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New York State Theater No. 6 - Travertine

Philip Johnson: “Once the siting was agreed upon, we needed to use materials that would reflect the Classicism I was striving for. Poured concrete was big at the time, but I didn't want to go that way. I suggested to the other architects the use of travertine, that being the noblest and oldest Roman stone. [...] All buildings have the same aim, which is to give you an elevation of spirit. In building the New York State Theater, I didn't see any sense in redesigning the spoon and doing "moderne" just for the sake of "moderne." I wanted to do one for eternity.” [1]

“At a New York City Ballet Seminar in 1994, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the New York State Theater, in response to a question from moderator Robert MacNeil about the use of travertine stone throughout the Theater, architect Philip Johnson replied,

"I felt that if it was good enough for God,

it was good enough for us!" [2]

Johnson was referring to the fact that travertine was used to build St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican.

St. Peter's Basilica
St. Peter's Basilica, Rome, Italy - Photo by Joe Price

The Tivoli quarries supplied the travertine from which Gian Lorenzo Bernini selected material from which to build the colonnade of St. Peter's Square in Rome in 1656–1667. - Wikipedia

The Mariotti Quarry, established in 1898 in Tivoli, Italy, supplied 900,000 square feet of travertine for all of Lincoln Center.

From the New York Times, 1963: “For Lincoln Center, Mr. Mariotti said, the stone is cut into slabs, loaded aboard trucks and taken to port facilities at Leghorn. […] 'The largest known deposits of travertine in the world are right here,' he said, 'Some 35,000 years ago all this area--about three square miles--was a sulphur-water lake. Little by little the calcium was deposited on the bottom and thus formed travertine.' The small holes in the rock were formed by the decay of vegetable matter. 

“All of Lincoln Center's architects or their associates have been to Bagni di Tivoli to inspect the travertine. 'We pick specific cuts.' Philip Johnson, architect for the center's New York State Theater said, "because the travertine vanes from cut to cut. One may be darker than another or be full of holes or have too many gray streaks. Also, some cuts are harder than others. My partner, Richard Foster, has been to Italy five times. We inspect the marble when it's cut and when it's laid here. Sometimes we have to send it back because it doesn't measure up to certain standards.'

"Edgar B. Young, executive vice president of Lincoln Center and chairman of the building committee, inspected the quarries last May. He said that 300 tons of travertine would be used at the center. The cost of the travertine and its installation will total nearly $4,000,000. 'The general tendency. in modern architecture is to pick materials that grow old more beautifully,' Mr. Johnson said. 'Philharmonic Hall, which opened last year, will be much better looking five years from now because dirt will fill in the natural holes in the travertine and make beautiful textures.” [4]

Below are some up-close photos of the exterior of the New York State Theater:

Shoddy or Grandeur?

Not everybody agreed that the unique patterns and weathering of the stone would look good. Charles C. Miller wrote, “The other greatest planning misfortune was the specification of travertine as Lincoln Center's uniform revetment. Although it has suitably imperial connotations and normally weathers to a lovely color, it is a deeply pitted material which provides pockets for the collection of New York soot. Already the buildings of Lincoln Center are dotted with black, and in many places rain has streaked their walls. The end effect will be shoddiness not grandeur, and a more easily cleaned light material or the black stone of the Whitney Museum or the CBS building would have been a more practical solution." [5]

So what do you think?


I hoped to learn more about the theater's travertine and where it came from so I reached out to the Mariotti Carlo quarry which provided the stone back in 1963. I was pleasantly surprised to receive a quick response from the owner, Primo Mariotti, the son of the original owner of the quarry. Although Primo had not been born at the time of the Lincoln Center project, he was able to provide me with some information about his family's involvement with this major project! He shared:

The stone is called Travertine and it is excavated in the quarries located in Tivoli Terme (20 miles East of Roma, Italy)


It is a porous material, of light beige color, and its use goes back to the Romans. The Romans themselves have utilized travertine for the great majority of the monuments that they erected some 2000 years ago among which the Colosseum. The same stone was extensively utilized by Renaissance Architects (Bernini and Borromini among others) for amazing projects like St. Peter’s Basilica.

I remember my father telling me that the Lincoln Center was extremely influential in the introduction of travertine in the American market. It was the first big project where travertine was utilized externally (most of the previous jobs were for interior use) and also the first project where all the stone was cut to size in Italy (previous jobs were always supplied in slabs to be cut to size locally by NY stone contractors). The stone was then crated and shipped (by ocean freight) to New York on vessels.


It was, at the time, a monumental task also considering the communication difficulties in the early 60’s (telephone calls were prohibitively expensive so most of the communication was by telegram!).

No computers, no internet, no emails….


Somehow, it was done on time and in budget.


Below are photos of a travertine quarry:

[3] Mariotti Carlo Website

[5] Charles W. Millard in The Hudson Review, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Winter, 1967-1968), pp. 657-663 

[6] Email correspondence between Lauryn Johnson and Primo Mariotti. 3/20/34

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