When Donald Trump razed the old Bonwit Teller building, he promised to put up its Art Deco friezes. Instead, he tore them down
Donald Trump’s relationship with the Metropolitan Museum of Art was permanently damaged early on. He refused to donate the works of art he had promised to the museum and had them destroyed, along with a venerable building that had played an important role in the history of American art.
On this site, at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 56th Street in Manhattan, where Trump built his high-profile Trump Tower project between 1980 and 1982, the flagship store of the luxury department store chain Bonwit Teller and Co .was before. The 1929 building was the work of the same architects who designed Grand Central Terminal, Whitney Warren and Charles Wetmore. It was originally intended to house the Stewart women’s department store. Bonwit Teller, who took over the building in 1930 and reopened it, soon worked with world-renowned artists. From 1936, the Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dalí regularly decorated the windows with spectacular installations, for example in 1939, working on the theme “night and day”. In the 1950s, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg worked at the same time for the company as window dressers, under the pseudonym of “Matson Jones”. Among other things, Johns exhibited his now iconic painting Flag on orange field behind a mannequin in shop windows in 1957. That same year at the same place, Rauschenberg showed his Red combination paint with others. Two years earlier, the great photographic work Matson Jones blue ceiling could be seen in the background of the Bonwit Teller windows.
In 1959, James Rosenquist was also working for the department store. Half a century later, he recalls: “At the end of the 1950s, I had begun to lead a double life. During the day, I painted billboards and designed window displays for Bonwit Teller, Tiffany’s and Bloomingdale’s; at night and on weekends, I hung out with artists and painted. In 1961, five large-format paintings by then almost totally unknown artist Andy Warhol stood upright and hung in the windows of Fifth Avenue. Warhol was then earning his living mainly with publicity assignments, beginning in 1951 with a job for Bonwit Teller’s billboard manager, Gene Moore. At the time, this descendant of Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants was not taken seriously as a painter. Ten years later, Warhol changed his approach, putting his own works in the windows of Bonwit Teller, and his global career took off. Today a museum director would kill for one of these paintings, including the now famous Blast with its Superman theme, and Before and After 1 which represents a nose job. “For more than 50 years, Bonwit Teller has had an eye on New York’s avant-garde art scene,” according to the scholarly publication art history summarizes the meaning of this New York art site. “Under Moore’s mid-century guidance, Bonwit Teller gave many modern artists their start in the world of art and design. With free creative reign, avant-garde artists experimented in a department store window, transforming a storefront into an alternative art space and introducing the public to new and exciting styles.
This part of art and New York history seems to have eluded Donald Trump. And that’s not all: the developer wasn’t even willing to save the works of art inside the building from destruction, breaking a promise made to the famous Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is located nearby. for profit and time were dearer to him than culture.
After all, Trump hadn’t bought the Bonwit Teller building for $15 million in 1979 when the department store went bankrupt. in order to preserve a historical monument. He wanted to create a monument for himself: the Trump Tower. The demolition was already decided upon when the contracts were signed. And the art that adorned the building only interested the developer for a short time, when he thought he could do business with it and restore its image, Trump’s eternal principle in art.
Near the top of the 11-story building there were two limestone relief panels of two nearly naked women holding up large sashes, as if dancing, in which the Metropolitan Museum of Art had shown great interest in its collection of sculptures. . The Metropolitan, one of the largest and most important museums in the world, had also wanted to add to its 20th-century applied art department the six-by-nine meter geometrically patterned bronze trellis that hung above Bonwit Teller’s entrance. By all accounts, Trump had agreed to give both away, if his employees were able to get them off the walls.
The New York Times and The Washington Post reconstruct what happened next. Their investigations not only demonstrated that Trump broke his promise and destroyed valuable works of art. Reporters discovered that when his cultural crime caused an uproar, Trump hid behind a pseudonym and lied to the public: media interactions throughout his campaign for the White House.
