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

(page 3 of 3)

The best example of Mies and Lambert’s collaboration was the Seagram Plaza. The city’s first private open space, Seagram’s Plaza provided an oasis of calm on Park Avenue. Picnickers, readers and people watchers lounged along the plaza’s marble bench, proving that a company’s corporate headquarters could play generous host to a cross-section of the city. This was one of the places, in addition to the building’s restaurant (The Four Seasons) and its public art exhibition spaces, where Lambert could realize her original vision of Seagram’s giving back to the world.

There is a telling photograph in Lambert’s book, showing the first day that her father occupied his office in the new Seagram Building. In this 1957 snapshot, a 30-year-old Lambert stands beaming in a room full of Park Avenue suits. Her father grasps her arm firmly. Although the caption on this photograph reads “Samuel Bronfman commending Phyllis Lambert,” it is impossible to make out the traces of fatherly pride on his face.

To the right of Lambert stands Edgar Bronfman, but nothing about their posture reveals their sibling relationship. With a glass of wine (we are in the House of Seagram, after all), Saidye Bronfman sits with her back to the camera, so there is no record of how she felt about her daughter’s accomplishments. In this photograph, only Mies’s expression reveals the warmth and pride in Lambert that seems appropriate for the day. From Lambert’s description, Mies seems to have had the kind of presence that made others feel not only his depth, but also something of their own.

Lambert’s book, then, is more than the story of “the life of the building in the city,” as she puts it. Although Lambert is not forthcoming about her family’s life or her own, we get something of the mood of her visits to her parents’ home in Tarrytown, N.Y., and the distinctive ways in which both her father and Mies loomed as “great men.” More unusual is the picture provided of Lambert’s emergence as a mover in the world of architecture at a time when women in the field were rare. For those uninterested in the arcana of New York’s zoning laws, there is enough here to make an interesting read. Yet, Lambert has performed an impressive job of reconstructing even these details, from the archives and from her own records, into a fascinating story about New York’s built environment and those who have made it a livable space.

Rachel Gordan is the Ray D. Wolfe postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto.


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!
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • 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.