SOM gets second crack at iconic modernist structure in New York

More than 50 years after SOM completed the Manufacturers Hanover Trust building, the firm is asked to restore and modernize the space.

October 09, 2013 |
The luminous ceilings at the landmark Manufacturers Hanover Trust building in Ne

It’s not every day that an architecture firm gets a second crack at one of its masterpieces. More than 50 years after SOM’s Gordon Bunshaft completed his landmark modernist bank building, Manufacturers Hanover Trust at 510 Fifth Avenue, the firm was approached by the building’s new owner to renovate the first two floors and basement for retail occupancy.

Known for its luminous ceilings, expansive glass curtain wall fac?ade (one of the first in New York), and muscular bank vault on display 10 feet behind the glass exterior, 510 Fifth Avenue had lost much of its luster through the years. Numerous ownership transitions and tenant changeovers had led to insensitive modifications that detracted from the building’s most redeeming characteristic: its transparency. The insertion of partitions on the ground level and around the escalator blocked views from Fifth Avenue, and the building’s luminous ceilings had lost much of their monolithic, nighttime glow.

Vornado Realty Trust tasked SOM with restoring the building’s primary design elements while modifying the spaces for retail use. This included updating the structural capacity to satisfy city retail loading requirements, relocating and reorienting the escalators connecting the first and second floors, installing an elevator between the basement and the second floor, and removing the load-bearing vault on the first floor while preserving the ornamental vault door.


New York, N.Y.

Building Team 
Submitting firm: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (architect, structural engineer) 
Owner: Vornado Realty Trust 
Interior architect: Callison 
MEP engineer: Highland Associates 
Construction manager: Richter+Ratner 
General contractor: Sweet Construction
General Information 
Size: 30,000 sf 
Construction time: 2010 to 2012 
Delivery method: Design-build

The program posed several structural design obstacles. Tests showed that the second-floor framing was originally designed for 50 psf of live load, shy of the 75-psf retail requirement. Making matters worse, the relocation of the escalator and dismantling of the load-bearing vault walls required the removal of critical structural members. The Building Team solved this problem by inserting structural steel framing and composite metal deck with lightweight concrete in critical areas and applying fiber reinforced polymer fabric as supplemental support for less-crucial members.

Other modifications included replacing the signature luminous ceiling to match in color temperature and brightness throughout the building, and restoring the exterior spandrels and interior marble columns to their original luster. Finally, a sculptural screen designed by Harry Bertoia that had been taken down during a tenant vacancy was carefully reinstalled.

The Reconstruction Awards judges called the 510 Fifth Avenue project a proverbial win-win. The owner gets commercially viable retail space set in one of the city’s most prominent shopping districts, and the city gets an architectural gem back as it was originally designed in 1954.

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