FDU Historical Perspectives IV: Guest Blog Contribution by Clifford J. Brooks: “Lollipop, Bon-Bon, or White Elephant?”

FDU Historical Perspectives IV:   Guest Blog Contribution by Clifford J. Brooks

FDU Historical Perspectives IV: “Lollipop, Bon-Bon, or White Elephant?”

Guest Blog by Clifford J. Brooks

One of Sister Margherita Marchione’s favorite stories concerns a trip to Paris where she was to secure posters for an art museum owned by Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU).  The story is also recounted in her autobiography, but only takes up one or two paragraphs.  If asked, Sister will talk about the gallery, but does not go into detail.  However, like all of the Sammartino endeavors, when one scratches beneath the surface, one discovers another project born of vision far in advance of its time.

It all starts with Huntington Hartford, the heir to the A&P fortune. His is a story in itself.  Suffice it to say that he is best known for squandering one of the largest fortunes in America. However, he was an avid art lover, with defined tastes and opinions that would rival even the harshest of critics.  Having amassed quite a collection of masterpieces, he decided to erect an art gallery in New York City to house his collection.  Choosing Edward Durrell Stone as his architect, his Gallery of Modern Art, dubbed the “white marble bonbon” by many, opened at 2 Columbus Circle in 1964.  The entire project created quite a stir in the world of art and architecture.  The goal of the gallery was to display his eclectic art collection, specifically chosen to make a statement against what Hartford saw as the “reign of abstraction” at the Museum of Modern Art.   (Glueck)

Architect Stone created a building resembling a Venetian Palazzo (later nicknamed the Lollipop building by Ada Louise Huxtable, then the architecture critic at the New York Times), that did not work well as a museum.   The galleries, although paneled with expensive woods and equipped with the best lighting and costly fixtures, often seemed too small for the type of art displayed, yet even the most negative of critics felt that the building made an impression on the average New Yorker. (Goldberger)

By 1965, Mr. Hartford, running out of money, began contacting local universities about taking over some aspects of the museum.   He also quietly began selling paintings from his collection, as his wanton spending had reduced him to selling his assets.

At this point Dr. and Mrs. Sammartino enter the story. They were as usual engaged in a number of projects.  But, to quote Dr. Sammartino, fate has a strange way of altering human plans.  Thus was born the deal to acquire an FDU foothold in New York City– the stuff of which doctoral theses are made.  To fully understand how this came about, it is better to quote Dr. Sammartino directly:

“It was in the late spring of 1968 that I received a call from Mr. Huntington Hartford inviting me to lunch at the River Club in New York. I happened to be free that day. Through his friend Sandy Williams, son of our very good friend Peggy Williams, former publisher of the Paterson Call, I learned the story later. Sandy had come home to Paterson, which home shares with his mother. He had told her that Mr. Hartford, having reached the age of 57, felt that the time had come to put the Gallery of Modern Art under a broader sponsorship, probably under the aegis of the university. Peggy had immediately suggested that Mr. Hartford contact me. The luncheon led to a few other meetings, including one with Ted Sorenson, his lawyer. The financial requirements were out of our range and I dropped the matter. Sometime later, while I was at the Hilton in London, I received a transatlantic call at 1:30 A.M. from Mr. Hartford, who asked me whether I was still interested. I told him we were, but that financially we couldn’t handle it. He told me that some arrangement could be worked out. When I returned to the United States, I asked Ned Feldman, an international banker and a member of the University’s Board of Fellows, to look at the proposition from a very-hard point of view to see whether it made sense for us to consider it. He studied the new proposal and reported that we should by all means try to reach an agreement. Financially, the University could not lose out: From the point of view of prestige, it would be a great achievement. After interminable meetings…the final agreement was reached.” (Sammartino, Castles and Colleges—chapter on Huntington Hartford)

Under Dr. Sammartino’s direction, in July of 1969 ownership of the gallery was formally transferred from Mr. Hartford to the University.   The terms of the transfer were interesting.  Dr. Sammartino, always interested in promoting FDU, saw to it that the he gallery’s name was changed to the New York Cultural Center in Association with Fairleigh Dickinson University (NYCC).  According to several sources, including the New York Times (Glueck) and Dr. Sammartino’s book, Of Castles and Colleges, (see chapter on Huntington Hartford), the agreement provided that Mr. Hartford would donate $1 million in working capital to the museum, while Mrs. Fairleigh S. Dickinson Sr., widow of one of the university’s founders, would contribute $2.5 million toward retirement of a $3.8 million mortgage. For a five‐year period, which ended in 1974, Mr. Hartford and Fairleigh S. Dickinson Jr., then a New Jersey State Senator, were to each meet one‐quarter of any annual deficit over $200,000 (not to exceed $100,000 annually).   In addition, Dr. Sammartino makes it perfectly clear that FDU did not receive the existing art collection.

