9 WEST 57TH
Developer: Sheldon Solow
Architect: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
By Carter B. Horsley
One of the most controversial buildings in
midtown and also one of the most successful midtown real estate
ventures, 9 West 57th Street is largely responsible for the subsequent
redevelopment of the Plaza District into the city's most prestigious
office precinct. The General Motors Building (see The
City Review article) had led the way, of course, when it was
erected in 1968, but it merely ruined the elegant ambiance of
Grand Army Plaza by razing the Savoy Plaza Hotel.
This giant office tower, developed by Sheldon
Solow, his first major commercial building venture, set new standards
of elegance with the sleekest curtain wall facade in the city.
Although it was completed at the start of a
major real estate depression in the city, Solow had preleased
much of the building, first to Monsanto Chemical and then to Avon
Products. Solow made enough money quickly on the building to maintain
a lavish, large office high up in the building overlooking Central
Park and an enormous and excellent Joan Miro painting and launch
other ambitious projects in the city and not be perturbed that
no retail tenant has ever opened up shop in 20 years in his 60,000-square
foot retail basement concourse that has its own escalator access
in the middle of both the facades on 57th and 58th Streets, shown
above and below, respectively
Solow's tastes were refined enough for him
to reject Gordon Bunshaft's first major design for the sloping
tower and Bunshaft was astute enough to palm that design off on
Swig, Weiler, Arnow who used it for their very similarly shaped
tower at 1114 Avenue of the Americas, which was known originally
as the W. R. Grace Building. Solow got the better building by
far, although the primary difference is only the facade treatment.
The north and south facades of the Solow tower
project slightly from the building's edges and are extraordinarily
sensuous because of the very fine detailing of the window gaskets.
For those impressed with the slickness of the
sloping facade, there are legions more, however, that were outraged
at the building's "violation" of the traditional streetwall.
Their quite valid argument was that the slope of the building
exposed sides of adjacent buildings that were never meant to be
exposed and therefore created gaping and horrendous scars in the
cityscape. Of course, New York abounds in exposed sides of buildings
that are very unattractive, but the critics of this building pointed
out that its slope and its scale created a magnetic fascination
that drew undue attention to the exposed sides of adjacent buildings,
an accurate psychophysical observation.
Bunshaft realized this effect and to counter
it he designed the building's very large second-story gutter that
curtains the potential visual avalanche from the unwary, or too
wary, pedestrian. The building's outer columns, of course, protrude
out from beneath the gutter at the same accelerating angle for
the sake of both engineering and aesthetics.
According to Bunshaft, the idea of the slope
originated with trying to find different ways to comply with the
city's complex setback and "sky exposure plane" zoning
regulations that were planned to ensure adequate "light and
air" reaching the street. The slope maximizes the buildable
able that can be contained within a certain height by filling
in some of the space that might otherwise be lost to setbacks.
Of course, a slope design is more expensive to design and build
and results in some lost interior space for tall people whose
heads might bump into windows before their feet collided with
On 57th Street, the building is set back a
few feet from its building line and it also makes itself felt
more intensely at street level by covering its sidewalks with
the same travertine marble used on the facades and in the lobbies.
Bunshaft, who also designed Lever House on
Park Avenue, was not content that the gutter alone would alleviate
pedestrian anxiety and he and Solow had the brainstorm to place
a very large, bright red metal sculpture of the number "9"
in front of the building. The sculpture is not quite effective
as Isamu Noguchi's brilliant red cube in front of the Marine Midland
Plaza tower at 120 Broadway, but it is nice, amusing and diverting.
Bunshaft camouflaged the building's huge "mechanical"
floor housing heating, ventilating and air-conditioning (HVAC)
equipment at the building's fourth level by making it appear from
the outside as two office floors.
The building goes through its block to 58th
Street where it faces the south side of the Plaza Hotel over which
it looms. This side of 9 West 57th Street has a much larger plaza,
decorated with a glorious, large Picasso sculpture of a mythic
bull, than 57th Street, which is not as destructive as the sunken
plaza of the General Motors Building across Fifth Avenue from
the hotel, but which is certainly not a needed public amenity
at this location. Had the full plaza been put on 57th Street and
building moved flush to the 58th Street building line, it would
have been a larger and possibly more useful public plaza, depending
on its design and amenities, but it would also have created even
larger, offending "scars."
Many critics correctly observed that sloped
or slanted buildings ideally should be freestanding or at least
at corner sites rather than midblock.
The country's best freestanding sloped skyscraper
is the First National Bank Building in Chicago, built in 1969
and designed by C. f. Murphy Associates and the Perkins and Will
The Continental Illinois Center at 520 Madison
Avenue between 53rd and 54th Streets has a partially slanted form
and is not freestanding but occupies the full Madison Avenue blockfront.
Completed in 1981, its design, by Der Scutt of Swanke Hayden Connell
solved the swooping onrush pedestrian problem by truncating its
slant above the street-level retail spaces.
9 West 57th Street's spectacular views and large floors
and impressive quality commanded very high rentals despite its
"bell-bottom" epithets. While its sloping north and
facades draws jeers and gasps, its east and west facades are superb
with large exposed crossed supports, shown at the left, contained
within a recessed bay, one of the city's rare "high-tech"
A quarter century after its completion, the
streetscape of 57th Street has been utterly transformed from what
had been a rather shabby genteel boulevard to an international
showcase not only of fashion and art, but also corporate and architectural
strength and 9 West 57th Street led the way in that renaissance
and transformation. Sheldon Solow went on to build several other
geometrically interesting and slick projects though none as visible
and controversial as this. When A. T. & T. built its famous
tower a few years later two blocks away on Madison Avenue, it
impacted the street far more severely and ominously than this
tower because virtually its entire bulk rose straight up from
its building line on its rather small plot cutting off a whole
lot of "light and air" without the reflective benefits
of a mostly glass facade. Such are the vagaries of planning and
development in Manhattan.
A tall Giacometti sculpture of man stands near
the elevator bank facing 57th Street and during the Christmas
holidays the travertine-clad lobbies are adorned with gilded garlands
and the exterior gutters have hanging "candy-cane"-like
wreaths hanging from them and the sidewalk trees are festooned
with lights. In the late 1990s, however, it was removed and the
south lobby remained art-less for almost two years until the Giacometti
was replaced with a large, dark Henry Moore in September, 2000,
about the same time as 8 1/2, a restaurant, finally opened in
part of the building's large and long-vacant basement.
To accommodate the new restaurant, the two
escalators in the middle of the south frontage were removed and
a curved glass enclosure was installed, shown above, with a large
curved staircase leading down to the large restaurant, which has
a smoking-section bar and a non-smoking section bar, and a large
stained-glass sculpture apparently modeled on a design by Fernand