simple is beautiful
New York Daily Photo: Travesty in Travertine
2 ... 2 ...

Monday, 7 January 2008

Travesty in Travertine

No Fall from Grace, Thickens and Sickens and Travesty in Travertine were all competing titles for this story. The W.R. Grace Building at w 42nd street, was commissioned by the W.R. Grace Corporation, designed by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and completed in 1971 (the resemblance to the Solow Building at 9 West 57th St. is no coincidence - the initial, rejected design for the facade of that building was used by Bunshaft for the Grace Building). A casual perusal of Internet sources will give relatively neutral to positive reviews of this building. Wikipedia's entry is perfunctory. 50 stories with signature curved sloping bases (the same on 43rd Street) - click here for photo. Exterior in white travertine.
But if you dig further, you will find many architects HATE this building. Architecture critic Paul Goldberger said: "The Grace Building's front - I call it swooping, others call it a ski-jump - is an arrogant, exhibitionistic form that breaks the line of building-fronts that is important to any New York City Street ... Mr. Bunshaft, it would seem, cares nothing about Bryant Park or about anything except the shape of his own building, which from the northwest, at the corner of 43rd Street and Sixth Avenue, looks like nothing so much as an immense piece of furniture squeezed awkwardly into the wrong place. At that corner, as a zoning bonus permitting extra height, is one of the coldest and most unwelcoming plazas any architect has created anywhere." The AIA Guide to NYC calls it "a disgrace to the street."
But the plot thickens and sickens. W.R. Grace and Company was founded by William Russell Grace (1832-1904) in 1854 in Peru - he had left Ireland due to the Potato Famine. He moved to NYC in 1865. He was also the city's first Roman Catholic Mayor, serving two terms - 1880-1888. Initially the company was in fertilizer and machinery. Later there were acquisitions of chemical companies and here the problems started.
It was found that in the 1970s the W. R. Grace Company had improperly disposed of trichloroethylene, an industrial solvent, which entered the groundwater of Woburn, Mass, causing six deaths from leukemia and numerous illnesses in the town's families. They were indicted in 1987. However, this is only the start - Grace was also plagued with asbestos injury claims and lawsuits as a result of vermiculite mining in Libby, Montana (the vermiculite was found to contain asbestos). In 2001, they filed for bankruptcy protection. The U.S. Department of Justice determined that Grace had transferred 4-5 billion dollars to spin-off companies it had purchased just before declaring bankruptcy (the bankruptcy court ordered the various companies to return nearly $1 billion to Grace). This story has been the subject of TV, PBS and NPR specials and even a film (A Civil Action, starring John Travolta).
The company, now located in Maryland, no longer has offices in the Grace Building. W.R. Grace is still in business, is traded on the NY Stock Exchange and has a valuation of $1.5 billion. So far, there's been grace for Grace ...


Post a Comment