Sunday, November 15, 2020

What Happened at Bonwit Teller?

When the Biden victory was called that Saturday morning, my wife started crying and for many hours couldn’t stop.  I had to explain to one person at the hospital that she was not in pain but they were tears of joy.  I was wrong!


Penelope told me later that when she heard trump (I will never capitalize his name) was on his way out she was reliving what he did to her and her institution 40 years earlier.


It was June 5, 1980 and Penelope called me totally frantic, “get your camera and meet me at the Robert Miller gallery." My colleague’s gallery was  right across the street from Bonwit Teller department store which was being demolished to make way for Trump Tower. 


Built in 1929 by the Stewart Company it was meant to be the last word in elegance in the French-inspired Art Deco style. Bankrupted following the Wall Street crash, the Stewart store was purchased by Bonwit Teller who engaged the well-known architect, Eli Jacques Kahn to redo the building in an updated American style.  The entrance was modernized with a 20x30 foot bronze grill, but two 15-foot tall figural Art Deco relief sculptures remained at the top of the fa├žade. Penelope felt that  the two elements were a wonderful illustration of New York’s architectural transition from 1920’s Art Deco to what was to become known in the 30’s as the Moderne style.


At that time, Penelope was the curator in the Metropolitan Museum’s Department of 20th century arts, building the decorative arts (today known as Design) collection. When she learned that Bonwit Teller was going to be torn down by the new owner donald trump, she contacted his staff.  Getting him a serious appraisal of $200,000 which could have served as a tax deduction she also offered great PR for his debut as a developer in Manhattan. She vividly remembers the personal meeting where he agreed to donate the grill and reliefs to the museum saying, “It will be a great deal!”


The entrance grill disappeared first. Penelope was told that it had gone to a salvage yard in New Jersey so the Met sent out a truck and registrar’s crew but the salvage company knew nothing about it. Lately it has been rumored to be in donald’s, trump tower dining room which, at a couple of stories high, could accommodate it.



Then, on June 5 Robert Miller, the art dealer whose gallery looked out directly on the Bonwit Teller reliefs and who had made the appraisal, called Penelope at the Met to say he believed that they were about to jackhammer the stonework. Penelope, 9-months pregnant, (our son was born on June 14) jumped into a cab only to get caught in a typical Fifth Avenue traffic jam. “She “got out and ran”, as well as a pregnant woman can, the 10 blocks to the Miller gallery. I joined her at my colleague’s gallery as Penelope declared, “I am going over there” but Robert cut her off saying “They will recognize you. I will go”.  Gathering all the cash in the gallery, he rushed down to find the foreman of the crew, offering to pay if they would preserve the reliefs.  When he came back fuming, he said “They won’t do it.  The foreman said that the young donald told him personally that the reliefs must be destroyed because some crazy lady from a museum up town wanted them”.



Art Deco relief, detail

The story received several articles in the New York Times and on television at the time.  A photograph I took was panned over by ABC making it look like a video, but Robert Miller’s gallery director got most of the photographic play!


The story is included in a book by Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher called “Trump Revealed” published by Scribner in 2016. It was revived in  the NY Times and Washington Post and  even made it to our local paper the New Mexican when trump posed as a defender of history and culture after Charlottesville.


Back in 1980 trump,  using a technique we have unfortunately come to know well, contacted the press as a “Mr. Baron” of the Trump organization, making up stories that ranged from their having had had the sculptures appraised by three  art experts who had found they had no artistic merit, to it would have cost too much to take down the reliefs, to  someone on the street below might have been hurt during their removal.


Today it is just more of the same! 

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