When reporters asked the Trump Organization about the existence of the two limestone Art Deco friezes, a spokesperson named John Barron replied: Three independent experts had concluded that the works had “no artistic value” and were worth at most about $9,000. . According to “Barron”, the move would have cost $32,000 and meant a week and a half delay in demolition work. The alleged costs for the delay were later calculated by Trump at $500,000. The next day, “Barron” reportedly said that the bronze trellis that hung over the entrance to the Bonwit Teller building was also missing: “We don’t know what happened to it.” Artist Otto J. Teegan, who had designed the piece in 1930, replied, “It’s not something you could slip into your coat and walk away with.” “It’s strange that someone like Trump, who is spending $80 million or $100 million on this building, thinks it could cost up to $32,000 to take down these panels.”
Journalists have not given up looking for these works of art promised to the American public. Three days later, the New York Times wrote: “Repeated efforts over the past three days to reach Mr. Trump have been unsuccessful.” On the fourth day, the real estate developer contacts the journalists and explains that he himself ordered the destruction of the bas-reliefs of Bonwit Teller: “Because their removal could have cost more than $500,000 in taxes, demolition delays and other expenses, and could have endangered passing pedestrians on Fifth Avenue. “My biggest concern was the safety of people on the street below,” said the 33-year-old promoter, who argued that cranes, scaffolding and the most careful handling could not have ensured the safe removal. security of the two cracked and weathered tons. high limestone panels on the facade of the building. “If one of these stones had slipped, he said, people could have been killed. To me, it wouldn’t have been worth that kind of risk. In truth, Trump’s biographer Harry Hurt III confirmed that Trump himself made sure that the workmen had to remove the bronze latticework above the entrance with torches, separate the friezes from the walls with jackhammers and break them with crowbars, and throw them inside the building where they shattered into a million pieces. Ashton Hawkins, vice chairman and secretary to the Met’s board, was among those outraged and said The New York Times in June 1980: “How extraordinary. I know there was a gift offer in case the items could be salvaged. I think that would be enough to guide them in their actions. We are certainly very disappointed and quite surprised. Hawkins dismissed with a single sentence Trump’s argument that the sculptures had no value: “Can you imagine the museum accepting them if they had no artistic value?” “The reliefs are as important as the sculptures in the Rockefeller Building,” explained gallerist Robert Miller, who had assessed the reliefs earlier. “They will never be made again.”
Today, as President Trump calls anything that is not in line with his political views ‘fake news’, he has had to admit that he adopted a false identity to explain his views to the public. Alleged press spokesman John Barron, who sometimes went by the name Baron and sometimes identified himself as vice president of the Trump Organization, was none other than Trump himself. In legal proceedings in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York in Manhattan regarding the illegal employment of Polish workers in the Trump Tower building for $4 per hour Trump has admitted that he and one of his executives have used John Barron’s name in some of their business dealings. Outside the courthouse, he confidently explained, “A lot of people use pseudonyms. Ernest Hemingway used one. Sometimes he used the pseudonym “John Miller” for statements such as those about famous women like Madonna or Kim Bassinger who supposedly wanted to meet Trump. In March 2006, Melania and Donald Trump named their son Barron.
Two dismissive statements Trump made later in 1980 show that the Bonwit Teller affair, which damaged his long-term reputation in New York intellectual circles, continued to trouble Trump. At an event at Manhattan’s Grand Hyatt hotel, owner Trump spoke about the gold mylar table decorations and lion-headed medallions above the ballroom entrance “Real art, not like the trash I destroyed at Bonwit Teller.
And in the summer of that year, a New York Times The story quoted Trump: “’There’s nothing I’d want to do more than give something to a museum,’ he said in a recent interview. Why? “I have always been interested in art.” A visitor observed that there was no art in Mr. Trump’s office. The developer thought about it for a moment. Then, with a smile, he pointed to an idealized illustration of Trump Tower hanging on one of the walls. “If that isn’t art,” Mr. Trump said, “then I don’t know what is.”
Follow Artnet News on Facebook:
Want to stay one step ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to receive breaking news, revealing interviews and incisive reviews that move the conversation forward.