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Architecture: The Anti-Lobbyists

A postwar landmark is losing its marbles -- and Time isn't on its side.


One by one, the totems of the good life at Time Inc. have vanished. The cocktail carts don't come around on closing nights anymore. The propped-up carcass of Life was declared dead a couple of months ago. About the last thing that summons Henry Luce and his wildly successful arm of the gray-flannel Establishment is a walk through the fifties-high-style lobby of his Time & Life Building.

Not for long.

A renovation is coming to the timeworn lobby of 1271 Sixth Avenue, completed in 1959 by the architecture firm of Harrison & Abramovitz. The serpentine terrazzo floor -- scuffed and chipped but still beautiful -- will likely be replaced. The shops along the south side will be unrecognizably altered and sanitized. Time Inc. is expected to sign off on the Rockefeller Group's plans, but the Municipal Art Society -- which roused public interest to save Grand Central Terminal -- is once again throwing itself in front of the bulldozers. Time & Life is "a building of landmark quality," says Frank Sanchis, the Society's executive director. "We are simply putting them on notice." The Society can't prevent demolition, of course; only the Landmarks Preservation Commission has that power. "If someone wants to propose that the lobby should be considered for landmark status," says Landmarks chief of staff Terri Rosen Deutsch, "we would certainly consider it."

Preservationists have until recently considered buildings like this disasters, not treasures. (The AIA Guide calls the Sixth Avenue towers of Rockefeller Center "barren" and "dull.") But conventional wisdom has changed abruptly. Kurt Andersen -- architecture critic and former Time writer -- caught the feeling in Turn of the Century: "The skyscrapers that looked atrocious in 1980 and 1990 now, in 2000, look quaint, elegant, swingy . . . kind of cool." Every store on Lafayette Street is full of fifties furniture by Charles and Ray Eames -- who, in fact, designed several pieces expressly for Time Inc.'s offices. And now, just in time for the salad days of retro chic, Time Inc. is demolishing the real thing. Andersen, for his part, hopes to see the lobby preserved. "It is a great time capsule," he says. "Wouldn't it just be such a shame if they turned it into all those other New York high-rise lobbies from the 1980s?"


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