Growing Out of the ’60s: The Ford Foundation Building Gets Renewed

Photo: Richard Barnes/Ford Foundation

Renovating a building is like taking a long, honest look at your life. You have to decide which parts to keep buffing and which have fallen away, how much sameness to cling to without getting stuck in the past, how to embrace change without betraying your core. Preservation means understanding that a course chosen decades ago no longer means the same thing. In the 1960s, a handsome ashtray embedded in an armrest was a touch of thoughtfully deluxe design, not an incitement to antisocial behavior. Few of us were ever as enlightened as we thought.

Those brass ashtrays remain — as relics, rather than conveniences — in the seats of the Ford Foundation’s auditorium after a sensitive, even self-indulgently gorgeous renovation. The $205 million refurbishment, by Gensler and the landscape architecture firm Jungles Studio, has rejuvenated the building (which faces East 42nd and 43rd Streets, between First and Second Avenues), and restored many details while deliberately transforming its spirit. Completed in 1967, when Manhattan seemed unbearably chaotic, the building, by Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo, bathed the foundation staff in an atmosphere of monastic serenity. The centerpiece of this urban retreat was an indoor public garden designed by Dan Kiley, where stepped walkways paved in topsoil-colored brick threaded through dense greenery, rich in blossoms, foliage, and shade. With touching hubris, the architects believed that the beauty of their midtown Eden would promote world peace. “It will be possible, in this building, to look across the court and see your fellow man or sit on a bench in the garden and discuss the problems of Southeast Asia. There will be an awareness of the whole scope of the foundation’s activities,” Roche predicted before construction had even begun.

With an endowment of $12.7 billion, the Ford Foundation battles injustice around the world, an infinite task carried out by a surprisingly small staff. The foundation’s current president, the perpetual-motion justice warrior Darren Walker, isn’t interested in presiding over a cloister; he wants the building to buzz. “Kevin Roche said it was about calm and reflection,” Walker told me. “Today it will be more kinetic, dynamic, and filled with energy. The work we do ought to be energizing. It should create a sense of urgency.” The Landmarks Preservation Commission, which must sign off on every physical alteration to the exterior and the public atrium, has no jurisdiction over its dynamism or kinetic energy, but the most profound changes can’t be legislated.

Until it closed for renovations two years ago, only a few hundred employees and visitors circulated through the 12 stories. Now the organization has withdrawn into a fraction of its previous space, halving the size of the president’s once imperial, now merely princely, suite. That shrinkage frees up space for three other nonprofit groups to rent, plus an art gallery and an abundance of meeting rooms (or “convening spaces,” in the foundation’s new kumbaya terminology) available to like-minded outside groups. “We can have 2,000 people in here at a time,” Walker says, with relish.

The premises were quiet on the day I visited — the public areas open December 11 — so the contemplative air that Roche achieved was still intact. That temporary tranquility allowed me to linger over the building’s inherent genius, and note the care and the fault lines in the restoration.

Most mid-century office buildings celebrated shiny newness and had no plans to get old. The Ford Foundation seemed to have been born eternal. Like its peers, it was made mostly of glass, but ruddy granite piers gave it the solidity of an Egyptian temple. The patina of rust on the Cor-Ten beams suggested great age but not decay. Those materials, set off by acres of glass, create a dance of delicacy and brawn. Gensler began by stripping the building down to its bones, an evisceration that rattled some preservationists. Asbestos had to be removed, crumbly acoustical tiles trashed, a wheezing ventilation system traded in for a new one. And all the machinery that keeps a great work of architecture running had to be made invisible in a virtually see-through structure.

Astonishingly, the feel of the original emerged largely intact. Walker, an aficionado of mid-century design with an eye for detail, spent serious money to salvage whatever was salvageable. Hanging brass lighting fixtures, door handles, granite-topped credenzas (some with embedded hot plates), Platner tables and chairs, black walnut bookshelves, bronze trim — 1,500 items in all — were given back their mid-century gleam. The Ford Foundation Building has become a museum of itself.

