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.
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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.
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At the time when Mies chose Johnson as his New York associate on the Seagram Building project, Lambert notes, only Johnson was a “powerful figure in New York City.” It is a reminder that Bronfman’s distilling business and his alleged dealings with bootleggers were often impediments to the social and professional prestige that he so desired. In midcentury New York, Prohibition was not the strange and distant historical episode that it is today. Bronfman’s line of work, not to mention his Jewishness — which Lambert merely mentions, providing no elaboration on its significance — was no help in gaining entrance to elite New York society.

Enter 375 Park Avenue. The new Seagram Building allowed Bronfman to express, in material form, his achievements and his arrival as an industrialist.

“The Seagram building was to be more than a company headquarters,” Lambert writes of her father’s ambition. “I believe he came to see it as a monument to the opportunities that business afforded in the New World, a monument to his company, which was his own doing, and therefore, ultimately, a monument to himself.” Ironically, Bronfman’s estranged daughter helped him to achieve that vision.

Lambert writes of her cool relationship with her father: “He considered only his sons to be in the line of business succession, and as a child with a strong aversion to all talk about business and money, I was a self-imposed outsider, immersed in art, committed to sculpture by the age of nine, constantly dreaming about becoming an independent artist.” That self-imposed barrier included an ocean. After divorcing her husband in 1954, Lambert moved to Paris to live as an artist.

The details of this adventure abroad are only tantalizingly suggested here (the reader gets the feeling that Lambert could write more than a few memoirs centering on her life as an artist and as the daughter of Samuel Bronfman), for Lambert is laser-focused on her subject. There is also an impressive lack of name-dropping, beyond that relevant to the story, for a book in this genre of personalized history.

For all of Bronfman’s and Lambert’s differences, it was the father’s success that not only facilitiated his daughter’s early artistic sojourns (private sculpture lessons as a child proved formative, and Lambert’s Vassar education provided her with a strong art history basis), but also brought Lambert into the orbit of architecture, where she found her calling as an artist.

When Bronfman mailed his 28-year-old daughter plans for the new building, her artistic sensibilities were so offended that she wrote an impassioned reply, outlining what she believed were his ethical responsibilities: “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.”

The result was a phone call from Samuel Bronfman, asking his daughter to come to New York “to choose the marble for the ground floor” of the new building. The job evolved after Lambert returned to New York; she selected the building’s architect and became the intermediary between the company’s executives and its design staff. In the process, and particularly through contact with Mies, Lambert blossomed as an architect.


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