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Joseph Kaminski

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September 26, 2017

The Political Fate of Bonwit Teller


Fifth Avenue Bonwit Teller

The Bonwit Teller flagship store is a great example of a lost landmark of architectural ingenuity. One that represented a time before New York City became a City of the Skies, having the second most skyscrapers (247 of them) in the world, with only Hong Kong surpassing with 311.

In a time when New York was the home of sophistication — full of polished and refined storefronts and shops that dedicated themselves to a department era of consumerism — the Fifth Avenue Bonwit Teller (known as the Stewart & Company store on its completion in 1929) was the perfect representation of the time.

One of the most prominent women retail stores by 1910, the Bonwit Teller department store did not actually acquire the building until 1930. Originally built by Joseph Urban for the Stewart & Company in 1929, the building was opened to the public on October 16th, 1929. Two weeks later, the stock market crashed. Within a year, George Chappell of The New Yorker described the building as “quite beautiful ladies wearing practically nothing […] a poor advertisement for a shop devoted to women’s apparel.”

Bonwit Teller woman designThe building itself could have been considered plain — a boxy foundation that went twelve stories high. But the details were what made this piece of architecture great. Twelve stories of un-ornamented limestone, reaching to the top to climb into a setbacks of ziggurats, becoming the antithesis of the conventional 1928 Bergdorf Goodman which stood only one block to the north.

The entrance, for example: a stunning door with platinum, bronze, hammered aluminum, faience, and tinted glass that lit up the atmosphere at night. At the very top of the building’s face were limestone panels of two nearly naked women brandishing large scarves, depicted as dancing. A retail store that targeted its exact audience: women in the 1920’s who desired extravagant clothing.

In 1929, American Architect magazine labeled the building as “a sparkling jewel in keeping with the character of the store”, describing it as a building of its time that represents exactly what it desired. The design would become signature — one that seemed to represent the New York era of suave, elegant sophistication.

Apparently, however, the beautiful doorway and reliefs of women didn’t attract enough customers. Stewart & Company, struggling in the stock market crash, was forced to close. As the retail trade in New York City began moving uptown, Bonwit Teller was in desperate need for a new storefront, and they acquired it — this time to a new address on Fifth Avenue. Bonwit took up residence in the former Stewart & Co. building at Fifty-sixth Street, which would remain the company’s flagship store for nearly fifty years.

The store reopened Sept. 15, 1930, under Bonwit Teller ownership managed to redesign some of the attributes of the building. What did they change? The doorway. Looking back on the critical mocking towards the storefront that occurred in 1929, the Bonwit Teller leading architect Ely Jacques Khan decided to redesign. The luxurious and lavish doorway was ripped away, replaced with a corporate styled Art Deco. However, critics would not leave the building alone. The New Yorker, in 1931, stated that the new door looked like “a bad perfume advertisement.”

But, regardless, Bonwit Teller’s newest building joined the elite group of retailers on Fifth Avenue. In 1939, Bonwit Teller retained Salvador Dalí to design its windows. So the store became forward-looking, but not too forward-looking like the Stewart & Company building had in 1929.

Then, as time went on, department stores began to lose the dedication and profit margins they had seen in the early 20th century. Beginning in the 1960s, a series of corporate takeovers changed the face of retailing. Bonwit Teller was bought and sold, bought and sold, bought and sold. The building sold several times, and it lost the luster that other companies were able to maintain. Although some of the era’s stores survived until 2000, Bonwit Teller finally closed its store at Fifth Avenue and 56th in 1979.

What happened to the building?

Donald Trump

Donald Trump fired the building.

Donald Trump, who acquired the old Bonwit building, began the demolition in 1980. He promised the limestone reliefs of the dancing women would be donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which wanted them for its sculpture collection. But suddenly, almost immediately after the promise was made, Trump’s workmen destroyed them, turning them into rubble.

This act was condemned by many. The New York Times reported with a bash toward’s Trump’s actions, stating that “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.”

The Trump Organization replied that the 4,000 pound panels held “no artistic merit”, claiming that saving them for future generations and donating them to an artistic museum would have delayed the Trump Tower’s construction for months and would have cost them over $500,000. Only a decade or so from gaining the landmark designation to be saved from any destruction, the Bonwit Teller building was demolished by Donald Trump’s order.

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