Roll the dice
Brown Brothers Harriman bets on a New York building by Gordon Bunshaft, with interiors by Swanke Hayden Connell
Craig Kellogg -- Interior Design, 5/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
No one will accuse Brown Brothers Harriman & Co., an old-school private bank, of sitting on its assets. Abandoning a cramped New York headquarters, built in 1929, was a decision sure to be quickly understood by the bold entrepreneurs and camera-shy celebrities among the bank's major depositors. Nevertheless, leaving the old, familiar offices risked alienating the white-haired grande dames who have long entrusted Brown Brothers with mountains of money. Any move would clearly require the utmost discretion—a quality that, fortunately, private bankers possess in spades.
Partners settled on a new address ideally suited to the bank's split personality. A Gordon Bunshaft high-rise near Wall Street, the blue-chip tower is credibly both classic and modern. "Timeless," partner Radford Klotz pronounces it. Klotz helped secure a 20-year lease on 15 floors, then signed Swanke Hayden Connell Architects to oversee a 450,000-square-foot remodeling job that would somehow balance the bank's history with that of the building.
The duality of the design establishes itself at the private-banking entrance. Serving as few as 25 clients a day—employees use a side lobby—this entry is off a grand piazza dominated by Isamu Noguchi's startlingly cerise-colored Cube. Inside, associate principal Agatha Habjan, design director of interiors, installed limestone flooring and set the bank's life-size statue of the founders' father, Alexander Brown, on a marble pedestal near the door. (He's the tall bronze one, in britches.) Harmonizing with the sculpture's metallic gleam while slyly nodding to high modernism, chains of bronze beads hang at the windows. '
A corkscrew of white marble steps reprises the old rotunda staircase, delivering depositors to the banking hall on the second floor. In order to insert a mezzanine into this double-height space, Habjan raised the ceiling 10 inches and, since clearance was then tight, surface-mounted the fluorescent fixtures. New floor-to-ceiling glazing encloses the mezzanine's seven dining rooms and a run of small meeting rooms below—the mullions modeled on Bunshaft's breathtaking super-flat curtain wall. Because that curtain wall is only 30 feet from the building's core, dining and meeting rooms benefit from natural light.
Furnishing those dining rooms, Habjan made sure to include favorite antiques from the former headquarters. One room features a conference table fashioned from the hatch cover of a clipper ship. The "map room" displays wall-size railroad maps that the bank transplanted under the supervision of a conservator. All seven rooms' cotton, wool, or silk over-drapes are the kind usually found at the windows of a Park Avenue apartment. "People should feel at home here," Klotz says, explaining that clients often return to a favorite room again and again.
One of the mezzanine dining rooms is named after President George W. Bush's grandfather Prescott Bush, a former Brown Brothers partner. Upstairs in the more modern conference center, rooms are named for cities where the bank maintains offices. While Dublin is green, Zurich is minimalist. "We're not a firm wallowing in the past," Klotz says.
Witness, too, the daringly retro styling of the employees' own cafeteria, down the hall from Zurich. At first, the floor's woven-vinyl matting and the salad bar's curved glass sneeze guard met with some skepticism. "Employees here are fairly conservative," Klotz says. Nevertheless, the bankers readily embraced the cafeteria's ceiling-height booths in channeled blue faux leather. Tables are by Eero Saarinen, whose chairs appear in the adjoining "birthday room," its walls surfaced in glossy green plastic laminate.
Habjan struggled to resist filling the entire headquarters with iconic mid-century furniture, futuristic shapes in pop colors. "This was not supposed to come across as a wild-and-crazy place," Klotz notes. Still, Habjan feels ' that she "pushed in the right places." Dozens of conference rooms are clad in bright red plastic laminate rather than the wood panels initially preferred by the cautious design committee. (Along corridors on office floors, she wrapped gypsum-board in a heavily textured wall covering to mimic upholstered panels.)
In the unusual communal office for Brown Brothers partners, all eight sit together at an armada of antique rolltop desks. Partners certainly don't scrutinize their ledgers by candlelight, however. Marching across the double-height ceiling are twin rows of energy-efficient fluorescent pendants, just another one of the bank's prudent investments.