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Hey, Remember When Trump Destroyed Precious Art History?

The president describes the removal of Confederate monuments as a loss of beauty and history, but it’s worth remembering his own run-in with historic preservation.

Hey, Remember When Trump Destroyed Precious Art History?
[Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images]

This week, President Trump curried favor with his base by claiming that the destruction of Confederate tributes, or what he calls “beautiful statues and monuments,” makes him “sad.” Don’t let these statements fool you: This is the same person who, in 1980, destroyed priceless art deco friezes to shave two weeks of construction time off Trump Tower.

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[Image: Preservation News/National Trust for Historic Preservation of the United States/Cornell University Library]
On Thursday morning, Trump expressed disappointment with the removal of Confederate statues from public spaces in three Twitter posts, bemoaning what he described as a loss of history, culture, and beauty.

It’s worth rewinding a few decades to understand the hypocrisy in his response to the removal of these symbols of white supremacy. In order to construct his namesake tower in 1980, Trump razed the Bonwit Teller building, a 1929 art deco structure by Warren & Wetmore–the same architects who designed Grand Central Station. The original building had been adorned with ornate metalwork and sculptural reliefs, as a 2014 New York Times story described with florid abandon:

Plain as the building might be, the entrance was like a spilled casket of gems: platinum, bronze, hammered aluminum, orange and yellow faience, and tinted glass backlighted at night. In 1929 American Architect magazine called it “a sparkling jewel in keeping with the character of the store.”

Upon learning about the historic building’s imminent demolition, and recognizing the cultural value of its ornamentation, the Metropolitan Museum of Art convinced Trump to remove portions of the historic facade and donate them to the institution. Trump agreed–on the condition that the cost to him would not be too high.

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[Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images]
Soon he was backpedalling, after realizing that it would take two more weeks and $32,000–chump change considering the tower cost $100 million to construct–to properly take the reliefs off the building. Using his fake alter ago, a “Trump spokesperson” named John Baron, he told the New York Times in 1980: “The merit of these stones was not great enough to justify the efforts to save them.” His construction workers chopped up the metalwork with torches and let the sculptures fall to the ground to crack into smithereens.

Trump may not care about beautiful art or monuments, but he is right when he says, “You can’t change history, but you can learn from it.” Trump is notorious for flip-flopping on his political positions, but we can learn from his track record. When the Bonwit Teller building was destroyed, Trump put profit and convenience over a greater cultural good. This week, he used controversial sculptures to validate supremacist beliefs. What do they have in common? Both advance his own interests.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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