How Phyllis Lambert Changed the Architecture of New York

Memoir Details Architect's Involvement With Legendary Building

Room at the Plaza: Phyllis Lambert was influential in enlisting Mies van der Rohe to design the Seagram Building.
Getty Images
Room at the Plaza: Phyllis Lambert was influential in enlisting Mies van der Rohe to design the Seagram Building.

By Rachel Gordan

Published August 04, 2013, issue of August 09, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

BUILDING SEAGRAM
By Phyllis Lambert
Yale University Press, 320 pages, $65

Until the 1950s, architecture in New York was not much to look at. Highlights from the early 20th-century included the Gothic revival of the Woolworth Building (1913), as well as the Art Deco of the Chrysler Building (1930) and the Empire State Building (1931). Each, in its own way, was a little frilly, chaotic and overdone. Together they seemed to announce that architecture was not yet a cultural concern in New York.

Phyllis Lambert and the Seagram Building (1958) helped to change that.

Lambert’s new book, “Building Seagram,” is the story of one of the most iconic buildings in 20th-century American architecture. As the director of planning for the new corporate headquarters of her father, Samuel Bronfman, in the 1950s, Lambert selected a German refugee, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, as the Seagram building’s architect. That decision altered the appearance of New York’s urban landscape. It also changed the look of Seagram’s, which had been housed in the Chrysler Building.

While researching her book, Lambert made the unexpected discovery that the interior of the company’s 1930s headquarters was designed by architect Morris Lapidus, who went on to shape modern Miami Beach with a string of luxurious hotels, including the Fountainebleau. Seagram’s moved — from Lapidus’s baroque-modern excess (“Too Much Is Never Enough” was the title of Lapidus’s 1996 autobiography) — to Mies’s “Less is more” minimalism.

In Germany, Mies had been the last director of Germany’s Bauhaus school of design before Hitler banned modernist art, which he deemed “degenerate.” Mies immigrated during the 1930s to Chicago, where he became director of the architecture department in what is now the Illinois Institute of Art — Chicago. The Midwest proved a good fit for Mies. In Chicago, home of the American steel industry, Mies was able to investigate the modern materials that he preferred for the “bones” of his interiors. His modernist International Style also found new influences in the open spaces of Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs.

Even before Mies came to the United States, his designs had made an impression in this country. In a 1932 exhibition of modernist architecture at the Museum of Modern Art, Philip Johnson, founder of the museum’s architecture and design department, defined and codified the “International” style of architecture. Johnson placed a Mies design on the cover of the exhibition catalog.

From his perch at MoMA, Johnson continued to champion Mies, along with other European architects of the International Style. Despite this engagement with modernism, Johnson was also an ardent supporter of Hitler for almost a decade (he later recanted). He even left the art world briefly, to work for the political organization of the anti-Semitic broadcaster Rev. Charles Coughlin. Lambert’s book is not unusual in neglecting to mention this shameful past; it has been noted that Johnson was one of those untarnished, although vocal, Nazi supporters who seem never to have suffered a setback careerwise or socially on account of their politics. Nor does Lambert offer a glimpse into Mies’s brief support of Hitler (in hopes of winning the Führer’s patronage). These omissions are revealing of Lambert’s sometimes myopic vision. That she cared intensely about art and architecture is evident. Whether she cared about much beyond that is not as clear.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Israelis are taking up the #IceBucketChallenge — with hummus.
  • In WWI, Jews fought for Britain. So why were they treated as outsiders?
  • According to a new poll, 75% of Israeli Jews oppose intermarriage.
  • Will Lubavitcher Rabbi Moshe Wiener be the next Met Council CEO?
  • Angelina Jolie changed everything — but not just for the better:
  • Prime Suspect? Prime Minister.
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.