The Bonwit Teller Building: How Donald Trump Destroyed an Art Deco Treasure

New_York_City_Mai_2009_PD_045Donald Trump may occupy the White House, but after a weekend of supporting neo-Nazis and white supremacists, he returned to his real seat of power – Trump Tower. Here in his self-made citadel, Trump is most at home, surrounded by 58 stories of black glass, steel, and terrible restaurants (though Trump falsely claims it’s 68 stories.). The actual building is bad enough, but it gets even worse when you know what came before..

1_SHORPY_5th Avenue 1905 Daly Mansion on the Left

Daly Mansion to the far left (Credit: Shorpy)

Trump was hardly the first mogul to make his mark on this neighborhood. In the late 1800s, wealthy families like the Vanderbilts and Astors were gobbling up Manhattan real estate to ward off the approach of retail and commerce from the south. In 1898, William Waldorf Astor bought the eastern block of 5th Avenue between 56th and 57th Streets. He paid architects Clinton & Russell the princely sum of $80,000 to build an enormous mansion at 721 5th Avenue.

In 1899, Astor leased the French Gothic residence to Marcus Daly, a fellow tycoon “of mercurial and choleric Irish temperament, genial to friends, vindictive to an enemy, quick of speech and given to a lusty swear word on occasions” according to the San Francisco Call. Daly made his bones toiling in the silver mines of the Comstock Lode buying his own mine in 1876 which he nicknamed “The Anaconda.” The Anaconda yielded no silver, but a rich vein of copper netted Daly almost $17 million a year. Now fabulously well-to-do, Daly signed a ten-year lease on Astor’s mansion…a lease that extended to his wealthy daughters after Daly’s death just one year later.

2_MCNY 1920 Daly Mansion

For all his mansions and machinations, Astor couldn’t keep commerce away forever. 1920s Midtown Manhattan was a radically different neighborhood than Astor’s quaint countryside a quarter-century before, and the old Daly mansion stuck out like a sore thumb. Astor sold the plot to Stewart & Company in 1927, a prominent ladies’ department store as distinguished in its day as the neighboring Saks, Tiffany, and Bergdorf Goodman. Stewart & Company engaged Warren & Wetmore, the firm behind such Beaux-Arts beauties as Grand Central Terminal and the New York Yacht Club, to construct their new flagship store.

4_Stewart Building 1929

In a rare detour to Art Deco, the firm surprised everyone with a sleek 12-story edifice of limestone setbacks. Trygve Hammer designed the entryway of platinum, bronze, and jewel-like tinted glass…

5_Stewart 1929

…while Rene Chambellan carved the pair of bas reliefs flanking the 9th floor windows. The depiction of classical nudes dancing with scarves were particularly striking, though as George Chappell of the New Yorker quipped, they were “a poor advertisement, one might think, for a shop devoted to women’s apparel.”


All in all, it was a grand building. Vogue called it a “convincing demonstration of the aesthetic possibilities of functionalism.” American Architect compared the entryway to “a sparkling jewel in keeping with the character of the store.” Times columnist Walter Rendell Story said it “epitomized what might be termed a classic expression of metropolitan architecture.” On October 16th, 1929, Stewart & Company threw open their doors with great fanfare and a gala luncheon attended by Police Commissioner Grover Whalen, architect Raymond Hood, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

On October 29th, the stock market crashed.

Within months, Stewart & Company was bankrupt. The new building was desperate for new owners. In swooped Bonwit Teller, a rising retail giant who acquired the building for $10 million in 1930 and, according to a contemporary New York Times article, “will occupy the property in the late Summer or early Fall, after extensive alterations are made.”

8_1930 #1

The man behind those alterations was Eli Jacques Kahn. Kahn kept Warren & Wetmore’s bas reliefs but streamlined the crap out of the rest of the building. He doubled interior floor space…

…and replaced the colorful entryway with an interlocking grid of Benedict nickel designed by Otto J. Teegan.


Where Stewart & Company failed, Bonwit Teller thrived. Not content to rest on its laurels, 5th Avenue’s newest department store continued to capture the public’s attention. After a sensational exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, manager Floyd Odlum commissioned Salvador Dali to design window displays for the 1936 Christmas season.

Dali continued designing holiday displays until 1939, when Bonwit Teller covered up his racy display of a feather-covered mannequin in a bathtub. Dali was so furious that he tried to flip the bathtub, sending himself and the bathtub through a plate glass window in the process.


Over the next few decades, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol would all design Bonwit Teller windows.

11_Warhol 1960s

But class and cultural cache can’t last forever. After a series of disruptive corporate takeovers, Bonwit Teller closed its flagship store in 1979 and sold the property for $15 million to a Long Island real estate developer. Despite his plans to demolish the old Bonwit Teller building, the buyer promised to preserve the Deco grillwork and bas reliefs at the request of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

And that’s where things get weird.


The buyer was none other than Donald Trump. In 1980, Trump demolished Warren & Westmore’s elegant Art Deco emporium to make way for his $100 million Trump Tower. In what became a sadly typical turn of events, Trump cut corners everywhere he could and bullied those who stood in his way. To pour the foundations, Trump enlisted S&A Concrete, a known mob front for Paul Castellano and “Fat Tony” Salerno. He paid 200 illegal Polish immigrants as little as $4 an hour to work 12-hour days, 7 days a week. The so-called “Polish Brigade” worked without benefits, hard hats, and sometimes even homes – during the 1980 transit strike, many were forced to sleep at the construction site. Then there were the lawsuits. He sued the city for a tax abatement on the property. He sued one contractor for “total incompetence” and threatened to sue a labor lawyer for $100 million.

And the promise to preserve the grillwork and reliefs? “On his orders, the demolition workers cut up the grillwork with acetylene torches,” wrote Harry Hurt III in The Lost Tycoon: The Many Lives of Donald J. Trump. Crews “jackhammered the friezes, dislodged them with crowbars, and pushed the remains inside the building, where they fell to the floor and shattered in a million pieces.”

The Trump Organization disputed these claims through a spokesperson named John Baron. (Newspapers later discovered that “John Baron” was Trump himself.) When asked about the grillwork, Trump told the Times “We don’t know what happened to it.” As for the bas reliefs, he said “[t]he merit of these stones was not great enough to justify the effort to save them.” It was a strange claim to make for two reasons. First, the estimated $9,000 required to save the reliefs was a drop in the bucket compared the $100 million in construction costs. Second, if the reliefs lacked artistic or historic merit, why would the Met have requested them in the first place?


Preservationists were naturally furious. The editorial board of the Gray Lady wrote “New York needs to make salvation of this kind of landmark mandatory and stop expecting that its developers will be good citizens and good sports.” But by that point, it was too late. “The reliefs are as important as the sculptures on the Rockefeller building,” said Robert Miller, the gallery owner who originally assessed the reliefs. “They’ll never be made again.”


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