Since the building once known as the IBM building was formally dedicated on October 4, 1983, its glass-enclosed covered pedestrian space has garnered near universal recognition as New York City’s peerless privately owned public space, a tree-filled conservatory and public living room rolled into one. Like many storied urban places, it has generated its share of amusing anecdotes and intriguing characters. In the late 1980s, after trying out a number of midtown indoor public spaces as rent-free offices for their budding dress company, two enterprising New Yorkers selected the IBM space. And for years, a red-sweatered woman devotedly occupied a small spot and assiduously typed away on her manual typewriter. Along with the countless others who have enjoyed eating, conversing, reading, and resting here, the presence of these users has epitomized the ideal of an inclusive, non-commercial, privately owned public space in the heart of the city.
Perhaps it is this deeply felt affection, indeed sense of public ownership, that explains why a proposal put forward several years ago by the building’s new owner to remove some of the emblematic 45-foot-high bamboo tree stands and install in their stead a sculpture exhibition area with vaguely private, commercial overtones — art for trees — was greeted with some dismay. When the Minskoff ownership group purchased the IBM building in 1994 and applied to the City Planning Commission one year later for permission to modify the space, alarm bells sounded. Here was someone about to tamper with sacrosanct public space, something that could be tolerated only if it were conclusively demonstrated that the changes would improve existing conditions.
The owner originally proposed to reduce from 11 to 5 the number of bamboo tree stands and remove the low dish planters to make physical and visual way for the indoor sculpture garden displaying large-scale artworks by major artists of the twentieth century, rotated regularly under the direction of the Pace Wildenstein Gallery. The owner also proposed to increase the amount of seating (albeit with benches substituting for some of the movable chairs), to decrease the number of movable tables, and to relocate the food kiosk from southwest to southeast corners, making it more visible from Madison Avenue. After hearing arguments for and against the changes, and after the owner agreed to retain 8 of 11 bamboo stands, install additional movable chairs without benches, and keep the tables, the City Planning Commission gave its approval.
Public response has generally tracked originally expressed opinions for and against the modification. Although some observers are disappointed with the results, others are gratified that the space has retained some of its most salient qualities and introduced a new one. The 65-foot-high triangular, glass-covered atrium remains an aesthetically dramatic, yet peaceful room. Supported by a structure of criss-crossing white metal tubing, the serrated glass roof and glass walls framing East 56th Street and part of Madison Avenue permit streams of sunlight to splash the bamboo trees and wash the white granite floor. At times, the light is so intense that it gives the space a faded look, especially during the summer months, although the looming host tower to the northeast and the Sony tower south across the street anchor the user in the very real, very dense midtown Manhattan.
While Wordsworth’s “brotherhood of venerable trees” has been diminished, and the planters once filled with brightly colored azaleas, lilies, and tulips that changed with the seasons are sadly absent, sculptures by such artists as Henry Moore, Karel Appel, and Alexander Calder have taken their place. Together with Levitated Mass (1982), environmental artist Michael Heizer’s sculpture in the urban plaza at the northwest corner of East 56th Street and Madison Avenue, consisting of an 11-ton stone incised with a coded building address and resting in a stainless steel basin of rushing water, and the classic red steel Calder under the arcade overhang at the southwest corner of East 57th Street and Madison, the public spaces here have become something of a public art magnet.
And, significantly, the space continues to rank high on usability. Numerous movable silver-colored chairs and granite-topped tables are scattered about the seating area, a space physically indistinguishable from the covered pedestrian space, as people form their social patterns of individual and collective activity. The food kiosk serves light lunch, snacks, and beverages, and hopefully will keep the volume of its music turned down. Even when the lack of air conditioning during the summer combines with the bamboo trees to foster a semi-tropical environment, the space is never too uncomfortable and air conditioning is just steps away at the Trump Tower and Sony covered pedestrian spaces.
The covered pedestrian space and seating area may be entered from both East 56th and 57th Streets between Madison and Fifth Avenues via a through block arcade that is open along its eastern side to the spaces, from the northwest corner of East 56th Street and Madison Avenue via the urban plaza, and through a passageway from Trump Tower and Niketown from the west. Together with Sony’s through-block covered pedestrian space across East 56th Street, the through block arcade creates one of the City’s six mid-block pedestrian networks. Together with the passageway connecting to Niketown and Trump Tower’s covered pedestrian space, it is possible to reach Fifth Avenue. Indeed, the combination of 590 Madison Avenue and Trump Tower creates the City’s only complex of indoor connected privately owned public spaces uninterrupted by a street, and provides an instructive contrast between a covered pedestrian space largely defined by commercial and one defined by largely non-commercial qualities.
Several other changes have occurred over the years. The IBM Gallery of Science and Art that once hosted such exhibits as “American Paintings from the Toledo Museum of Art” and “Manet to Matisse: The Maurice Wertheim Collection,” has been replaced by the Newseum, a media museum funded by the Freedom Forum. The New York Botanical Gardens branch store is closed. The space has a new name, 590 Atrium, but in the hearts and minds of its loyal users, it will continue to be known as the IBM space.