Four Seasons landlord Aby Rosen and his company RFR has pretty much lost his fight to make any significant changes to the landmarked restaurant in the Seagram Building. His proposal for renovations to the Philip Johnson-designed space went before the Landmarks Preservation Commission for approval this afternoon, and was met with a group of major architects all there to voice their opposition to the project. They stood with Phyllis Lambert, an architect and daughter of Samuel Bronfman, whose company was responsible construction of the building. She laid out her objections in a Times op-ed over the weekend, labeling the proposed changes — like removing the top row of walnut panels lining the Pool Room, and replacing the partition between the Pool Room and the Grill Room with planters — "disastrous."
Ultimately, the architects won, and the only change that was approved was new carpeting. For the rest of it, Rosen and company will have to go back to the drawing board if they want to do anything else to the dining rooms.
Rosen has all but given Julian Niccolini and Alex von Bidder, who own the iconic restaurant, the boot. Their lease is up in 2016, and they, at least, don't seem too confident he'll make any sort of deal to allow them to stay, and have been actively in talks to take over the space at 280 Park Avenue. Today, Edgar Bronfman, Jr., a stakeholder in the restaurant, released a statement (in full below) about Rosen's proposed renovations in which he says that RFR has "refused to indicate its willingness to renew our lease." He also claims that "Mr. Rosen has said he wants his successor restaurant to be 'a really cool place.'" Which all seems to suggest there is about a 99 percent chance the Four Seasons' days in its home of over 50 years are numbered.
Update: Rosen confirms to the Times that the Four Seasons isn't coming back. He tells the paper: "Their lease is up in July, so they're out...If something was designed in 1958 and it's not as functional in 2015, you ask for a change...I'm going to restore the Four Seasons back to its glory. I love the guys but their time has passed, and sometimes something great needs to go."
It is fitting that one of the greatest cities in the world is home to one of the greatest modernist buildings ever built, the Seagram building, hailed by the New York Times as the single greatest building of the 20th Century. Central to the greatness of Seagram, is the space known as The Four Seasons restaurant. I have proudly been a part of its ownership for the past 25 years.
At the Four Seasons, we have sought to carry on our commercial operations while always respecting and preserving Philip Johnson's vision for the space. That has been extremely challenging for the past decade or so as our restaurant first dealt with the economic consequences of the financial crisis of 2008-9 and then with our landlord, RFR, who refused to indicate its willingness to renew our lease, making our investment in capital improvements impractical at best.
I acknowledge RFR has the right not to renew The Four Season's lease. But what is at stake here today is not the fate of a restaurant. What is at stake here is whether ownership trumps preservation, whether deception triumphs over transparency, and whether the wealth, power and influence of a building's proprietors can trample both the fundamental integrity of an historic space and the commission created to protect and preserve such spaces.
I submit that not only are RFR's proposed changes wrong, but they are most assuredly only the beginning of the changes RFR will make. Why do I say this? Why should we distrust RFR? Well, if past is prologue, we need look no further than the episode of Le Tricorne. Why is that great Picasso stage curtain no longer hanging? Simply because Mr. Rosen of RFR wanted "that Schmatte" out of "his" building. To justify its request for its immediate removal, RFR claimed falsely there was an urgent, critical need to repair the travertine wall behind the curtain. As we all know by now, no such repairs have commenced, because no such repairs are, or ever were, necessary. If that weren't enough to compel great caution if not outright skepticism regarding RFR's plans, RFR, displaying utter contempt for both architecture and due process, recently cut into the bronze pillars in Seagram's lobby to facilitate the hanging of Mr. Rosen's personal artwork. A capricious and disingenuous owner for whom the end justifies the means, makes for a very dangerous owner. Mr. Rosen and RFR have demonstrated they will do whatever they want and say whatever it takes to obtain whatever they seek. Which is why this commission is so necessary and vital, and why today's hearing is of historic importance.
Mr. Rosen has said he wants his successor restaurant to be "a really cool place." I hope it is, and that Philip Johnson's original vision plays host to another successful restaurant for the next 56 years. But whatever establishment commences its operations in the future, it is critical that this commission ensures that its owner does not sully or compromise a space that for almost six decades has remained true to itself; true to the original, extraordinary and I pray, enduring vision of Philip Johnson's great masterpiece.