(between 55th and 56th Streets)
Developer: Solomon Equities and A. Alfred Taubman
Architect: Kohn Pedersen Fox and Schuman, Lichtenstein, Claman & Efron (office
tower); Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Assocs.(Bendel's)
Erected: 1990

By Carter B. Horsley

712 Fifth Avenue towerThe target of a major landmarks controversy over the preservation of the facades of three small Fifth Avenue buildings, one of which, the middle one, contained Lalique engraved windows, this project is an excellent example of the adaptive reuse of historic buildings.

Its success, however, has little to do with the architectural merit of the original buildings, whose Fifth Avenue facades were saved and incorporated in the new design.

The Lalique windows were on the second through fourth floors of an otherwise very drab Art Deco building of little significance and for decades their presence was obscured by grime and the fact that they were not very exceptional to begin with.

If anything was wonderful on the Fifth Avenue portion of the site it was the splendid Rizzoli bookstore in the building just to the south of the Lalique property and the Rizzoli bookstore was less than two decades old.

Nevertheless, the self-anointed civic priests of preservation raised such a hue and cry, not opposed by Donald Trump, the developer of the famous, tall, mixed-use tower catty-corner to the site (see The City Review article on Trump Tower), that the developers had to redesign their major project to incorporate the low-rise Fifth Avenue buildings. (Trump's lack of enthusiasm for this tower probably reflected the fact that the new tower would partially obstruct a lot of views to the southwest from Trump Tower diagonally across the avenue.)


As a result, the developers set back their 52-story office tower substantially from the avenue with the effect that it now blocks many vistas of the Empire State Building from further north on the avenue.

It should be noted, however, that this tower is one of the most interesting facades in the city with its strong decorative patterns, large square windows, occasional rustication and truncated banding. It is a forceful, imaginative attempt to boldly rework the traditional office tower facade. Its six-story crown, for example, is slightly indented at its four corners and it is marked by a different facade pattern. While the tower is very well proportioned and light in its contrasting gray-and-white facades, the overall effect is neat and rather dashing, but not quite comfortable: it stands out like the first club member to wear a new, well-tailored, wide-labeled, boldly patterned jacket. Unlike Nehru jackets, this tower will stand the test of time well.

landmark Fifth Avenue facadesThe Fifth Avenue entrance of Bendel's is a smashing Post-Modern lobby that is overwhelming given the store's relatively small size. The Lalique windows, which can be seen in the picture at the right, have been cleaned and preserved. They are attractive, but really do not contribute all that much to the interior ambience, and many window-shoppers probably still don’t notice them on the exterior. Delightfully, a small restaurant sits beside the windows on one of the lobby's balconies, shown belcw. Despite the curlicues of the windows' engravings, the designers opted not to employ curves in the lobby. Bendel's, however, is, without question, the most interesting retail store in the city as each of its nooks/boutiques is individually woven into a very complex architectural fabric and there is more than enough to catch the eye.

The office building's lobby on 56th Street, shown below, is more conventional and classic with a handsome reinterpretation of the Art Deco motif in its rich marble columns and a modern sculpture of antiquarian spirit, shown below. One is tempted looking at the sculpture to run into Bendel's and buy lots of bright scarfs to drape about the sculpture. The sculpture was eventually replaced within a few years, however.


All in all, all that could be asked for here would be for Rizzoli to buy out the Harry Winston bland travertine space on the 56th Street corner and replicate its original bookstore, which moved to 57th Street between Fifth Avenue and the Avenue of the Americas in a handsome, but not quite as wonderful, store.

In the end, both the developer, the architect and the landmarks community deserve praise for this project which has not only saved some of the old ambiance of Fifth Avenue, but improved it while also giving midtown an important and interesting new major and highly visible skyscraper.

Its visibility from the north, however, is its only real drawback. That visibility means that its office tenants on the upper floor have fabulous views up Fifth Avenue and over Central Park, but, in turn, the views of midtown from upper Fifth Avenue and parts of the park now have their vistas of the Empire State Building largely, or partially, blocked, which is most unfortunate, a result of this tower being as tall as it is. One would not want to impose "landmark visual sightlines" as a new zoning, or preservation requirement across the board, but in this instance it would have been nice if it had been taken into consideration.

In 1998, the Paramount Group was reported by Cushman & Wakefield Inc., to be planning to purchase 543,207 square feet in the building for $576 million.

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