Photo Credit: APOPS

590 Madison Avenue

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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 for- ward 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.

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5 User Submissions

  1. submitted by: J D Hamkins

    I sent to this space today to play some chess with my two young children (ages 6 and 10), and was very soon harassed by the security guards, who claimed that no chess was allowed there. The guards told me that the posted sign says “No game playing”, but I found out upon inspecting the sign that this isn’t true (although it does say “No gambling, no card playing”). What are the actual rules? Is it really true that there could be a rule against chess playing?

    Why should they forbid me to play chess with my kids? This makes no sense to me, and I find it absurd that they insisted I stop playing and pack it up immediately.

    I would like to be able to play chess there, since it is a great space for that purpose. Do I have the right to play chess there?

  2. submitted by: J D Hamkins

    I went to this space today to play some chess with my two young children (ages 6 and 10), and was shortly harassed by the security guards, who claimed that no chess was allowed there. The guards told me that the posted sign says “No game playing”, but I found out upon inspecting the sign that this isn’t true (although it does say “No gambling, no card playing”). What are the actual rules? Is it really true that there could be a rule against chess playing?

    We were not disturbing anyone and were behaving in a calm, civilized manner. Why should they forbid me to play chess with my kids? This makes no sense to me, and I find it absurd that they insisted I stop playing and pack it up immediately.

    I would like to be able to play chess there, since it is a great space for that purpose. Do I have the right to play chess there?

    • submitted by: APOPS

      Thank you for your comment. Rules imposed by owners in POPS must be reasonable. The owner here appears to be barring any games played at the tables, whether the games are cards or chess. If the rationale for the rule is to prevent someone from occupying a table for hours and hours to the point of an unreasonable amount of time that excludes others from a table, that would be understandable. A ban on games, however, is an overinclusive way of accomplishing this, given that it is hard to see how card games or chess would cause problems in a public space. In short, to answer your question, the rule as described doesn’t strike me (Jerold Kayden) as reasonable. APOPS@MAS will contact the owner to learn the rationale for the rule to see if we are missing something. We will post the results of the owner’s response and our reaction to it as well. Thanks for the information.

  3. submitted by: jkayden

    Thanks for your comment. Our reply to your comment is on the 590 Madison Avenue profile page. We agree with your concerns and will check with the owner to see what it has in mind. We will report back to this web site on what we find.

    • submitted by: jkayden

      We have, indeed, contacted the owner, but have failed to get an answer. We are deciding on next steps and will be in touch.