When German artist Josef Albers and his wife Anni came to Manhattan in the 1930s, they were struck by the city’s intense vibrancy and energy. Decades later, Albers would translate his wonder into a giant mural for the lobby of the Pan Am Building, now the MetLife Building. Titled “Manhattan,” the mural was Albers’ homage to the city. Hanging in the lobby of 200 Park Avenue, it was seen by thousands of commuters every day as they passed through the building lobby to Grand Central Terminal. When MetLife acquired the building in 2000, the mural was removed and hidden away for nearly twenty years.
You can learn more about the Albers mural and discover all of the overlooked art in Grand Central on our upcoming virtual talk with Untapped New York’s Chief Experience Officer Justin Rivers! Tickets for this live virtual talk on Wednesday, March 3rd, are just $10!
Albers’ mural measured twenty-eight feet tall by fifty-five-feet wide and was made up of 486 Formica tiles painted with interlocking rectangles of red, black, and white. Albers was commissioned to create the mural in 1963 by Walter Gropius, an architect of the Pan Am Building and founder of the Bauhaus, a groundbreaking Modernist art institution in Germany where Albers had studied and taught. The mural was actually inspired by an earlier glass piece Albers had created while he was at the Bauhaus in 1927.
It was very important to Albers that the colors of the mural were exactly right. In an interview with Untapped New York about the history of the Pan Am Building (part of a series which will be shared exclusively with Untapped New York Insiders!), Richard Roth of the firm Emery Roth & Sons, one of the building’s architects, talked about Albers’ special relationship with color. “Nobody saw color the way Albers saw color. We must have had fifty different samples of the four colors that are on the mural in the office, of which, none of us could tell the difference really, but Albers spent hours over them before he picked the final colors. He was a wonderful man,” Roth remembers.
“Manhattan” greeted commuters for almost four decades before it was taken down in 2000. At the time, a representative for MetLife explained, “While we appreciate its importance in the art community, it just doesn’t work for us anymore.” The mural seemed fated for obscurity, especially after asbestos was discovered behind its Formica panels. According to The New York Times, there was talk moving the mural to Baruch College or the World Trade Center, but those arrangements were never made.
Tishman Speyer and Irvine Company acquired the MetLife building in 2005 and set about restoring the mural. Unfortunately, the asbestos made the original piece unsalvagable. According to The New York Times, The Albers Foundation was able to save a few panels, but the rest was destroyed. The building developers decided to work with The Albers Foundation to recreate the mural. Using Albers’ original notes, the mural was meticulously recreated with red, black, and white laminate boards crafted by All Craft Fabricators on Long Island. The new mural was unveiled in September of 2019, proudly placed in the same spot as the original, above the bustling streams of Grand Central Terminal commuters.
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Next, check out 12 Beautiful Works of Art to Discover in Grand Central Terminal