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UN Hotel's 'Disco Era' Interior Should be Landmarked, Preservationists Say

By Noah Hurowitz | January 20, 2016 5:09pm
 Preservationists want to get an emergency hearing to designate the Ambassador Grill as a landmark.
Preservationists want to get an emergency hearing to designate the Ambassador Grill as a landmark.
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KRJDA/Ronald Livieri

MIDTOWN EAST — Preservationists are scrambling to protect the interior of the flashy Ambassador Grill restaurant in the One UN Plaza New York Hotel out of concern that renovations could irreparably harm what they call a “time capsule” from 1975.

The restaurant features flashy, mirrored-glass walls and geometric patterns in the ceiling that harken back to the late-modernist tastes of the disco era. But since it closed for renovations on Nov. 15, the interior has been off-limits, and lovers of modernist architecture are concerned it could be gone for good.

Representatives for a group called Docomomo — short for Documentation of Buildings, Sites and Neighborhoods of the Modernist Movement — on Jan. 8 filed a request for evaluation with the Landmarks Preservation Commission requesting an expedited hearing to designate the Ambassador Grill as a landmark.

“It’s a drop-dead gorgeous interior, and I don’t know what’s more amazing: the space, or the fact that it’s survived since the 1970s without a whole lot of changes,” said Liz Waytkus, director of Docomomo-US.

The move came two months after the hotel's parent company, Millennium Hotels and Resorts, announced in a Nov. 11 statement its plan to close the restaurant through the spring and "debut a new restaurant and bar concept."

Along with the rest of United Nations Plaza, the restaurant’s distinctive, mirrored-glass interior is the work of Kevin Roche, a renowned modernist architect known for the innovative Ford Foundation building in Midtown. 

Much of the work Roche and his partners are known for is tucked away inside corporate offices, making the public space of the Ambassador Grill that much more important, Waytkus said.

Because interiors tend to see more alteration over time than building exteriors, they tend to face a more uphill battle to get designation. But the Ambassador Grill retains nearly all the original elements of the initial design completed in 1975, and represents a tribute to modernist architecture, Waytkus said.

“If the Commission fails to act, there’s nothing to stop the owner from demolishing the interior, that’s my worst fear," said Theodore Grunewald, a preservationist activist.

The company's representatives have for years been open about its plans to scrap an interior design they see as outdated.

A representative of the hotel declined to discuss the specifics of the renovations, but a 2012 report in the Wall Street Journal quoted hotel consultant Grace Leo as calling the space “just darn tired,” and detailed her plans to update it and strip the mirrored glass walls.

Roche, the architect, who is now 93, said he was surprised when he heard several years ago that the hotel's owners planned to remodel the restaurant that he had designed with the intention of creating a space for diplomats from the United Nations to come together and strengthen the world community.

“I’m really very surprised, because I thought it functioned pretty well as a lobby and as a restaurant,” Roche said. “I don’t know why they’d do a complete refurbishment, but you never can tell.”

He added that he would be happy to see the interior designated as a landmark, though he was modest about the significance of his work.

“I think it would be great if they could do it, but whether it’s deserving I can’t say,” he said. “Virtually no building survives without someone getting their thumbs on it and messing around a little bit.”