I was enthusiastic about the idea of renewing the auditorium where I had often come to hear lectures, mostly on progressive subjects, as far back as my student and teaching days. After our architect did some research on the original design, I suggested that we restore it and I agreed to underwrite the project and to oversee the renovation.
Fanton and I had a number of meetings on the subject of my funding and managing the restoration. One meeting, held in my office, was specifically set for Jonathan to express his concern about the “feature columns” on the side walls and their original bright orange-red (vermilion) color. “It’s too garish and I don’t like it,” Jonathan said, as we sat at my desk. “It will distract the audience from focusing on the stage.” “Look up,” I replied. Suspended over my desk was a huge lighting fixture featuring the same bright vermillion that was to be used on the feature columns. The dramatic color did not distract from anything, I argued; in the hall, the vermillion columns merely served as a striking feature, as designed by Rudy Baumfeld, a Viennese architect and
We redid the hall, including the spectacular stepped ceiling panels, each one a tad lighter than the next, a feature designed so that audience would get the feeling that they were sitting under a much higher ceiling than they were.
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During our research for truthfully restoring the auditorium, I learned that when the hall had first opened, a recent architectural school graduate in his first review for The New Yorker had written a devastatingly nasty critique of the auditorium. He lambasted every aspect of it, including its shape and location—he ridiculed having an oval-shaped auditorium inside a rectangular building. The young reviewer’s name was Philip Johnson, who, after he gave up architectural reviewing, became one of the United States’ premier architects. This early diatribe of his, written well before World War II, reflected more than his artistic tastes: it was the result of his sympathy for the Nazis and his then well-known anti-Semitism. My colleagues at The New School, including those on the board, had no inkling of this early, prejudice-based nasty review by Johnson, but I knew about it—and Philip Johnson learned that I knew about it.
The retrofitted auditorium was going to be renamed as the Tish-man Auditorium. And perhaps because it was, I decided to invite Philip Johnson to come and have a look at the place before it opened. He no longer wrote architectural criticism, and I hoped that in the more than fifty or so years since his initial review, he would have changed his mind about the original design—or, I should say, about the influence that his own anti-Semitism had had on the critique he had written so long ago. I also knew that many of the recent buildings that had cemented his reputation as a highly respected architect had been commissioned by Jewish clients, such as the Seagram Building in Manhattan.
As I had hoped, Johnson was charmed by the revitalized auditorium, and I believe, embarrassed by his early, unfounded critique of it. As we toured the building, he remarked, “Well, things change.” Some on the tour with Phillip were mystified by that remark because they were