The Four Seasons Restaurant sports two of the most beautiful rooms in New York. It also serves some of the most consistently delicious food in that city. Given what it takes to have such grand and well-appointed spaces in the middle of Manhattan, and what cooking truly refined cuisine costs, it is not surprising that it is also a refuge of the elite, the super-rich who are taking over more and more of Manhattan. Now its owner, Aby Rosen (whose company, RFR Holding, owns the Seagram Building, which is home to the Four Seasons restaurant), is threatening to make a few changes to the place, and there are some people who want to keep it exactly the way it is. These voices include that of the daughter of the man who commissioned the place, the architect—and architecture Maecenas—Phyllis Lambert, Hon. FAIA, and of Yale dean Robert A.M. Stern, FAIA, who have commanded the Op Ed pages of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, respectively, to sound the alarm. Both are highly knowledgeable figures both in modern architecture and preservation, and we should take note of their concerns.
My first reaction is that the changes Rosen has proposed to the now 57-year old space seem so minor that I do not quite understand the depth of their concern. Does it really matter if planters might replace a glass divider the original architect, Philip Johnson, added to screen the noisy bar off from the Grill Room in 1983? And that wood panels in the Pool Room might become moveable, opening the space up? Yes, it is true, as Lambert points out, that the glass divider works, and that the rooms are so successful because of the precise manner in which Johnson and his team defined not just the space, but also the materials and light with which they composed the rooms. Any change will jeopardize an intricate and yet grand harmony. The rooms are so tall and so complex, however, that I doubt that these changes would make that much of a difference. I think the architecture could handle it. I might be more concerned about Rosen’s plans to replace the wine cellar with bathrooms, even though that change would not be immediately sensible. And the damage of removing a Picasso tapestry from the building’s lobby has already been done.
Stern’s point that we must remain “vigilant” that Richard Kelly’s lighting design does not suffer as the restaurant tries to update fixtures to more current and energy efficient models is well-taken. In general, the whole palette of the Four Seasons is what makes for the grandeur of this exultation of modern minimalism—which was carried out with the maximum of good taste in materials and implements proper to dining—but I would argue that any restaurant will have to change over time, and that it might be more important how the silverware or the menu evolve than whether a screen comes or goes. It is the whole ambiance that we need to figure out how to preserve. Space is something invisible. It is a quality we sense not through geometric boundaries, but also through atmosphere and character, which come from lighting, material, sound, and a host of other elements.
This brings up the larger question: the Four Seasons is one of the few interiors (a little over a hundred), as opposed to exteriors, that have landmark status. That is a hard-won status, and one that is a testimony to how good the spaces are. On the one hand, it would lead us to want to preserve every bit of the design in perpetuity. Yet this is also a working restaurant: If we did just stop the clock and make it into an interior monument, selling tours to people wearing white booties so they can imagine what the space was like in its heyday, we would effectively destroy it.
Lambert points out that we should defend the integrity of both the law and the space, and she has a good point. I would only answer that we must be pragmatic, and let building interiors live. Lambert herself was instrumental in ensuring that the downstairs Grill Room, of which many New Yorkers also had fond memories, was transformed more than a decade ago into a glorious new version of itself to a design by Diller Scofidio + Renfro. We should by no means wish such a radical change on the main Four Seasons, but I would love to imagine what such a restaurant could become in the next half-century. It should evolve with the grace, elegance, and seeming ease that it already exudes. This is a rarefied situation, but it makes a larger point: We need to figure out how to protect our best buildings without pickling, and preserve based on the full range of elements that make up architecture in a manner that focuses on architecture’s essence.
Ed. note: New York's Landmarks Preservation Committee overruled several of the proposed design changes in a decision reached late yesterday.