Blame It on Rothko


By Susan Kathryn Hefti
Special to The Clyde Fitch Report

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In his Oct. 2, 1959 review of what would become one of New York City’s most radiant, enduring symbols of the power luncheon, venerable New York Times restaurant critic Craig Claiborne exalted the sublime delights of the Four Seasons’ herbed lobster parfait. He rhapsodized poetically over the succulent morsels of crustacea “enrobed in a devastatingly rich blend of whipped cream and hollandaise sauce.”

Claiborne’s frothy testimony no doubt helped light up the reservation lines at the nascent Midtown dining room. Adding to the buzz were the Four Seasons’ four-star architects: Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building, in which the restaurant is located, one of the most celebrated archetypes of modernism, and the restaurant’s classic Philip Johnson interior, which today boasts an official designation as a New York City landmark. A pretty heady recipe for the global mythology that has long swirled about the Four Seasons.

Yet as potent as these individual ingredients were, none ever packed as powerful a punch as thrown by artist and cultural rebel Mark Rothko, who, as the current Broadway play Red explores, famously returned a $35,000 commission for what subsequently became known as the Seagram murals, paintings that were to hang on the Four Seasons’ walls but never did. Legend has it that after visiting the Four Seasons with his wife, Rothko was so put off by the restaurant’s gastronomic decadence and too-dear-by-half prices that he refused to deliver the commissioned paintings, donating eight of the 30 murals to the Tate Gallery in London. Later, the rest of the murals would be divvied up between Japan’s Kawamura Memorial Museum and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

With such a high-profile breach branding its debut, perhaps it’s fitting that the Four Seasons should again be in the limelight — not for its petit fours or for the politically incorrect sin of serving seared foie gras (one of my favorite indulgences!), but for yet another cultural contretemps.

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The new row began over appetizers at an Apr. 19 luncheon marking the 45th anniversary of the signing of New York City’s landmarks law. By the pen of Mayor Robert Wagner, it codified a public policy of preserving structures of architectural, historic and cultural significance.

There, at this recent gathering of preservationist luminaries, what started as a sotto voce spat has escalated in both breadth and tone, spilling onto the pages of various newspapers and blogs.

It began with three wise men selected to dazzle the luncheon crowd with their thoughtful remarks on historic preservation: Paul Goldberger, architecture critic for The New Yorker; Anthony C. Wood, author of Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect New York City’s Landmarks; and Steven Berlin Johnson, an exciting, prolific writer who explores the intersection between communities, science and technology. A marquee roster, indeed!

Mouthwatering delectables were scheduled to arrive like clockwork. And the seating chart promised to inspire engaging, if not sparkling, repartee. But like many an affair in a city whose DNA is so deeply embedded with a gene compelled to wage battle, incendiary words had already been tossed off like a Molotov cocktail in the middle of a garden party before the amuse bouche arrived.

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In the first speech, Goldberger warned this room full of preservationists that New York City should never become “some grotesque version of Williamsburg on the Hudson.” Of course, he was referring to the popular tourist destination — Colonial Williamsburg, in Virginia — not to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which has become far too hip a place to ever be used as a pejorative. Needless to say, some of the guests were rather nonplussed by Goldberger’s remarks. Wood’s speech, for example, reads like a passionate and spontaneous rejoinder. In fact, thanks to technology and Duke University’s library archives, we can all watch the luncheon festivities on YouTube:

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I must warn you: the first 20 minutes play like a badly paced homage to a Marx Brothers movie on Quaaludes, with a steady stream of waiters and busboys awkwardly bobbing and weaving in and out of the frame while trying to keep the teetering towers of shiny ceramic soup bowls from crashing and burning over the shoulders of the unsuspecting luncheon guests below. Completely oblivious to the Buster Keaton-like comedy unfolding behind him, Goldberger soldiered on, delivering his somber warning in a deadpan as serious as the H1N1 virus.

Nor was this the first time Goldberger compared Gotham to the pristine colonial village to our south. In remarks delivered at the same restaurant on Sept. 24, 1997, Goldberger declared, “No one wants a city frozen in time, a Williamsburg on the Hudson.”

