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CAA News Today

The Society of Architectural Historians (SAH) invites CAA members to gather at the Four Seasons in midtown Manhattan next month for conversation about the restaurant’s historical developments. This free event takes place on Saturday, September 25, 2010, at 9:00 PM.

The gathering concludes a tour day in which SAH members will have spent studying the work of Richard Kelly, who was responsible for the interior and exterior lighting of the Seagram Building and the Four Seasons. Joining the group will be Belmont Freeman, the restaurant’s current restoration architect, and Dietrich Neumann, the tour leader, past SAH president, and editor of the forthcoming book, The Structure of Light: Richard Kelly and the Illumination of Modern Architecture. (The tour is sold out.)

The Four Seasons opened in 1959 to breathless headlines about the “world’s costliest restaurant,” which took an unprecedented $4.5 million to build. Occupying a monumental space on the first floor of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building, the restaurant was designed by Philip Johnson in collaboration with a stellar cast of artists, including Kelly, William Pahlman (interior designer to Restaurant Associates), Karl Linn (landscape architect), and Garth Huxtable (industrial designer). In addition, Kelly created the sculptures that hover over the Bar Room, Marie Nichols made the shimmering aluminum chain window shades, and Treitel-Gratz fabricated the Mies-designed Brno and Barcelona chairs (this being before Knoll put them into production.) Blue-chip art, including a stage backdrop painted by Pablo Picasso, adorned the walls.

During his lifetime Johnson kept close control over the maintenance, alteration, and periodic refurbishment of the restaurant, which the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission named an interior landmark in 1989 and which recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. Four years after Johnson’s death in 2005, the owners decided that the Four Seasons needed a new house architect to design and direct urgently needed restorations and, as Phyllis Lambert phrased it in her brief in support of the work, to “monitor and safeguard the architectural and artistic patrimony” of the establishment. Freeman was selected for this role. Since December 2008, Belmont Freeman Architects (BFA) and a team of consultants have been immersed in researching the history, design, and construction of the restaurant, and in designing and managing its phased restoration.

The Four Seasons is not a museum but a busy working restaurant. As such, its renovation is subject to particular functional, logistical, and economic exigencies. Since the restaurant cannot close for renovation, work is planned as a series of surgical interventions that can be performed off hours. After completing an assessment of existing conditions, BFA compiled and ranked discrete restoration subprojects by priority. While the main dining rooms have been admirably maintained over the years, ancillary spaces—entrance, lobby, restrooms, coat check, stairs, bar—have suffered fifty years of abuse and are in urgent need of renovation. Another important object of attention is the lighting: the historical importance of Kelly’s pioneering lighting design is equal to—and inseparable from—that of the architecture. BFA is working with lighting designer WALD Studio and with Edison Price, manufacturers of the original fixtures, on this restoration program.

There is no charge to attend this cash-bar event. On entering the Four Seasons, say you are with the Society of Architectural Historians group. Have questions or need additional information? Please contact Kathy Sturm, SAH director of programs, at 312-543-7243.

Filed under: Affiliated Societies