When Will the Seagram Building Fall Down?

In May, Chatterbox asked Vincent Scully, the eminent (now retired) Yale architecture historian, whether public buildings of the mid-to-late 20th century were less durable than public buildings that predate the 20th century. Of course they are, he said. Now Scully has penned a New York Times Magazine piece on this topic. In the last of the Times Magazine’s special issues on the millennium, Scully writes,

Our steel-frame and curtain-wall skyscrapers are major symbols of our age, but there is every reason to surmise they won’t be here for long. Their life expectancy is 50 years or so, and that assumes assiduous maintenance.

Reading this, Chatterbox was chilled to the bone. If Scully is right, Chatterbox realized, that means New York’s Seagram Building has only a decade or two to go before it falls over. Thinking about that made Chatterbox very blue. Even though Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson’s landmark building has inspired a host of ugly imitations (including the Martin Luther King Memorial Library in Washington, D.C.–also designed by Mies–which essentially is the Seagram Building knocked on its side), Chatterbox has a strong attachment to the Seagram Building. It was born the same year Chatterbox was, 1958. Chatterbox’s maternal grandfather worked for a company that supplied the bronze used in its handsome spandrels, mullions, and I-beams. And when Chatterbox was a wee cube, Pappy Chatterbox had an office in the Seagram Building. Chatterbox is far from the only person with a strong attachment to the skyscraper; in an essay in an earlier millennium issue of the Times Magazine, Herbert Muschamp proclaimed the Seagram Building “my choice as the millennium’s most important building.”

Eventually, Chatterbox got sufficiently worked up thinking about the possibility that the Seagram Building might fall down that he phoned Scully, who reassured Chatterbox that when he wrote those words in the Times piece he wasn’t thinking of the Seagram building. “They take good care of that,” he said. (Among other things, the bronze is oiled annually.) “If you take good care of them, they can last for quite awhile.” This seemed somewhat at odds with Scully’s written remark about assuming “assiduous maintenance,” but Chatterbox decided to let that go. Instead, he asked precisely when one could expect the Seagram Building to fall down. Scully answered that he didn’t know.

Chatterbox next phoned the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America-College Retirement Equities Fund (TIAA-CREF), which bought the Seagram Building from Seagram’s in 1980. Chatterbox read the troubling passage from Scully’s Times Magazine piece to Philip DiGennaro, managing director for TIAA-CREF’s mortgage and real estate division. “You can tell [Scully] I am offering, and tenants are accepting, leases in excess of 15 years,” DiGennaro answered. “That building represents the finest current construction, not construction for its day and age.” He added (without my asking) that the computers that now run the elevators and the heating systems and whatnot are all fully Y2K compliant. Yes, but how long will the building keep standing there? “This building was constructed of materials that should last more than a lifetime if you and I are going to live to be 80 years old.” More than 80 years? Chatterbox thought. That doesn’t seem especially long. Finally, Chatterbox asked: Will the Seagram Building make it to the year 3,000? “We’re scheduling the 3,000 millennium party right now,” DiGennaro assured Chatterbox, with a chuckle. But by then, of course, he wasn’t taking Chatterbox very seriously.