By Carter B. Horsley
The city's grandest major cross-town thoroughfare,
57th Street is perhaps the street that best represents New York
City, running the gamut from glamour to ghastly.
There are super luxury residences at Sutton
Place on the far east end and tenements on the far west side.
It contains the headquarters of Channel 13, New York's Public
Broadcasting Station, and the Warner Bros. Design Store. It hosts
Carnegie Hall and the Art Students League and Steinway Piano's
and The Economist as well as Ford Automobile Showrooms, the Hard
Rock Cafe, Planet Hollywood, the Bat Bar and McDonald's. It has
Tiffany's and tourist traps.
Architecturally, it has the glorious gilded
chimney of the Crown Building, shown above, at Fifth Avenue (see
The City Review article), the marvelous
Art Deco style of the Fuller Building on Madison Avenue caddycorner
from the sleek cantilevered dark green former IBM office tower
(shown below), the sleek slope of 9 West 57th Street ane the flèche-topped
Ritz Tower (see The City Review article)
on the plus side.
But it also has the uninspired blandness of
the reflective-glass facade of the Greenwich Savings Bank Building
on Third Avenue and quite a few white-brick monstrosities such
as the Excelsior apartment tower at Second Avenue.
It has grown in fits and spurts and had more
than its shares of ups and downs. The Osborne cooperative apartment
building was one of the city's first luxury apartment buildings,
but it has lost its cornice and is surrounded by an eclectic and
not always inspired group of modern apartment buildings.
Some of the most famous names in retailing
have made the street their home, such as Bonwit Teller and Galleries
Lafayette, only to close while other boutique buildings seem to
change every few months. Bonwit Teller moved off Fifth Avenue
to make way for Trump Tower (see The City
Review article) and into a very handsome dark red polished
granite between Tiffany's and the former IBM Building. After only
a few years, however, it closed and Galleries Lafayette, the famous
French store, moved into the same building, only to fail after
only a few years. In 1996, Nike demolished the very handsome low-rise
building to erect its own new Nike Town. The only conceiveable
reason for tearing down the old building would appear to be a
desire to keep up with the construction Jones on the north side
of this street between Fifth and Madison Avenues where Chanel
erected a nice, but very bland and restrained mid-rise tower in
1996 when construction also began on a new tower for Louis Vuitton,
the luggage maker.
The narrow, 23-story Vuitton tower, shown above,
was designed by Christian de Portzamparc, the well-known French
architect, in association with the New York architectural firm
of Hiller/Eggers and was very favorably anticipated by many members
of the New York architectural press, who were impressed with its
use of unusual glazing and slightly off-beat, off-center facade.
The Vuitton Building, however, ran into major construction delays
and did not open until December, 1999. It is an interesting but
minor building severely limited by the city's rigid zoning regulations.
Its angularity and unusual colors, however, were most welcome.
For many years, 57th Street had the city's
most important art galleries and then Sotheby's opened up on Madison
Avenue at 76th Street and many dealers followed to the Upper East
Side (only to be later abandoned by Sotheby's, which built a very
ugly, unartistic and undistinguished loft-type ugly building on
York Avenue and 72nd Street that spurred a residential renaissance
of a once rather drab area).
57th Street still has many important art galleries,
especially in the great Fuller Building on the northeast comer
of Madison Avenue, but it began to emerge from the doldrums in
the early 1980's when two major mini building booms gave it two
spectacular new anchor points: the IBM building (see The
City Review article) with adjacent Sony building (see The City Review article) at Madison Avenue
and the Carnegie Hall and Metropolitan towers (the former shown
above and the latter shown in the distance in the photograph at
the left) with adjacent CitySpire at Seventh Avenue. The former
has been greatly reinforced by the new and impressive Four Seasons
Hotel between Madison and Park Avenues and the latter enclave
has been made more lively by the proliferation of youth-oriented
entertainment and retailing on the street as exemplified by the
Hard Rock, shown at the upper left on the previous page, and Planet
Hollywood Cafes and the Bat Bar and the nearby Harley Davidson
Cafe and the Jekyll and Hyde Club, both on the Avenue of the Americas.
Indeed, it would appear that the Warner Bros.
Design Store (see The City Review article),
which launched a major expansion in 1996, has been the most dominant
influence on the street, indeed, almost in midtown in the mid-90's,
demonstrating that entertainment/theme-oriented retail can thrive
very well in the heart of a city. Warner Bros. did it right, but
imitator Disney botched up its version a few blocks south on Fifth
Avenue (see The City Review article),
so quality humor, innovation and imagination do count.
In addition to such older, great buildings
at the Crown and Fuller and the elegant Ritz Tower on Park Avenue,
57th Street has numerous other buildings of note such as the sloping
and controversial but supremely slick office tower at 9 West 57th
Street and the ungainly but very impressive and innovative Galleria
and the adjacent concave office building at 115 and 135 East 57th
Street, respectively, both built by the same developer, Madison
Equities, and the very elegant double-height studio apartment
building at 322 East 57th Street, one of the most prestigious
residential buildings in the city. The street's eastern terminus
at Sutton Place is one of the world's most desirable residential
enclaves including two driveway co-ops at 1 and 2 Sutton Place
and the block of townhouses sharing a very large communal garden
overlooking the Fast River between 57th and 58th Street.
The stretch from First to Lexington Avenue
still leaves much to be desired in terms of elegance as does the
area west of Ninth Avenue.
Traffic in midtown can be a problem as the
intersection at Fifth Avenue is universally regarded as the center
of the world 'in the latter quarter of the 20th Century and approaches
to the Queensborough Bridge create rush-hour havoc further east.
As elegant as its heart is, 57th Street in
central midtown is burdened with tourists and office workers and
never quite assumes the stylish, casual sauntering ambiance of
Madison Avenue window-shoppers on the Upper East Side on Saturdays.
In any other city, 57th Street would be not
only the Main Street, but the very heart.
Before World War II, Times Square was the center
of the world. After World War II, 57th Street and Fifth Avenue
became the center of the world. The new Times Square emerging
in the late 90's, happily, is making it a contest again, though
it is unlikely to recapture the title as 57th Street still has
class--and less congestion.
Apart from its many famous buildings, 57th
Street is blessed with many other very interesting and handsome
buildings. It is far from perfect. There are still bargain stores
and too expensive delis and some pretty unattractive buildings.
But thanks to the tourist-oriented renaissance
of the 90's, it has been rejuvenated and is very lively.