Simanaitis Says

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RECENT NEWS OF possible demise of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting got me thinking about Bonwit Teller’s Art Deco, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Trump Tower, and collateral damage to the Polish Brigade and truth.


Bonwit Teller’s flagship store, Fifth Avenue and Fifty-Sixth Street, New York City. Image c. 1950s by AP.

Bonwit Teller & Company was a high-end women’s emporium with roots tracing back to 1895 and a flagship store in Manhattan occupied by the company since 1930. Like other Manhattan sights, for example, the Chrysler Building, Bonwit Teller’s Fifth Avenue and Fifty-sixth Street location was renowned as an example of Art Deco architecture.

Alas, Bonwit Teller wasn’t the only department chain to suffer from business ails and changes of ownership. Allied Stores Corporation (Brooks Brothers, one of its eventual emporia) acquired Bonwit Teller in 1979. Within a year, a fellow named Donald Trump bought the flagship Art Deco building, and had it demolished to erect Trump Tower.


Art Deco limestone frieze of the Bonwit Teller building during its 1980 demolition. Image from ArtWatch International.

At first, the Trump Organization promised the building’s Art Deco artifacts to New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. However, it didn’t turn out that way, as described in “A Short History of the Trump Family”, by Sidney Blumenthal, in the London Review of Books, February 16, 2017.


Instead of preserving the 20 x 30 ft. nickel grillwork and 15-ft. tall Art Deco figures, the workers were told to destroy them. According to Wikipedia, Mayor Ed Koch’s office lodged a complaint in 1980, saying Trump failed at his “moral responsibility to consider the interests of the people of the city.” Even Trump Tower architect Der Scutt “was outraged by the destruction, having initially hoped to incorporate the goddess sculptures into the new building’s lobby design.”

The London Review of Books cites John Barron, identified as a Trump PR rep, telling The New York Times that the artifacts’ preservation would have cost more than $500,000. The LRB says the same publicity man called himself ‘Donald Baron’ to the Associated Press.

Within days, another PR release admitted that preservation costs were actually estimated at $32,000. And in time John Barron and Donald Baron were identified as Donald Trump himself.

Part of the demolition crew came to be known as the Polish Brigade, comprised of immigrants, many working illegally and without full pay. During the 2016 Republican debates, Marco Rubio cited this matter, to which Trump responded, “He brings up something from 30 years ago. It worked out very well. Everybody was happy.”

As detailed by NBC News, February 26, 2016, I doubt that ”everybody” would have been the appropriate term. In particular, the Polish Brigade got stiffed.

These workers were identifiable at the site as being without hardhats, gloves or other safety gear. Kazimierz “Mike” Sosnowski, one of them with a green card, was quoted as saying, “Week after week, no check.”

In the summer of 1980, Trump fired the Polish Brigade, “meaning they were deprived of wages and benefits,” according to the London Review of Books article. Added the LRB, “The U.S. Labor Department filed suit against him, a federal judge found him guilty of fraud, noting that his testimony was not credible, and eventually he paid a fine in a sealed agreement.”

Indeed, matters were more complex. According to the NBC News item, the Labor Department sued Trump’s contractor for wage and hour violations. In 1984, the federal court hit him with a $570,000 judgment.

At the same time, dissident union members sued Trump and the contractor over the bilked pension fund. Noted NBC News, “The suit became one of the longest in the history of the federal court in the Southern District of New York. During the 1990 trial, several witnesses testified that they had spoken to Trump about the trouble on the job.”

In 1991, the federal district court sided with union plaintiffs and found there was a conspiracy to deprive pension funds of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Trump took this to an appellate court, which overruled and ordered new proceedings.

As the London Review of Books noted, this lawsuit was eventually settled for an undisclosed sum—none of which ever got to the Polish Brigade.


Trump Tower New York City. In alternative fact, the Trump penthouse is on the 68th floor. It is actually the 58th. Image by Martin-D.

And what of the Art Deco grillwork and figures? The LRB cites a Vanity Fair interview with Trump: “Who cares? Let’s say that I had given that junk to the Met. They would have just put them in their basement. I’ll never have the goodwill of the Establishment, the tastemakers of New York. Do you think, if I failed, these guys in New York would be unhappy? They would be thrilled! Because they have never tried anything on the scale that I am trying things in this city. I don’t care about their goodwill.”


Samuel Becket, 1906–1989; Big Bird, 1969–; Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770–1827.

Might this less than satisfying experience help save the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting? ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017


  1. phil ford
    February 23, 2017

    Thanks, Dennis!

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