A Win for Activists Fighting to Save 'Wonderful and Weird' Wall St. Atrium

The atrium of 60 Wall Street, along with the office tower above it, opened in 1989. Kevin Roche, the building's architect, was quoted as saying that he hoped to "find an aesthetic which is more understandable on a more common level, more normal level, something that people will understand." Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Sep. 27, 2022

Preservation activists celebrated a win last Friday by throwing an “ice cream social” in the 60 Wall Street atrium, the funky, three-story-high postmodern space they are fighting to save. The afternoon festivity was sparked by a Landmarks Preservation Commission’s decision on Sept. 20 to take no action, for now at least, on proposed redesigns to the building by its owners that include a slick, contemporary transformation of the 1980s lobby into what critics call “another bland and generic space. 

Liz Waytkus, a leader of the effort, paused from her ice cream scooping duties to extol the atrium’s charms. “You don’t need to tell someone why this space is cool because, when you walk in, you can see that it’s over the top,” said Waytkus, executive director of the modernist preservation organization Docomomo US. “It’s just wonderful. It’s exuberant. It’s weird. It’s ridiculous.”

The privately owned public space (or POPS) is also worth fighting to preserve, its defenders say, because it is a significant example of a postmodern interior. Ten white-marble columns rise to a latticed and mirrored ceiling, their flared capitals said to evoke a kind of “Egyptian revival aesthetic.” The decorative granite floor is colorfully patterned in pink, green and white. In 1990, soon after the completion of the 55-story 60 Wall Street office tower, Paul Goldberger, then the New York Times architecture critic, likened the atrium to “an ice cream parlor blown up to monumental scale.” (Thus, the ice cream-themed celebration.)

“Those of us in the world of architecture think it is an unbelievable worthwhile icon of a period of architecture,” said Alice Blank, an architect who also serves as vice chair of Community Board 1. Blank said once she learned of the threat to the space, she went to work recruiting preservation groups and others, including City Councilman Christopher Marte, to the cause of saving it. “I saw this coming and I said, ‘Are you kidding?’” 

The nearly 16,000-square-foot atrium, furnished with plenty of public seating, extends between Wall and Pine Streets, beneath what has been a mostly vacant tower since Deutsche Bank moved out last September. Changes to the atrium are part of a larger proposal by the owners, the Paramount Group, to modify the exterior base of the building, which has included redesigned columns and a glassier, more transparent facade that would make the ground floor and public spaces “as open and inviting as possible,” Andrew Sgro of the Paramount Group, told CB1’s Landmarks and Preservation Committee during a presentation on the design.

Those changes “affords us the opportunity to make significant upgrades to both the exterior and interior of the building to best position the building for new tenants,” Sgro said.

Scaffolding is already erected in front of the building in anticipation of work to begin.

Although the office tower, completed in 1989 as the former JP Morgan & Company building, is not a landmark, changes to the exterior must be approved by the Landmarks Commission. That’s because the developers of 60 Wall Street bought the air rights from 55 Wall Street, a National Historic Landmark directly across the street, in order to build a taller tower. As part of the deal, the city required the design to be “harmonious” with its classic neighbor. The commission back then approved that postmodern design, by the noted architect Kevin Roche, and now must judge any changes to it as harmonious as well. 

The LPC declined to do so in June, when architect Hugh Trumbull of the firm KPF presented his proposed redesign. He returned this month with a revision and again was rebuffed. Five of the seven commissioners who opined on the project said it failed to meet the test. 

LPC Vice Chair Frederick Bland said he doesn’t like the idea of  “creating a whole new base by a very important architect,” and likened the redesign to a “disembowelment.” He further defended the atrium, though calling its current condition “gloomy,” with the stores closed and fountain no longer flowing. “If you look at the pictures and transport yourself back in time in the 80s when this kind of architecture was in vogue,” he said, “I think that also can be made a beautiful and appropriate way to remarket this building.”

“We will take no action today and the applicants can consider their options and continue to talk to the [LPC] staff,” Sarah Carroll, the commission’s chair, said at the Sept. 20 meeting.

The Paramount Group did not respond to a request for comment on the commission’s decision or its future plans.

In hopes that 60 Wall Street’s design can be permanently protected, Docomomo has filed a formal request to the LPC to evaluate both the exterior and the atrium as individual landmarks. “The research staff is working on that study and I hope conclusions can be reached in the near future,” Carroll said at the Sept. 20 meeting. 

In the meantime, advocates say they won’t flag in their efforts to keep the big, charmingly “weird lobby intact. “We want to get people in here,” Waytkus said. “We want to keep people talking about it.”