Manufacturers Trust Landmark on Fifth Avenue: Joe Fresh Takes over, Battles, and Renovates

Manufacturers Trust Company Building, 43rd and 5th Avenue, circa mid-1950’s

By 1953, Manufacturers Trust had been in business for 100 years and a pioneer in retail banking for over a decade. In 1954, this successful bank took its place at the forefront of modern architecture when it hired Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill to build a new mid-town branch. Bunshaft would design a striking example of mid-20th century International Style that still stands today, at the corner of West 43rd Street and Fifth Avenue.

Banks in post-World War II New York, like many companies, were struggling to earn the trust of their customers, and to distinguish themselves from their competition. Bunshaft addressed these needs by exploiting the International Style’s signature feature of transparency. Unlike the typical bank vault located in the basement and out of sight, Bunshaft and his team at SOM unabashedly designed a 30-ton circular stainless steel vault to be located at ground level — visible to all passersby. At once a symbol of security and authority, by bringing the vault to the street, Manufacturers Trust was sending the message that they had nothing to hide.

It wasn’t just the vault that was presented to the public, but the entire working of the bank itself. Their building was transparent, their business was transparent. What you saw is what you got.

The combination of a minimum open floor plan, an innovative lighting scheme, and a glass exterior meant that the interior — the banking floors — were as prominent as the glass-and-aluminum exterior.

In fact, Ada Louise Huxtable, ubiquitous and well respected architecture critic of the time, stated in Art Digest,

In a direct reversal of the traditional idea of architecture, which places its emphasis on the nature of heavy, containing masonry, the interiors become the substance of the building itself, once light and glass have effectively dematerialized the outer walls.

In order to “de-materialize the outer walls,” SOM made use of a relatively new lighting technology — the luminous ceiling — very thin corrugated vinyl sheeting over rows of fluorescent tubes. Because the the light from the tubes reflected back and forth between the sheeting and the brightly covered ceiling above and then passed through the plastic, it gave the effect of a continuous plane of light. Once the interior was brighter than the light on the street, the glass suddenly appeared nearly invisible!

Because electricity was inexpensive in the 1950’s, the managers decided to keep the lights on until 1am everyday. Suddenly, the building was as dramatic at night as it was during the day if not more so.

Good design and the message it sent to depositors paid off! Nine months after the grand opening, the bank’s saving accounts had tripled and its checking and commercial accounts had doubled in number. Transparency in bank design was here to stay.

In 1997, the building was designated a New York City landmark. And when Vornado bought the building a couple of years ago, the Landmark Commission leaped into action to landmark the interior of the building as well. Along the way, two large Bertoia sculptures were removed from the space and then reinstated, and a number of law suits between Vornado and the Commission came and went.

Gold Bertoia wall sculpture is visible across the rear of the second floor.

Joe Fresh is now safely ensconced in the space. (3D can’t help but admire its color scheme!) After years of disjointed tenants who made minor and major infractions to the original design, it is a gift to the city to have a tenant who has restored much of the building to its original splendor. While the sleek escalators have been relocated, the renovated overhead lighting is very much in line with the original ‘luminous ceiling.’ Retail space is still up for grabs on part of the ground floor. The two large Bertoia hanging and wall sculptures have been reinstated on the second floor while the ground floor vault remains intact and an icon of the building’s banking past and provocative design.


ADDENDUM: The latest issue of Interior Design offers the signature design magazine’s take on the Burdifilek renovation for Joe Fresh at the Manufacturers Trust building. They have some great shots of the interior, including Harry Bertoia’s steel and brass screen and mobile.

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