Trump Tower in New York City is build on the site of what used to be the Bonwit Teller department store.
Bonwit Teller was one of Fifth Avenue’s signature luxury retailers. Located at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and West 56th Street, its 12-story limestone and granite emporium was designed by Warren and Wetmore, the architects of Grand Central Terminal.
The structure was originally the M.I. Stewart & Co. women’s apparel store. Stewart opened in October 1929, just 8 days before the stock market collapsed. Within 5 months, Stewart & Co. failed and Bonwit Teller acquired the building.
Bonwit Teller was a Fifth Avenue mainstay for almost five decades. It experienced the glory days when chauffeurs and doormen were a way of life for customers. But over time, Fifth Avenue grew tired and several retailers closed or moved to other neighborhoods.
As he scouted for a site, Trump learned that Bonwit Teller had grown unprofitable and its owners needed cash and could be convinced to sell the Fifth Avenue location. For several years, he relentlessly pressured the company to sell. In January 1979, Trump acquired the Bonwit Teller building for $15 million.
As Bonwit Teller was prepared for demolition, preservationists urged Trump to save two artistic elements. A pair of 15-foot bas-relief sculptures, depicting nude women dancing with scarves, and a large nickel-plated grill, located over the store’s main entryway were promised to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Trump agreed to donate them to the Met as long as the costs and the ability to physically remove the Art Deco artifacts were not unreasonably expensive.
Trump surprised New York’s art community on June 5, 1980 when a demolition crew jackhammered the sculptures off of the building. In addition, the intricate grillwork was removed. The destruction drew a public outcry. The Met received no advance notice.
John Baron, a spokesperson with the Trump Organization, contacted the New York Daily News to discuss the situation. Baron informed the Daily News that “the merit of the stones was not great enough to justify the effort to save them.” Baron stated that the removal process could have set back Trump Tower’s construction timeline by two weeks. Baron also told the New York Times NYT that he had no idea what happened to the ornate grillwork.
Long after Baron’s initial contact, the New York Daily News learned that John Baron was actually Donald Trump, in disguise.
Though Trump claimed that the removal of the sculptures would have cost his organization approximately $500,000, an initial estimate, made public, amounted to a $32,000 expense.
Trump hired the firm Kaszycki & Sons to clear the Bonwit Teller site. Kaszycki & Sons was largely a window-washing firm with little experience in demolition. Kaszycki brought in over 200 undocumented Polish workers who worked 12-hour shifts at only $4 an hour. The firm provided no safety equipment, hard hats, googles, or masks, despite reports of asbestos. In 1983, several Polish workers filed suit against Trump, as the property’s owner, due to “horrid and terrible conditions” at the demolition site. After 15 years of litigation, Trump paid $1.4 million to the workers and settled the case.
Trump Tower is not the most valuable property owned by Trump, but his share is worth $371 million. As his debts come due, he will be forced to sell some of this properies.
If he sells Trump Tower, a buyer with any sense of history would include at least some reference to the Bonwit Teller company, even if did not carry the Bonwit Teller name.