Donald Trump was born in Queens, New York. But the Trump we know—the arrogant real estate developer who rode his television appearances to the White House—emerged fully formed from a cocoon of black-mirrored glass on the corner of Lexington Avenue and 42nd Street, an outer-borough caterpillar reborn as a Manhattan butterfly.
The butterfly, unfortunately, was racist and reportedly did tax fraud and, on top of it all, was elected president of the United States. But the cocoon has, until now, remained the Grand Hyatt Hotel, a monument to Trump’s emergence as a New York City mogul and a building he often cited as proof of the deal-making prowess that grounded his campaign.
On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported that a group of developers has agreed to buy and demolish the Midtown hotel, constructing a skyscraper of 2 million square feet in its place. For New Yorkers, who soured on the developer-president long ago, it raises an awkward question: Are Donald Trump’s buildings an important part of the historical record? Should they be preserved? The answer to those questions, I’m sorry to say, is yes.
Consider Trump Tower. Certainly, a building where a U.S. president lived for decades would warrant instant status as a National Historic Landmark under normal circumstances. Chester A. Arthur’s five-story row house on Lexington Avenue was declared a landmark in 1965, though it’s probably better known to New Yorkers as the home of the Indian grocery store Kalustyan’s. Trump Tower, by any standard of historical importance, should get the same treatment.
One day, when we have to explain how all this happened, there will be no substitute for visiting what Ada Louise Huxtable once called “that pink marble maelstrom,” where Trump announced his campaign.
It would be a deeply ironic designation, and not just as a totem to a hated hometown president. As Trump prepared to demolish the 11-story Bonwit Teller department store to build Trump Tower in 1980, the Metropolitan Museum of Art asked the developer to preserve a pair of bas-relief nudes flanking the entrance and a nickel panel of geometric grillwork. Instead, Trump hastily obliterated them in what the New York Times called an act of “esthetic vandalism.” What the developer had really destroyed, the editorial board idiotically proclaimed, was his own public image.
When Trump later whined to the Times about how much he loved art, actually, a reporter observed there was no art in his office. Trump pointed to a rendering of Trump Tower. “If that isn’t art,” he said, “then I don’t know what is.”
It’s strange to think that Trump Tower is nearly as old now as the Bonwit Teller Building was in 1979. That is either a testament to Trump Tower architect Der Scutt’s timeless, stepped facade or to the architectural engine failure that left Manhattan increasingly awash in mirrored glass over the years, from Trump to One World Trade to Hudson Yards. But in any case, we are not saving Trump’s buildings for his contributions to the arts. His public image, it turned out, was built on mirrored glass. Reviewing Trump World Tower in 2002, the critic Herbert Muschamp wrote that the building radiated “aggression and desire, violence and sex.”
America long ago passed the date when Goethe could jealously declare it a country “untroubled by useless memory.” Distressed by immigration, industrialization, and architectural turnover, Americans went preservation-mad around the midcentury with ventures like Colonial Williamsburg that in many cases “restored” historic structures by demolishing authentic modifications. “Our tradition is no longer an organized historical corpus,” lamented the late historian David Lowenthal, writing of the Western world at large, “but a pot-pourri of everything that ever happened, in which a 1930s cinema attracts the same degree and type of interest as the Parthenon.”
The preservation movement continues to muddle the distinction between its various raisons d’être: historic significance, aesthetic value, community. Trump’s work on the Grand Hyatt—coating the fading Commodore Hotel in glass—retained the old building’s funny shape, while obscuring the period facade that indicated why such a shape had been necessary in the first place (for light and ventilation in an era before air conditioning). This dark-glass armchair now fails miserably in the tests of design and community, though to be fair, with buildings of its vintage just now meeting the wrecking ball, there’s little standing debate on their value or their potential for reuse.
As a history lesson, however, it makes a clear case for preservation: Trump pegged himself as a reformer who could make East Midtown great again, cajoled a shady tax abatement from beleaguered public officials, and ultimately cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars. If it’s tempting to wish it gone, it’s in part because it’s dull, and in part because of how easy it is to see in its mirrored glass the same dupes who bought the same scam 40 years later, when the stakes were much greater.
No one will save the Grand Hyatt, of course. No one will even save the nearby Union Carbide Building, a supremely elegant modernist skyscraper designed by the pioneering architects Natalie de Blois and Gordon Bunshaft for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. It will be destroyed so that JPMorgan can build a larger headquarters on the site. Preservation is only as effective as the civic grandees who stand up for the principle, which explains why the pecking order ranks community, aesthetics, historical significance. When it should really be the opposite.
The Hyatt stands next to Grand Central Terminal, a building the Supreme Court decided in 1978 established the legal (and philosophical) groundwork for preservation. It was a building that neatly fulfilled Huxtable’s guidelines for why we might bother to save anything: “So that the meaning and flavor of those other times and tastes are incorporated into the mainstream of the city’s life.”
Implicit in that claim is the idea that we are better for it. When the bell tolls for Trump Tower, who will make the case? It’s a tough one. But there is a certain upside to it. First, because it will frustrate the Trump Organization by prohibiting a profitable sale or teardown. Second, because it will punish us with a monument to the 45th president, instructive preservation broccoli to Grand Central Terminal’s delicious steak.