While it may be difficult to discern how a city that has already demolished countless historic structures, colonial or otherwise, including President George Washington’s home on Franklin Square, could even fantasize about the prospect of resembling Colonial Williamsburg, clearly this is a danger that troubles Goldberger or he wouldn’t repeat the warning. The problem that some preservationists have with his refrain — aside from the fact that New York City’s slender list of landmarks hovers around three percent of its total structures — is that Goldberger is no Cassandra: People actually do listen to him.

Initially, Goldberger’s remarks at the luncheon, along with any feathers they may have ruffled, were graciously smoothed over in the New York Times. Then, little by little, what began as a low-key riff metastasized into a full-fledged rumble, complete with verbal punches and counter-punches.

The first jab was thrust by Julia Vitullo-Martin in her New York Post column, given the headline “Has Landmarking in New York Gone Too Far?” Taking up where Goldberger left off, she raised the question of whether the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s standards for designation have become too loose, too indiscriminate through the years.

His own feathers indelibly singed in many a worthy preservation battle, Wood wasted no time posting a rather unvarnished counter-punch to Vitullo-Martin on the website of the New York Preservation Archives. Admonishing Vitullo-Martin’s message as well as Goldberger’s remarks, Wood parried with this:

In a city where real estate still reigns supreme and where we still routinely lose buildings that many New Yorkers fervently believe we should be saving, trying to dampen the designation ardor of the Landmarks Preservation Commission seems a strange way to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the Landmarks Law. Urging the agency to have more courage seems more appropriate.

The website where Wood posted, by the way, is a new venture from the aforementioned New York Preservation Archives in collaboration with the Historic Districts Council, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and the Neighborhood Preservation Center. The goal of this online forum is to take stock of where we are as a city after 45 years of landmarking. And it includes a yearlong list of events celebrating this significant anniversary.

When I spoke with Wood by phone, he went quite a bit further than he even had on line. Dismissing Goldberger’s warning as “ludicrous,” Wood said Goldberger’s thinking is “much more academic than based in reality.” As a preservation activist on the front lines, Wood also said, “We are nowhere near a tipping point of preservation,” despite Goldberger’s implications to the contrary.

He added that Colonial Williamsburg has become “shorthand code” for the canard that “preservation freezes life.” Change, he stressed, “is happening all the time in historic districts.” Responsible historic preservation manages that change.

Will the divide continue to grow between those who believe Gotham has finished the job of preserving its history and those who think preservation is a vital economic and cultural tool yet to see its heyday? Perhaps. I know this latest brawl got me thinking about lobster again – and I don’t mean the meat drowned in that creamy parfait in 1959 but real live lobsters, for as New York City’s preservation community continues to square off, I am reminded, too, of Japan’s celebrity lobsters duking it out to the bitter end on YouTube.

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My guess is that Gotham’s preservationist pugilists will avoid going down the same path as those spirited Asian crustaceans. But I’m not expecting any sort of consensus. The fact is, from the very beginning, New Yorkers have always disagreed about the level, need and status of landmarks in Gotham. It’s really up to you to decide. Mayor Wagner, after all, gave the power to the people.

So the next time you’re walking through the West Village or taking a stroll down historic Marx Brothers Place in Carnegie Hill, take a moment to ask yourself a simple question: Have we truly completed the mission set out by Mayor Wagner 45 years ago when he gave New Yorkers the power to permanently protect our city’s architectural treasures? I suppose the preservation riff may have been brewing along, but since it finally took shape at the Four Seasons, we can just blame it all on Rothko.

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Susan Kathryn Hefti is a playwright and active member of the Dramatists Guild of America. Her history play, A Defiant Soul, has been performed throughout the New York City school system as a teaching workshop in early American history. Hefti is also the author and curator of the New York City history exhibit “The Flushing Remonstrance: Who Shall Plead For Us?” Shortly after its 2009 opening, this celebrated exhibit was quickly booked at venues nationwide through the summer of 2010. Her new play, American Dames (or…Waiting for Dolley), introduces us to a group of Upper East Side women confronting their relevance in the ever-changing cultural landscape known as 21st century America. Hefti has been active in historic preservation pretty much her whole life.

The Preservation Diaries does not necessarily represent the views of The Clyde Fitch Report.