The negotiating committees had no problem deciding on Dr. Sammartino’s name for the building. The Center was incorporated as a non-profit autonomous body within the state of New York. There existed a cooperative arrangement with the University, but no fiduciary responsibility was held by the University or its trustees.   Everyone on the FDU side thought it was a win-win situation.  The acquisition of the New York Cultural Center, which always carried a subheading “in association with Fairleigh Dickinson University,” increased awareness of our institution in the metropolitan area. All public notices mentioned FDU. According to Dr. Sammartino, there was a period of years when 90% of the clippings dealing with FDU were generated by the NYCC.  (Sammartino, Castles and Colleges)

Dr. Sammartino’s vision for the Center encompassed a number of functions.  He saw an alumni and faculty club located in the center of Manhattan for Fairleigh Dickinson graduates, staff, and instructors, with a Polynesian restaurant opened to all on the top floor. Since the Center was easy to reach from Bergen County, its proximity to Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Museum, The Frick Gallery, and to the theater district and Lincoln Center made it a convenient meeting place for the Fairleigh Dickinson community. Various groups in Bergen County, including the two Town and Gown Societies, would be able to hold social events.  In addition, the Sammartino’s wanted to create a senior citizen cultural arts club.  What better place to meet than an art gallery in Manhattan?  (Sammartino, Castles and Colleges; Marchione, The Fighting Nun)

Dr. Sammartino served for a while as the gallery’s fulltime director, on a volunteer basis, until the appointment of Mr. Donald Karshanin 1970. The gallery’s exhibition program, which Dr. Sammartino saw as “involving the cultures of all segments of our population,” expanded to include such other art forms as photography, architecture, and design.  Sister Margherita talks about being sent to Paris by Peter Sammartino to purchase 1968 Student Riot Posters for an exhibit.  Sister jokingly states that materials were available “blackmarket.” However, Instead of buying them illegally, I nonchalantly walked the streets of Paris and appropriated several torn and burned posters. No one could deny their authenticity. With books and other items I purchased, the posters were exhibited at the New York Cultural Center!  (Marchione, The Fighting Nun)

In April, 1972, Mario Amaya was named director of the center, and during his tenure the gallery became noted for the liveliness of its programs.  True to Dr. Sammartino’s vision, Mr. Amaya mounted more than 150 exhibitions, among them “Belgian Symbolists and Surrealists”; “Naked Clay,” a show of American Indian pottery over 4,000 years; “Tribute to Max Reinhardt: shows of work by women and by black artists;” retrospectives of work by the photographer Man Ray and the 19th‐century French academic painter, Adolphe Bouguereau; and a Bicentennial show, “Three Centuries of the American Nude.”  (Glueck, Goldberger, Muschamp)

But, although attendance picked up considerably under Mr. Amaya’s direction, the Center never achieved the broad‐based membership and financial support that it had sought. FDU finally announced that it would phase out its relationship with the gallery and in March it put the building up for sale for $6 million.

The FDU trustees had decided that without the support of the Fairleigh Dickinson University family, discontinued in 1974, the Center was no longer financially viable. Over a five-year period, the New Jersey family, which also supported the university that bears its name, gave almost $4.5 million to the Center, whose annual operating expenses were $700,000.   Thus, The New York Cultural Center, the maverick art gallery conceived by Huntington Hartford and later adopted by Fairleigh Dickinson University, closed its doors after 11 years of life, a victim of acute fiscal anemia.  (Glueck)

“It’s sad that an institution which satisfied a great need in the New York area could not find the broad financial support that was needed for its modest operation,” Mr. Amaya said. The Center’s demise was also mourned by other museum officials in the city. William Lieberman, director of drawings at the Museum of Modern Art, said, “It had become a magnet for the unexpected. What will be missed is its stimulating, indeed adventurous, succession of exhibitions.” (Glueck)

The building eventually wound up in the hands of the city, which, in 1998, decided to sell it to the highest bidder. The city repeatedly refused to have its own Landmarks Preservation Commission consider giving the 2 Columbus Circle landmark status, a move that provoked outrage but kept the building salable and more or less sealed its fate. In 2002, the city agreed to sell it to the Museum of Arts and Design, formerly the American Crafts Museum. Although many tried to preserve the original Edward Durrell Stone “palazzo,” an Oregon architect names Brad Cloepfil was chosen to redesign the building once the preservationists lost. It re-opened in 2005.  (Goldberger)

The story of the NYCC and FDU’s foothold in what arguably could be called the center of the New York performing and visual arts district is little talked about today.  Dr. Sammartino’s vision of what could be surpassed all of the Ivy League and private clubs of NYC.  No other institution had a facility for a full-fledged art museum, university club, and meeting area to accommodate a large number of people.  Few people have had Dr. Sammartino’s vision; even fewer possessed the genius or ability to implement it.  Yet, as he himself put it, fate has a strange way of altering human plans.   Today, the exterior of the “lollipop” has been changed to such a degree that he would not recognize it.  Yet, if circumstances had been different, the FDU community would certainly be proud of their white marble bon-bon.

NB:   Sister Margherita Marchione, MPF has granted full permission to be quoted verbatim from any of her publications or notes without citation.  Since this is a blog, citing is not deemed necessary, yet since this is written in a university setting, sources have been noted in case a reader might want to check facts or figures.  All books and articles can be found in the Sammartino Room of the Giovatto Library, FDU Metropolitan Campus, Teaneck.

Credits:   Many thanks to Mr. Vishnu Yadav Nammi, FDU graduate student in Computer Science and Giovatto Library student worker, who graciously assisted with typing and editing this series of blogs.  Also to Ms. Benita Wyche, Giovatto Library student worker and Criminal Justice major, who assisted with typing and editing the series.

Works Cited

Glueck, Grace. “Cultural Center to close after 11 years.”  New York Times. n.v.  10 Sept. 1975. p. 32+.

Goldberger, Paul.  “Hello, Columbus.” New Yorker, vol. 84, no. 25, 25 Aug. 2008, pp. 70-72.

Marchione, Margherita.  The Fighting Nun:  My Story.  NY:  Cornwall, 2000.   Print.

Marchione, Margherita.  Peter and Sally Sammartino (Biographical Notes). NY:  Cornwall, 1994.  Print.

Muschamp, Herbert. “The Secret History.” New York Times. vol. 155, no. 53453, 08 Jan. 2006.

Sammartino, Peter.  Of Castles and Colleges:  Notes toward an Autobiography.  NY:  Barnes, 1972.  Print.


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