On February 17th, the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, in Atlantic City, is to be demolished by implosion. Shuttered since 2014, the thirty-seven-year-old building has already been stripped of most of its concrete façade, falling chunks of which began crashing onto the boardwalk last year. Never an architectural treasure, it now resembles the shaky remainders of a truck bombing. Donald Trump hasn’t even owned it since 2009, and in 2016 his residual ties were severed in bankruptcy court. Yet a moot question must be raised: Might this building have merited preservation as a site for future generations to contemplate the forces and passions that shaped the forty-fifth President? If Abraham Lincoln or Theodore Roosevelt—or even Grover Cleveland—had owned a casino, wouldn’t it be cool if it were still standing and you could play a few slots?
Trump properties provide a lot of fodder for people who worry about saving America’s architectural heritage. His name is attached not to a log cabin or even a sprawling plantation but to dozens of hotels, apartment blocks, office buildings, and golf courses. But the focus of future Trump-related preservation battles is likely to be Trump Tower, arguably the most iconic, if loathed, piece of Presidential real estate since Monticello. Plenty of unloved modern buildings have excited preservationists’ passions, including brutalist piles such as Paul Rudolph’s Orange County Government Center and wacky one-offs like Edward Durell Stone’s Lollipop Building, at 2 Columbus Circle—structures scorned by the public but cherished by small bands of knowing devotees.
Although the architect of Trump Tower, Der Scutt, worked for both Rudolph and Stone, the ex-President’s bevelled, mirrored monolith, in midtown, provokes more of a meh from experts. “It’s another glass tower,” Laurie Beckelman, a former chair of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, said. “It’s just real estate.” She suggested that, rather than landmark it, the city might install a discreet plaque: “What the hell. You say, ‘Here’s where he lived.’ ”
Trump Tower opened in 1983, as one can tell by looking at it. “With its glass and brass, it is an example of the styles and materials of its time, sort of like shoulder pads,” Daria Pizzetta, a principal architect at the firm H3, which has renovated many historic buildings, including some at Lincoln Center, said. “But will it be considered beautiful or significant in fifty years? No.”
Sarah M. Whiting, the dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, had a different perspective. Trump Tower should endure, she said, “as a reminder that we all knew what we were in for.”
A genuinely positive assessment came from Robert A. M. Stern, the architect and historian who dipped a toe in related waters when his firm designed the George W. Bush Presidential Center, in Dallas. “No doubt I’ll get a thousand attacks,” he said, and went on to argue that Trump Tower—a “handsome” building—deserves landmark status on both aesthetic and historic grounds. “I’d hate to see it go,” he said, adding that, whatever one thinks of Trump’s Administration, “he didn’t build this building as President. He didn’t try to foist it on anyone as a solution to immigration.”
But what of the former President’s birthplace, in Jamaica Estates, Queens? Richard Nixon’s and Bill Clinton’s childhood homes have been preserved and landmarked—so why not Trump’s? Since his election, the five-bedroom Tudor house has been sold twice, to speculators, most recently for $2.1 million (roughly double the value of comparable houses nearby). It was briefly listed on Airbnb for seven hundred and twenty-five dollars a night; a sign directed pilgrims to the very bedroom where Trump was likely conceived. The current owner tried to auction it last fall, but bids (if any) failed to meet the reserve price. A GoFundMe has been set up to raise three million dollars to buy the house and give it back to Trump or to a charity of his choosing. As of Trump’s last full day in office, only $6,728 had been pledged.
When Donald was four, the Trump family moved around the corner to a Colonial with more elbow room, where he lived until he was shipped off to military school. In 2018, the landmarks commission received a formal “request for evaluation” of the house. Its verdict: thumbs down. According to the commission’s director of communications, Zodet Negrón, the organization prioritizes “properties in which a public figure lived at the time he or she made a significant and noteworthy contribution to culture, society, or politics.” Young Donald’s gluing his brother Robert’s blocks together doesn’t count, even though he bragged about it in “The Art of the Deal.”
Back in Atlantic City, officials overseeing the Trump Plaza demolition had planned to raise money for the local Boys & Girls Club by auctioning off the right to press a button that would initiate the implosion. Bidding had reached a hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars ($168,272 more than was raised for Trump’s birthplace). The auction was called off after the owner of the property, a company controlled by the billionaire Trump supporter Carl Icahn, objected—allegedly on safety grounds—while offering to make good on the lost charity money. Where this President is concerned, the countervailing forces of preservation and contempt remain to be balanced. ♦
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