Taking Away the Stairway

Starbucks construction in the Empire State Building removes a staircase by noted designer Winold Reiss

| 15 Nov 2022 | 01:02

A historic stairway, the last surviving restaurant interior designed by the noted New York artist Winold Reiss, has been destroyed to make way for a Starbucks in the Empire State Building.

“Prior to Starbucks construction, the staircase was removed so that the ground floor could be brought up to meet the exterior sidewalk and to ensure that we would be able to provide equitable access for all customers,” said a spokesperson, Nicholas Sampogna.

“I am very sorry that Starbucks did not choose to incorporate the Reiss stairway into their new design,” responded Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy. “It would have been an elegant feature. It is another example of how alert we need to be to promoting landmark protection to buildings and elements that tell the story of the City’s rich design history.”

The fate of the stairway had become a cause in some preservation circles after an exhibition at the New-York Historical Society earlier this year focused renewed attention on Reiss and his work. In addition to being an accomplished portrait painter, Reiss was one of the most successful designers of restaurant interiors from the 1930s to the 1950s.

One of his major clients was the Longchamps chain, which opened a location in the Empire State Building in 1938, featuring an interior design by Reiss. While much of the interior was removed over the years, after Longchamps went under and others used the space, the grand stairway, with its rainbow colored stairs, survived. Until now.

A photo of the stairway was included in the exhibition and curators believed it to be the last existing example of his restaurant interior work.

“It’s Really Sad”

For months after the exhibition opened on July 1, Starbucks and the Empire State building refused to say what was happening to the stairway, even though it is clear from building permits that they had decided to remove the stairway in 2021.

Even as the exhibition drew new attention to Reiss in general and that stairway in particular, Starbucks and The Empire State Building refused to discuss whether the stairway was being preserved or destroyed as part of the new Starbucks Reserve being installed in that space.

The Starbucks spokesman only resolved the mystery on the eve of the opening of the new store.

“Some things are not meant to survive,” said Winhold Reiss’ daughter-in-law, Renate Reiss, who has worked for years to preserve his archives. “It’s really sad, though, really sad.”

While both the Empire State Building and its lobby are landmarks, protected from demolition, the former Longchamps space was not covered by the landmarks designation.

“Starbucks takes the utmost respect and care when planning new spaces for our stores,” Sampogna, their spokesman, said. “As a part of our design process, we always seek to honor the history of the spaces in which we design and create, while fostering the most optimal and accessible experience for our customers. As you will see, Starbucks revitalized many historic elements of the space including the exterior mullions and finials, the historic revolving doors, the lobby’s marble surface, and second floor windows.”

Sampogna said the staircase “was designed by Ely Jacques Kahn,” the legendary New York architect. “No, he was not” the designer, said C. Ford Peatross, founding director of the Center for Architecture, Design and Engineering at the Library of Congress, and a leading expert on Reiss.

“We have all the drawings, it was designed by Winold Reiss,” Peatross said.

Kahn, who often worked with Reiss, was the architect of record on the Longchamps project, but Reiss designed the interior, Peatross said.

“It could still be put back,” said Peatross. “We do have all the photographs and drawings. Whatever they put in, I don’t think will stand the test of time.”

Stairway Photos

Much as with the Longchamps, the new restaurant will be on multiple levels. It will offer a variety of what the announcement called “new, exclusive experiences such as hands-on coffee workshops, guided tasting flights, and an extended artisan menu of new Princi food.”

Starbucks posted photos showing a stairway connecting the main floor and the lower level, as Reiss’s stairway did, but without the sweeping curves or pastel steps of Reiss’s design.

“Nothing left,” said Renate Reiss. “It’s how it goes, especially in a fast paced city. Very New York. Gone, gone.”