Fifth Avenue helps define New York as one of the cultural and business capitals of the world. As a young developer, Donald Trump wanted to create a sensation and build a Trump Tower on the famous street. In 1979, Trump bought and then demolished the old Bonwit Teller store. The demolition was not without controversy and included the surprise destruction of several works of art originally intended to be saved.
Bonwit Teller was one of the iconic luxury retailers on Fifth Avenue. Located at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and West 56th Street, its 12-story limestone and granite store was designed by Warren and Wetmore, the architects of Grand Central Terminal.
The structure was originally the MI Stewart & Co .. women’s clothing store. Stewart opened in October 1929, just 8 days before the stock market crash. Within 5 months, Stewart & Co. failed and Bonwit Teller acquired the building.
Bonwit Teller has been a mainstay of Fifth Avenue for nearly five decades. He saw the glory days when drivers and doormen were a way of life for customers. But over time, Fifth Avenue got tired and several retailers closed or moved to other neighborhoods.
While researching a site, Trump learned that Bonwit Teller had become unprofitable and his owners needed the money and could be convinced to sell the Fifth Avenue site. For several years, he relentlessly pressured the company to sell. In January 1979, Trump acquired the Bonwit Teller building for $ 15 million.
After the purchase, Trump demanded the demolition of Bonwit Teller in order to clean up the site and build a 58-story Trump Tower residential, office and retail complex.
Trump hired architect Der Scutt for his new Trump Tower. Scutt tried to convince Trump to approve a design reflecting the traditional and dignified neighborhood. Trump was adamant that he wanted his Trump Tower to be a bronze-colored glass skyscraper. Scutt failed to influence Trump. In 1980, the architect said New York magazine, “If Donald didn’t build it, it’s not good. And it has to flash to be good.
As Bonwit Teller braced for demolition, Tories urged Trump to save two artistic elements. A pair of 15-foot bas-relief sculptures, depicting nude women dancing with scarves, and a large nickel-plated gate, located above the store’s main entrance, have been pledged to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Trump agreed to donate them to the Met as long as the costs and the ability to physically remove the Art Deco artifacts were not unreasonably expensive.
Trump surprised New York’s arts community on June 5, 1980 when a demolition crew rammed into the building’s sculptures. In addition, complex grids have been removed. The destruction sparked a public outcry. The Met received no notice.
Trump initially avoided any comment on Bonwit Teller’s artwork. But John Baron, spokesperson for the Trump Organization, contacted the New York Daily News to discuss the situation. The baron informed the Daily News that “the merit of the stones was not great enough to justify the effort to save them”. Baron said the removal process could have delayed the construction schedule for the Trump Tower by two weeks. Baron also told the New York Times
Long after Baron’s first contact, the New York Daily News learned that John Baron was actually Donald Trump, disguised.
Members of the Met’s board of directors and staff were furious and confused over Baron’s claims that the sculptures lacked merit. “Can you imagine the [Met] accept them if they had no artistic value? asked Ashton Hawkins, a member of the Met’s board of directors.
The day after “Baron” called the Daily NewsDonald Trump issued a statement saying the sculptures should be reduced to stone. “My biggest concern was the safety of people on the street below… People could have been killed. For me, it wouldn’t have been worth that kind of risk.
Although Trump claimed that removing the sculptures would have cost his organization approximately $ 500,000, a first estimate, made public, amounted to an expenditure of $ 32,000.
Later this year, Trump said New York magazine that art [at Bonwit Teller] was ‘worthless’ and the ‘Met didn’t want it’. He also boasted that the publicity was not entirely negative. “The day after the [Bonwit Teller] the story made the headlines TimeI must have gotten two dozen calls from people who wanted apartments in Trump Tower. It was a fantastic promotion.
Trump hired Kaszycki & Sons to clean up the Bonwit Teller site. Kaszycki & Sons was largely a window cleaning company with little experience in demolition. Kaszycki brought in over 200 undocumented Polish workers who worked 12 hour shifts for just $ 4 an hour. The company did not provide any safety equipment, protective helmets, glasses or masks, despite reports of asbestos. In 1983, several Polish workers filed a complaint against Trump, as the owner of the property, over the “horrible and terrible conditions” at the demolition site. After 15 years of litigation, Trump paid workers $ 1.4 million and settled the case.
Bonwit Teller remained in business after the closure of its former Fifth Avenue flagship store. She operated over a dozen stores from Short Hills to Beverly Hills. But in an unforeseen twist, it eventually returned to Fifth Avenue and became the primary retail anchor for the new Trump Tower.
However, he I didn’t feel like the same Bonwit Teller who had responded to high income New York clients. The new Bonwit Teller lacked the size and sophistication of its old location.
In August 1989 Bonwit Teller was bankrupt and the entire chain was put up for sale. Trump wanted the retailer to leave Trump Tower as soon as possible. His wish came true and the legendary retailer collapsed and closed its doors a few months later.
Shortly after, Trump excitedly announced that the famous Parisian department store, Galeries Lafayette, would take over the space. Despite the initial fanfare, Galeries Lafayette closed after only three years. The store was too small and too ordinary for Fifth Avenue.
A few years later, the British jeweler Asprey moved into the former Bonwit Teller space. It also lasted only three years.
Donald Trump is not responsible for the disappearance of Bonwit Teller. Although enjoying a prestigious reputation, Bonwit Teller seemed frozen in the past. The retailer has grown heavy and has lost many of its exclusive brands. The company suffered from excessive inventory levels and too many branches.
Bonwit Teller was just one of those classic Fifth Avenue businesses. The majestic Art Deco emporium evoked an era of class and dignity. But the business has not been healthy for many years. The constant change in owner and management of the store has left the business rudderless. By the end of the 80s, the store no longer seemed relevant.
As Bonwit Teller struggled, he became vulnerable. This is true on Fifth Avenue and all the other main streets and malls in this country.
It’s unfortunate that old Bonwit Teller couldn’t find his way into the future. It’s a shame that some of the building’s priceless sculptures were destroyed for lack of appreciation and patience. Fifth Avenue lost some of its heritage and dignity when masterpieces were replaced with glass skyscrapers insulated in gold.