on the right page, Mies and other building committee members visit the site in July 1956 as it was under construction.

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    Noah Kalina

    A spread from Building Seagram. In the photo on the right page, Mies and other building committee members visit the site in July 1956 as it was under construction.

In the summer of 1954, a 27-year-old aspiring artist from Montreal sat down in her Paris apartment to type out a letter to her father. Her name was Phyllis Lambert. Her father was Samuel Bronfman, founder of the giant liquor company Joseph E. Seagram & Sons.

Filling eight single-spaced pages, the letter was annotated in the margins with handwritten corrections, additions, and architectural sketches. It is reproduced in full as an appendix to a new book by Lambert, Hon. FAIA, which is called, simply, Building Seagram, published by Yale University Press in April.

In the letter, she tries to convince her father that he is about to make a monumental mistake—that his plan to build a corporate headquarters for his company at Park Avenue between 52nd and 53rd streets in Manhattan is insufficiently ambitious, and that he ought to abandon it immediately. The proposed scheme, a copy of which Bronfman had mailed to his daughter a few weeks earlier, called for a 34-story tower in a style that he referred to proudly as “Renaissance Modernized.” It was to be designed by the Los Angeles–based firm Pereira and Luckman.

“This letter starts with one word repeated very emphatically NO NO NO NO NO,” Lambert wrote. “I am very disturbed and find nothing whatsoever commendable in this preliminary-as-it-may-be plan for a Seagram’s building.”

After criticizing the historical references in the proposed building as trite and saccharine (“you can’t modernize the Renaissance—you can only learn from it”), Lambert, the second-oldest of Bronfman’s four children, appealed to her father’s vanity and sense of his own legacy.

“You must put up a building which expresses the best of the society in which you live, and at the same time your hopes for the betterment of this society,” she wrote. “You have a great responsibility and your building is not only for the people of your companies, it is much more for all people, in New York and the rest of the world.”

Lambert, who would go on to help found the Canadian Centre for Architecture in 1979, donating 750,000 shares of Seagram stock to finance it, was not close to Bronfman. In the book she refers to him as “SB” to suggest some of that distance.

“My contact with my father up to 1954 had been minimal,” she writes. “He considered only his sons to be in the line of business succession, and as a child with a strong aversion to all talk about business and money, I was a self-imposed outsider, immersed in art, committed to sculpture by the age of nine, constantly daydreaming about becoming an independent artist.”

About her childhood, she adds, “My father was for all intents and purposes physically absent; his strong personality and fierce temper terrified his children.”

Their relationship had begun to thaw, however, by the time Lambert sat down to write to him about the Park Avenue tower. Earlier in 1954 she had taken her father to Rome to see some of the city’s great landmarks, a trip that was also part of her own effort to study architectural history first-hand. And something in the letter struck a chord—or a nerve—with her father. After receiving it he immediately summoned her back to New York.