The time Donald Trump wasn't worried about the 'history and culture' of sculptures

Trump: Removal of Confederate statues is sad
Trump: Removal of Confederate statues is sad


    Trump: Removal of Confederate statues is sad


Trump: Removal of Confederate statues is sad 02:16

Story highlights

  • President Donald Trump lamented the loss of "beautiful statues"
  • His comments were related to removing Confederate monuments
  • The real estate developer drew backlash previously for destroying sculptures

(CNN)When Donald Trump was a young, brash businessman looking to put his stamp on the New York skyline, the "history and culture" imbued in a piece of artwork didn't stop him from quickly building his eponymous tower.

The year was 1979 and the 33-year-old Trump, hungry to build what would come to be known as Trump Tower, had bought the aging Bonwit building and planned to knock it down. Standing nine floors above the street below, though, were two large Bas-Relief Art Deco sculptures. In an ordeal that even Trump admitted caused him problems, the real estate developer would tear the sculptures down, horrifying art and culture experts in New York and landing him on the front page of The New York Times.
The story, which has been told by Trump and multiple biographers, stands in stark contrast to Trump's Twitter posts Thursday that decried attempts to remove Confederate monuments, statues and sculptures, arguing that removing the pieces of art could tear away the country's "history and culture." Trump however does express some regret in his book for how the incident played out.
    "Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments," Trump wrote over two tweets. "You can't change history, but you can learn from it."
    He added: "Also, the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!"
    Trump, born and raised in Queens, had long dreamed of moving his family's outer borough real estate company to Manhattan. And nothing would signal his rise to prominence more than putting his name on a soaring building on Fifth Avenue.
    In "Art of the Deal," the businessman-turned-politician's 1987 book, Trump writes that the Metropolitan Museum of Art asked him if he would donate the sculptures in 1979, shortly before he was about to demolish the Bonwit building.
    "I said that if the friezes could be saved, I'd be happy to donate them to the museum," Trump writes.
    But then cost and time got in the way.
    Trump recalls that his crew came to him and told him the panels were "a lot heavier" than they thought. To save them, Trump writes, would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and would delay the project by "several weeks."
    "I just wasn't prepared to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars to save a few Art Deco sculptures that I believed were worth considerably less, and perhaps not very much at all," he writes. "So I ordered my guys to rip them down."
    It took mere hours for New York's art world to react with horror
    Ashton Hawkins, the vice president of the board at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, told The New York Times at the time that Trump's decision was "extraordinary."
    "We are certainly very disappointed and quite surprised," Hawkins said in a front-page Times piece titled "Developer Scraps Bonwit Sculptures".
    A later New York Times editorial would savage Trump: "Obviously big buildings do not make big human beings, nor do big deals make art experts."
    Even the young Trump was surprised by the reaction.
    "What I didn't count on was the outrage this would create," he wrote. "It was not the sort of publicity you like to get. Looking back, I regret that I had the sculptures destroyed."
    He added: "I'm not convinced they were truly valuable ... but I understand now that certain events can take on a symbolic importance. Frankly, I was too young, and perhaps in too much of a hurry, to take that into account."
    Trump has offered varying opinions on the origins of violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia left one counter-protester and two police officers dead. The conflict between white supremacists and counter-protesters centered on the city's attempts to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
    Trump, during a confrontational news conference on Tuesday, suggested that if statues to Lee were to come down, former Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson would be next.
    "You really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop," he said.
    Trump later said that taking down statues like that would fundamentally alter history.
    "You're changing history," he said. "You're changing culture."
    Trump is not shying away from a debate over Confederate monuments and his top White House aides are pushing the debate on Twitter and in interviews.
    "The Democrats, the longer they talk about identity politics, I got 'em. I want them to talk about racism every day," Steve Bannon, the White House's top strategist, said in an interview with the progressive magazine the American Prospect. "If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats."
    That Bannon's theory that any discussion of Confederate monuments is politically beneficial for Trump has striking similarities to the lesson Trump took away from the Bonwit building controversy.
    "Ironically, the whole controversy may have ended up being a plus for me in terms of selling Trump Tower," Trump wrote, noting that future stories would not draw "a tremendous amount of attention to Trump Tower" and help sell apartments.
    "I learned a lesson from that experience: good publicity is preferable to bad, but from a bottom-line perspective, bad publicity is sometimes better than no publicity at all," Trump wrote. "Controversy, in short, sells."