On Friday, July 15, 2016 at 11:30 A.M., everything was quiet in the Four Seasons restaurant on Manhattan’s Park Avenue. In the kitchen the staff was preparing for the last meal to be served. Over the next few hours, the regular guests arrived, the famous who have been in attendance over the past 30, even 40 years, to taste from the restaurant’s favorite dishes for the last time, and say good-bye to an eatery that had become an institution.
- Architecture by the people, for the people
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At the end of July, the restaurant, for which “legendary” is too modest a description, closed finally after 57 glittering, tempestuous years. A few days later the contents were sold at a public auction and divided up between collectors and fans of vintage, retro and nostalgia – or maybe they went to seasoned traders who will make a profit reselling the remains.
After the meal, the owners Julien Niccolini and Alex Von Bidder stood at the entrance to part from their guests with one last tearful hug.
Niccolini and Von Bidder were forced to close their doors after real estate tycoon Aby Rosen, born 56 years ago in Frankfurt and owner of a portfolio of 71 properties worldwide – including the W Tel Aviv hotel, Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas and the Seagram Building in New York, where the Four Seasons was located – refused to renew the restaurant’s lease.
That is how the end came to the place where gossip, glamour, money and power met – and anyone who was anyone in global or local elites (in the old days), met and ate.
Princes and presidents, tycoons, politicians, entertainers and fashionistas, sports and cultural icons – even architects – sat around their regular tables. The Four Seasons was the haven of the glittering New York architectural scene.
The last diners at the Four Seasons parted not just from the menu and repute, but also from an architectural work of art that had the rare perfection of balance between form, content and period. With its elegant entrance, the Grill Room and Pool Room, with its works of art and design; the restaurant was a concentrated capsule of elite modernist period architecture that became classic. To a great extent, this is what made the place. Architect Philip Johnson, the diviner of trends and kingmaker of architects (and the architect who designed Israel’s Nahal Soreq nuclear reactor, supposedly to make penance for his past as a supporter of the Nazis) was responsible for the restaurant’s interior design.
Alongside Johnson were a long list of key figures responsible for designing the furniture and accessories, from the ash trays and silverware to the iconic furniture. Among them were Johnson’s disciples at the time, such as Mies van der Rohe, the final director of the Bauhaus school and architect behind the Seagram Building.
The final hours of the Four Seasons were documented minute by minute by Jay Cheshes for the Daily Beast website. At 1:40 P.M. Peter Eisenman, an architect who is no less a star than the restaurant, and who was a close friend and student of Johnson’s, arrives to say good-bye to his regular table in one of the corners, near that of Henry Kissinger.
At 2:15, Eli Bronfman, grandson of Edgar and a descendant of the family that founded the Four Seasons (and is still a part owner), is leaving, writes Cheshes.
Earlier in the kitchen, a shouting match broke out when a veteran waiter fought with one of the chefs about the union and the fate of the 130 employees, all about to be laid off – accusing him of not backing the union and the negotiations, says Cheshes. The real world behind the glamour.
Posters hung on the walls for the last day announced the auction, an event that lasted over 12 hours during which some 650 items were snatched up. Tea trolleys and serving dishes, silverware, plates and saucers, glasses and cups, devices for cooling wine at the tables, special frying pans for all sorts of delicacies such as zabaione, most of them designed by Garth and Ada Louise Huxtable, the famed architecture critic for the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. There were also van der Rohe’s Barcelona and Brno chairs, as well as “Tulip” tables and chairs designed by Eero Saarinen, and many more items that brought in a total of $4 million at the auction, four times the pre-auction estimate. You certainly couldn’t find any bargains.
Demands for preservation
The dismantling of the Four Seasons into parts drew furious responses from New York architectural circles, against both the owners who sold the legend as well as against City Hall that did not act to preserve it. The restaurant itself was recognized as an “interior landmark” and it is forbidden to make structural changes to it, but without its contents it is an empty vessel.
Among those who protested, the voice of architect and architecture patron Phyllis Lambert stands out. She is the 89-year-old daughter of Samuel Bronfman, who founded Seagram and the family dynasty. In a letter to Rosen she tried, in vain, to convince him to leave the furniture designed specifically for the restaurant in place, and “to maintain the authenticity of two of the world’s greatest rooms.”
“Great public places are very rarely created. Their presence, unchanged, maintains continuity of place and of ritual, which is socially and spiritually essential in all societies,” wrote Lambert.
Her letter to Rosen reminds one of a historic letter Lambert sent to her own father in the summer of 1954, which led to the construction of the Seagram Building itself. She thought Bronfman’s original plan for the building was terrifyingly banal and conservative, and wrote to tell him so. She pressured him to construct a different building. “You must put up a building which expresses the best of the society in which you live, and at the same time your hopes for the betterment of this society. You have a great responsibility and your building is not only for the people of your companies, it is much more for all people, in New York and the rest of the world,” she wrote her father.
As opposed to Rosen, Bronfman listened. The original plan was scrapped and the rest is architectural history. Lambert contacted key figures in modern architecture at the time to design the building, including Johnson and Saarinen, who helped her put together a list of designers and architects she wanted – and she chose van der Rohe from the list. The result was a building that still provides inspiration, one of the greatest architectural works of all time.
The web of connections that gave birth to the Seagram Building carried over into the Four Seasons, where the intersections of influence and power in the architectural world were also woven. Johnson was the one who pulled the strings for decades, until his death in 2005 at age 99. The group picture from his 90th birthday party, which was held in the restaurant in July 1996, tells it all. In the middle is the guest of honor, and surrounding him are all the biggest and most influential names in the architectural world, from all schools and styles, and which Johnson himself moved between without end. Among those in the picture are Lambert and Eisenman, Frank Gehry and Michael Graves, Richard Meier, Robert Stern, Arata Isozaki – along with the new chiefs, Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid. A master builders’ convention.
The Four Seasons may have closed, but the story is not over. Next year Niccolini and Von Bidder, in cooperation with the Bronfman family, will open the new Four Seasons on Fifth Avenue, just a few minutes’ walk away from its historic location.
In its day, the Four Seasons was considered an innovative restaurant with a “young American” menu that changed according to the seasons of the year. Over time its glamour faded and it became known as a conservative, anachronistic spot.
In its place in the Seagram Building, a new restaurant will open: “Major Food Group,” owned by three ambitious young people who have taken the New York restaurant scene by storm in the last five years with innovative, and daring menus. Whether the 21st-century Philip Johnsons and Mies van der Rohes will be there, we will have to wait and see. In any case, it is the end of an era.