As described by Ada Huxtable, the Ford Foundation Center for Social Justice is truly a “splendid, shimmering Crystal Palace.” Twelve stories high, wrapped in Cor-ten steel, mahogany granite, and glass, it’s no surprise the building was deemed a historic landmark in 1997. While the exterior is a marvel to look at, the true beauty of the Foundation is found inside.

In the eight decades since it was founded, the Ford Foundation for Social Justice has awarded grants to tackle an array of social issues. From civil rights, to poverty reduction, to helping fund creatives such as James Baldwin, Katherine Anne Porter, Norton Juster, and Saul Bellow. Their grants have also helped start major programs like the National Education Television Center — bringing us classic childhood shows like Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers Neighborhood — Head Start, and the Helsinki Watch.

Before moving to its iconic Midtown Manhattan location in the ‘60s, it used to be a small institution based in Detroit, Michigan. Established in 1936 by Edsel Ford, son of business mogul Henry Ford, its primary goal was to use their resources for “scientific, educational and charitable purposes, all for the public welfare.” Once Edsel and Henry Ford died in the 1940s, Henry Ford II took up the mantle. Along with a board of trustees, he decided to widen its reach and become an international charity “to advance human welfare.

As its vision expanded, the board of trustees determined the foundation should operate out of New York. And in 1967 the building designed by Kevin Roche, and John Dinkeloo and Associates was completed. Dan Kiley, the landscape architect, designed the large-scale enclosed garden —a first in the United States. Kiley included 40 trees, 1,000 shrubs and over 22,000 vines and ground cover plants inside the building.

Roche has said the building "was certainly ahead of its time, in terms of green buildings, it has a system of saving rainwater and reusing it internally for plants."

Over time, however, the building no longer met NYC building codes. It lacked sprinklers, had no smoke exhaust system in the atrium, and wasn’t accessible to those with disabilities. Darren Walker, the Foundation's tenth president, decided to renovate (the old design included both an executive dining room and a private president’s dining room) to make it more accessible to the public, while also reflecting their values. Walker wrote, “Simply put, many of us feel that our building does not sufficiently contribute to the values and culture represented by FordForward.”

FordForward, created by Walker in 2015, is a blueprint on how he wanted to transform the Foundation. It reflects changes within their culture, programs, and assets. Joshua Cinelli, Chief of Media Relations at the Foundation, told Gothamist, “We made a commitment to bring $1B of our endowment into Mission Related Investments and likewise the renovation of our landmarked building allowed the Foundation to be more aligned with our values”.

To do that, they partnered with Gensler, a global design and architecture firm. Gensler focused on enhancing the building aesthetics instead of altering Roche’s original vision. One of the noteworthy additions was the public art gallery, featuring artistry centered around social justice. On the website it explains that, "In this space, we shine a light on artwork that wrestles with difficult questions, calls out injustice, and points the way toward a more fair and just future."

By opening the building to tenants, and adding space for other nonprofits to use, Walker wanted, “to remake our landmark space into an open, inviting, welcoming place—a gathering place for the individuals, institutions, and ideas that are broadening the frontiers of social change.”

Ford Foundation Building, 321 East 42nd Street, 1979

Edmund Vincent Gillon, Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York; 2013.3.2.507

You can visit the Ford Foundation at 320 East 43rd Street—more details here.