News and analysis
December 17, 2015

Ford’s $190 Million Renovation Carries Message About Philanthropy

Ford Foundation

President Darren Walker rejects "intimidating and hierarchical" architecture in favor of a space that feels welcoming to nonprofits and other foundations.

The Ford Foundation’s celebrated modernist headquarters has long served for some as a physical embodiment of top-down philanthropy. Now, months after the foundation announced plans to focus entirely on resolving inequality, Ford plans to remake its steel, glass, and granite shell in midtown Manhattan more inviting to nonprofits and the public.

Much of the work on the $190 million overhaul the foundation announced Wednesday is required by municipal code. The building lacks a proper sprinkler system and does not comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act. For nearly three years, Ford’s 375-member New York staff will work out of a temporary office while workers knock down office walls and remove asbestos from the building’s girders.

After its planned summer 2018 reopening, the top two stories of the building will offer a suite of conference rooms open to nonprofits in need of meeting space. In addition, Ford will provide two floors of offices to other grant makers eager to establish a presence in Gotham. Darren Walker, the foundation’s president, said sharing space with other donors will help Ford collaborate on projects and share advice.

"We’re going to prioritize space for other philanthropies," Mr. Walker said in an interview. "Having a building that is centrally located with philanthropic resources is the best way we can serve the sector."

Open Doors

Ford’s headquarters is a unique landmark of modernist architecture and, at 272,000 square feet, is a lot bigger than many other foundation buildings. Ford will join a number of other grant makers that are opening their doors to nonprofits and other foundations, putting many aspects of philanthropy under one roof.

For instance, this summer the Greater New Orleans Foundation plans to open the Center for Philanthropy, which will include the group’s headquarters, office space for two nonprofits, and a coffee shop. Albert Ruesga, the foundation’s president, said the coffee-shop space will be offered first to area nonprofits that provide food service and that the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, based in Battle Creek, Mich., has agreed to be the building’s first tenant.

"There’s a huge overlap in mission" between the New Orleans community foundation and Kellogg, which has made grants of at least $10 million annually to Southern Louisiana projects for the past decade, Mr. Ruesga said.

In June the Jessie Ball duPont Fund opened its new $25 million headquarters in downtown Jacksonville, Fla. Fifteen nonprofits, including the Jacksonville Public Education Fund and the United Way of Northeast Florida, rent space in the Jessie Ball DuPont Center for about half of the market rate, according to Mary Kress Littlepage, a spokeswoman for the grant maker.

Not only do tenants pay lower rents but they share common spaces, lowering their total square footage and further reducing their overhead costs, she said.

Putting the groups together also makes a statement.

"The building’s strong local identity and the attention we garnered through this project raise the profile of the nonprofit sector in the public mind," she wrote in an email.

Not all foundations are embracing the mixed-use concept. The David and Lucile Packard Foundation in most cases has excluded grantees from meeting at its offices since moving in 2012 into its new building. The foundation says the structure is the largest "net-zero energy certified" building in the world, meaning that it harnesses more energy from renewable sources than it uses. To meet those requirements, the building cannot operate beyond regular business hours. All meetings involving third parties that do not substantially relate to Packard must be approved by the chief executive.

However, grantees and other community groups can gather in Taaffe House, the former Packard family home, which was remodeled as a conference facility.

Making a Statement

Grantees that schedule conferences in Ford’s revamped headquarters will benefit from the cachet that Ford brings, said Aaron Dorfman, executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.

"It makes a statement about the legitimacy and importance of the meeting if it is taking place at the Ford Foundation," he said.

Ford plans a slate of environmentally minded improvements to the building, which was designed by architects Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo and completed in 1968. The New York Times celebrated it as a building with a "civic conscience." Other critics agreed, thanks in part to its huge naturally lit interior atrium and its relatively sheltered entrance on 43rd Street, removed from the hurly-burly of 42nd Street.

In his message announcing the renovation, Mr. Walker said the foundation considered putting the building on the market, but after meeting with real-estate experts, Ford leaders concluded selling the building and buying or renting space elsewhere would not generate any savings.

The building immediately made a negative impression on Mr. Walker during his first visits in the 1990s as chief operating officer at the Abyssinian Development Corporation in Harlem. It was, he remembers, "intimidating and hierarchical," with its executive dining room and separate president’s dining room.

"All of those accouterments have been disbanded," he said.

By opening up more space to other organizations, Mr. Walker hopes Ford will act more as a steward of philanthropic resources than a building owner. A planned visitors center, which will include information both about Ford and philanthropy more generally, is designed with that in mind.

Said Mr. Walker: "We have a responsibility to educate the public about the role of philanthropy and civil society."

Send an email to Alex Daniels.