It all began with the building, informally if never officially known as the Seagram Building. According to all reliable accounts, Mr. Samuel Bronfman, president of Joseph E. Seagram & Sons, based in Canada, decided to build a stunning corporate headquarters in Manhattan at a time when his daughter, Phyllis Bronfman Lambert, the apple of his eye, was living in Paris. When she learned of the architect he had chosen, Phyllis Lambert objected to a choice she considered banal and wrote to her father suggesting that he use his money to create something really new, elegant and important – a modern classic. He then offered her the project as her own if she would return to New York. Well-versed in the art of architecture , the indomitable Phyllis Lambert astutely settled on Ludwig Mies van der Rohe with Philip Johnson as liaison and overseer of both the exterior and interior, both champions of what was known as the International Style. In an interview I had with Mr. Johnson, he explained how the decision on the building’s exterior material was made. He said that he, Mr. Bronfman and Mies were walking along Park Avenue and Bronfman saw something made of bronze which he liked very much and asked if that would work. And thus was bronze chosen, never mind its costliness. “Mr. Sam held the purse strings and there were none,” Philip Johnson told me.
To be sure, this stately shaft with its mellow burnished bronze facade and the supple light reflected from its chain-windows is indeed a modern classic, and along with glassy-green Lever House and the monumental Eero Saarinen designed CBS building – aka Black Rock – represent a high point in modern architectural design in New York. Feeling somewhat competitive with Black Rock, Johnson told me Saarinen had made a mistake by having visitors step down to a plaza to enter the building, whereas at Seagram, one had to step up – thus approaching with reverence, he explained.
One controversy about the restaurant’s position in the building, was about its address. They felt strongly that it should be a number below one hundred so it would not sound “too far east,” but the U.S. Post Office officials thought differently. As many conversations as I heard about this, I never found out what it took to finally snag 99 East 52nd.