461 FIFTH AVENUE

Architect: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

Developer: Mitsui Fudosan and London & New York Estates

Erected: 1989

461 Fifth from the south

By Carter B. Horsley

This 25-story office building is a stunning example of how a new structure can harmoniously relate to Fifth Avenue's rich traditions while asserting itself in a modern context.

The design by Raul de Armas, then of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, uses pre-cast concrete technology to create the effect of limestone. This technology is a big cost-saver, but has been perfected enough to be quite attractive in its own right.

Pitched roof of 461 Fifth AvenueThe building's facades are lively, but not fussy and their patterns impart a great sense of solidity, elegance and strength, typical of the avenue's many pre-World War II commercial buildings. In addition, its pitched roof, shown at the right, echoes those of nearby buildings in the Bryant Park vicinity.

The building's knockout punches are its exposed steel trusses in the center of the tower with their circular design in front of gently curved window facades. It is high-tech structuralism reminiscent of some early cast-iron designs, if not the curves of the old and sorely missed Bishop's Crook lampposts, or Ernest Flagg's Scribner's Bookstore a few blocks north. Neither derivative nor jarring, the trusses are intriguing and ornamental on a larger-than-normal scale.

The base of the building's rounded corner, moreover, recalls the soft lines of 689 Fifth Avenue, another of the avenue's jewels. This building is one of the best arguments in favor of light colored facades versus bronzed behemoths like Olympic Tower.

The detailing of the street-level entrance and storefronts is especially crisp and strong with bold black accents and a large curved canopy.

Base of 461 Fifth Avenue is rounded at the cornerUnlike the banal sliver building at 489 Fifth Avenue, one block north, shown partially at the left in the picture at the right, whose bright white banding calls attention to its uninspired design by Kahn & Jacobs, 461 Fifth Avenue raises the avenue's design standards and carries forward the progressive architectural character of the Bryant Park enclave.

This skyscraper is an intriguing and innovative attempt to merge High Tech, Modernism and Post-Modernism while also being very sensitive to context on a critical site.

What if the large, curved corner windows of the base had been used, on a smaller scale, in the tower?

What if the impressive trusses of the tower had been used also in the base?

What if the fine curved flair of the corner marquee had been somehow repeated on the roofline as a neo-Art Nouveau cornice?

What if the tower's trusses were removed to more clearly show the curved center windows?

Such questions were probably pondered by the developers and the architects and it is quite remarkable that they decided to incorporate all these elements and did so quite successfully. The finished melange of elements does send many messages and perhaps stop short of being a masterpiece but by New York standards of the time it was quite daring and is a fine foil for the also unusual Republic National Bank building by Eli Attia (see The City Review article) cattycorner on the Avenue.

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