Museums change too, of course, and anyone who toiled here in the 1960s would find his or her old workplace transformed. In place of the glass-walled offices that once lined the atrium, a walkway on each floor connects large spaces filled with workstations. Maybe that close packing of workers boosts the foundation’s social-justice mission, but I’ve always suspected that the open-plan office is the sort of thing executives believe is perfect for others. Does anyone who works in one actually love a cubicle?

Photo: Richard Barnes/Ford Foundation

For the public, though, the heart of the building remains Kiley’s climate-controlled Eden. Its mere existence is a miracle. In a city where builders wring every drop of usable space out of the site and the zoning envelope, Ford gave up substantial floor area for the sake of trees, light, and air. Maybe even more miraculously, the garden looks and feels lusher and more layered than it did before.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: that fatalistic phrase about human immutability takes on a different cast when you’re talking about an indoor garden. In the atrium, everything had to change in order for it to return to the way it had once been, or almost. Kiley died in 2004, so the renovation gave another landscape architect, the perfectly surnamed Raymond Jungles, a once-in-a-career opportunity to tear out every last root and replant an experimental masterpiece from scratch.

Kiley was a master of modernist order and balance, but at the Ford Foundation he fashioned an indoor patch of wilderness. Maximizing the variety of textures, he laid out a multilevel cathedral of greenery with ground-hugging ferns, medium-height magnolias, and eucalyptus trees he thought would soar to 80 feet. The verdant atrium was a new invention, though, and Kiley relied on guesswork that didn’t always pan out and on maintenance that didn’t materialize. Over the years, the ceiling-mounted grow lights burned out, and magnolias twisted toward the meager sunlight and suffered infestations. By the time Jungles got involved, Kiley’s limpid park had blurred beyond recognition. “He provided a walk in the woods in the middle of Manhattan, a canopied woodland setting. We found a salad of whatever plants could survive,” Jungles said.

Jungles concluded that if he just reproduced the original plan, the garden would wither again. Instead, he replaced the magnolias with a variety of tropical ficus, the Amstel King, and the long-dead eucalyptuses with Shady Lady black olive trees. The goal was to emulate the symphonic effect of foliage, bloom, and shade. “We were true to Dan Kiley’s intentions, but it’s a completely new plant design,” Jungles says. He claims that will never need to happen again: The foundation has committed to a long-range maintenance program that ensures that the design will be tuned and tweaked but no longer left to chance.

For 50 years, the Ford Foundation building has carried a heavy metaphorical load: as beacon, fortress, temple, refuge, and emblem of philanthropic arrogance. Walker speaks volubly about how the renovation reflects the organization’s new ethos. Views that run right through the building, and out to the city beyond, suit a more “outward-facing” foundation. The gallery elevates the role of artists, for they “speak truth to power.” New signage inviting the public into the atrium will strike a blow against the “monetization of public space.” Lost in the pileup of symbols is one hard bright marker of progress: the fact that the design now actively welcomes people with disabilities rather than shunting them round the back.

Too often, even expensive overhauls of old buildings accommodate the disabled with grudging afterthoughts, off-the-shelf kits, and wobbly ramps. The message is unmistakable: We comply, so don’t complain. But the Ford Foundation goes much further than the legally mandated minimum, integrating accessibility into the fabric of the design. That’s an achievement that should become a universal goal.

Kiley organized his garden on a slope traversed by stairs, an elegant terracing that gratified the young and the able-bodied but stranded everyone else near the 42nd Street entrance. Fixing that required a few significant modifications: widening doors within the existing frames, removing plantings where the vegetation brushed the glass, tucking a new wheelchair lift against a granite pier, and replacing two steps with a ramp so gentle it hardly seems to slope at all. To some preservationists, each of these steps was a violation that chipped away at the design’s integrity. They are not wrong to defend the details, but Gensler’s interventions in the atrium merge almost seamlessly with Roche’s original. The lift, ensconced in a brass and dark metal armature, looks like it could have been there for 50 years. The ever-so-slightly sloping path is paved in the original dark brick. In any case, the tradeoffs far outweigh the loss. The changes preserve the dignity of all those who have trouble walking. Now that they can move through it, the garden transforms from an object into an experience, and that’s all the difference in the world.

*A version of this article appears in the December 10, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Growing Out of the ’60s: The Ford Foundation Building Redo