When Huntington Hartford, the flamboyant heir to the A&P; supermarket fortune, commissioned the noted architect Edward Durell Stone to build a museum, the result was one of New York’s most controversial buildings.
Critics attacked the white marble structure in Manhattan’s Columbus Circle for its lack of windows, open grillwork base and corners punctuated by portholes.
Supporters praised it as an innovative masterpiece and a milestone in the history of 20th century architecture.
The museum, built in 1964 to exhibit Hartford’s personal art collection, was open only a few years. The building had a succession of owners, including New York City, which used it as office space before deciding to sell it several years ago.
The city entertained a number of proposals for the property -- including one by Donald Trump to tear it down and build a hotel -- before agreeing to sell it to the Museum of Arts & Design.
The buyer plans to tear down the structure’s distinctive facade -- sparking a new dispute on Columbus Circle.
A coalition of preservationists, including author Tom Wolfe, artists Frank Stella and Chuck Close and several professors and architectural historians, have mobilized to support the nine-story building, styled after a Venetian palazzo.
The fight is not on the scale of the successful campaign in the mid-1960s, featuring Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, that resulted in Grand Central Terminal being declared a landmark and then preserved.
But it is more than a skirmish.
Three preservation groups have filed suit against the New York City Planning Commission, the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and the Museum of Arts & Design, seeking to cancel the proposed alterations and grant the building landmark status.
Court papers contend that the city is about to lose a “signature image” without an adequate environmental review and that the property’s transfer to the Museum of Arts & Design will destroy the building as it currently exists.
The documents allege that the Bloomberg administration’s decision to sell 2 Columbus Circle was “arbitrary” and “capricious” and that economic motives over the years have “infected” the landmark selection process.
“The design they have proposed totally refaces the building,” said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, a plaintiff in the suit. “It essentially rips the flesh off.”
In a statement, the Museum of Arts & Design pledged to move forward to create its new home in Columbus Circle.
“The lawsuit is nothing but an abuse of the legal system by a few people who are seeking to impose their views,” Holly Hotchner, the museum’s director, said.
Rhetoric heated up further at a news conference last week.
Supporters of the original design announced that the Preservation League of New York State had added Hartford’s museum to its list of most-endangered buildings.
“Two Columbus Circle has generated tremendous passion in the preservation community,” said Scott P. Heyl, the organization’s president. “The league has long felt that this mid-20th century building should be recognized for its contribution to the modern vernacular.”
At the news conference, Wolfe used stronger language.
“It is not a small but vocal minority who want to save 2 Columbus Circle,” he said, replying to Hotchner. “There is a small but vocal bridge club [that] wants to get rid of it.”
Hartford, who disliked modern art, originally wanted to build the museum in Los Angeles.
In a 1970 interview with the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, he said he was so incensed at what was being called good art that he asked the Los Angeles County Museum to allow him to have an exhibition of “representative examples of good public taste.”
After his request was rejected and his plans for a West Coast museum fell through, he picked Manhattan.
Some reviews were scathing when the Hartford’s museum finally opened.
Ada Louise Huxtable, an architectural critic, dismissed it as a “Venetian palazzo on lollipops,” referring to the distinctive shape of the columns at its base.
Preservationists said time had brought greater appreciation for the building.
The lawsuit contends one of the building’s strengths is its radical departure from the prevailing architecture of its day, which favored sleek outlines and glass and steel.
“The building marks a significant point in architectural history because it was among the first to challenge then-existing theories of design,” papers filed in New York State Supreme Court said. " ... 2 Columbus Circle has become an icon.”