City Preserves Disco Aesthetic at One UN Plaza, Ambassador Grill

The lobby of One United Nations Plaza has been designated a landmark. | LANDMARKS PRESERVATION COMMISSION
The lobby of One United Nations Plaza has been designated a landmark. | KEVIN ROCHE JOHN DINKELOO AND ASSOCIATES LLC

BY JACKSON CHEN | The Landmarks Preservation Commission unanimously designated the Ambassador Grill and the hotel lobby at One United Nations Plaza the city’s most recently built interior landmark on January 17.

The commission’s designation covers the building’s main lobby area, the connected vestibule and hallway, and the Ambassador Grill dining and bar areas of the building’s ground floor on East 44th Street, just west of First Avenue. The Ambassador Grill and the hotel lobby, constructed in 1976 and 1983 respectively, were both designed by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates (KRJDA), a Connecticut-based architecture firm.

“We’re very excited and pleased [LPC] made that decision because they were important interiors to have survived,” Kevin Roche, the firm’s design principal and the architect of the spaces, told Manhattan Express. “We’re very proud of them and they’ve been there for quite a while.”

The Ambassador Grill and hotel lobby are the LPC’s 118th interior landmark and had been supported by many in the preservation community. During the public hearing in November, preservationists, including Theodore Grunewald, were joined by Docomomo US, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving modern architecture across the nation, and KRJDA executives in rallying for protection of spaces viewed as emblematic of the disco era.

“This is going to be New York City’s youngest landmark, this is the first interior that represent the 1970s,” Grunewald said. “It’s really a precedent-setting breakthrough because in terms or preservation of our architectural heritage, this is new territory.”

Kevin Roche's 1983 interior is viewed as emblematic of the disco era in New York. | LANDMARKS PRESERVATION COMMISSION
Kevin Roche’s 1983 interior is viewed as emblematic of the disco era in New York. | KEVIN ROCHE JOHN DINKELOO AND ASSOCIATES LLC

LPC research staff noted in their reports the praise the spaces received from noted architectural critics who said they were highly representative of the late 1970s to early ‘80s with their kaleidoscopic reflective designs. While many touted the interiors as the work of a master in his prime, Roche said he wasn’t particularly focused on creating a legacy when he did the work, but rather in creating what he wanted.

“I never thought of it,” Roche said of the design process. “I was just doing what I felt like doing at that moment in time. I wasn’t really trying to belong to any particular period. It was an opportunity to bring some life and activity to that corner of New York, which is very dead outside the UN.”

But commissioners were clearly impressed by the quality of Roche’s work, pointing out that the designation of the grill and lobby spaces furthers their mission of capturing notable works that reflect specific time periods in the city’s history.

“I think [these critics] speak, as well as the public testimony, to the importance of these interiors to the time,” commissioner Fred Bland said. “And I think that’s what this commission is always trying to achieve is architecture that represents its time.”

LPC chair Meenakshi Srinivasan noted the difficulties in landmarking interiors since the commission’s criteria require that space be publically accessible and remain intact, factors that were both met. The space, she said, was “a classic example of late post-modernism that is legible through its design, its materials, and its aesthetics.”

Those calling for the landmarking were pleased that the Ambassador Grill and hotel lobby would be joining the likes of Grand Central Terminal and Radio City Music Hall.

The areas preserved represented the most recently constructed interior landmarks in the city. | LANDMARKS PRESERVATION COMMISSION
The areas preserved represented the most recently constructed interior landmark in the city. | KEVIN ROCHE JOHN DINKELOO AND ASSOCIATES LLC

“We are delighted to see these important and dazzling spaces get the respect and credit they deserve,” Docomomo’s executive director, Liz Waytkus, said. “Designating the Ambassador Grill and UN Hotel lobby offers the preservation movement a chance to celebrate but also reflect as their designation confirms the continuum of the landmarking process.”

While the LPC’s action represents an enormous victory, preservationists and even the architect himself are scratching their heads at why the designation left out a lounge and seating area adjacent to the hallway that was included.

“It was a little strange and I wonder why they bothered to exclude it,” Roche said of the seating area. “But if that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes. I have no idea what they’re going to do with it.”

Roche said he offered his work pro-bono on any re-design plans the owner of the interiors, Millennium Hotels, has for the lounge area, but has yet to hear back from the company. From Grunewald’s perspective, collaboration between Roche and the owner could bring a positive outcome for the lounge area.

Noting that the designation still requires City Council approval, which could be derailed by Millennium’s opposition, Grunewald said he is “cautiously optimistic” about the designation.

“We’re disappointed the lounge was excluded from the designation especially since the area could easily accommodate new functions without destroying its architectural character,” Grunewald said. “We hope the owner will reconsider preservation of this area in spite of the fact it doesn’t have any regulatory protection from the landmarks commission.”

Representatives of Millennium Hotels could not be reached for comment.

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