(formerly the Morton F. Plant townhouse)


Architect: Robert W. Gibson and C. P. H. Gilbert (townhouse); William Welles Bosworth (store conversion)

Developer: Morton F. Plant

Erected: 1905 (townhouse); 1917 (store conversion)

Cartier Building in Christmas season, circa 1998 Bejeweled facade, Nov. 2003

Beribboned facade of Cartier's at Christmas time with large toy soldiers, circa 1998, left, and bejeweled with diamond-like panthers, November, 2003, right

By Carter B. Horsley

The last remaining truly elegant mansion building in midtown, apart from the Villard Houses on Madison Avenue that was a complex of 6 residences with relatively plain facades, Cartier's is the jewel of Fifth Avenue.

For many years, it has wrapped itself with large red ribbons and festooned its balconies with large toy soldiers as seen in the photo above left, circa 1998. In November, 2003. it replaced the toy soldiers with three fabulously amusing and beautiful diamond-like panthers, one on its sidestreet balcony, one crawling up its corner at Fifth Avenue and one lounging imperiously atop its cornice on the avenue, as shown above right.

Detail of diamond-like panther crawling up facade

One of three diamond-like panthers crawls up the facade in November, 2003

The exquisite detailing and proportions of this six-story, marble and granite, neo-Italian Renaissance-style palazzo are peerless and the transformation from residential to commercial use was minimal, involving the creation of an entrance on Fifth Avenue, the placement of a superbly sculpted clock on the Fifth Avenue facade, and storefront windows, designed impeccably to not mar the building's very fine ambiance. The paneling on the first floor is original.

The original owner, Morton F. Plant, was a well-known and successful banker, yachtsman and owner of baseball teams who had purchased the property from William K. Vanderbilt whose own mansion was diagonally across Fifth Avenue from this site. Vanderbilt sold the property with the provision that it not be used for commercial purposes for at least 25 years. Plant, however, disliked the rapid commercial redevelopment of his Fifth Avenue neighborhood and decided to move uptown to a new townhouse on the northeast corner of the avenue and 86th Street. He was able to arrange the "premature" transaction with Vanderbilt and Cartier's, which reportedly exchanged a valuable pearl necklace for the property.

The building's original entrance on the sidestreet was magnificently set off by an ornate balcony and two-story-high Doric pilasters rising to "support" a low-pitched pediment beneath the intricately carved frieze with deeply inset "four square" windows beneath the very articulated cornice.

At the Christmas holiday season, Cartier wraps this magnificent building in a very large red, bow-tied ribbon, a joyous, inspired adornment that puts to shame the puerile "coverings" that Christo calls art. It would be amusing and nice if Tiffany's, famed mostly for its delightful blue boxes with white ribbons, would follow suit and wrap its far less important building with a large white ribbon. But then, of course, Gimbel's did not want to talk to Macy's.

Some indication of how wonderful the Cartier building is can be seen by comparing it with its immediate neighbor to the south on Fifth Avenue, the quite plain and bland Olympic Airways Building that was formerly the George W. Vanderbilt mansion at 647 Fifth Avenue, which was built in the same year as the Cartier building and designed by Hunt & Hunt. Aristotle Socrates Onassis, the shipowner who also owned the airline and was the co-developer of Olympic Tower on the same block, kept an office at 647 Fifth Avenue. In 1997, however, the Olympic building was taken over and restored and refurbished by a fashion designer quite attractively as can be seen at the right in the photograph at the top of this article.

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