THE CROWN BUILDING

(formerly the Heckscher Building)

730 FIFTH AVENUE

Between 56th & 57th Streets

Developer: August Heckscher

Architect: Warren & Wetmore

Erected: 1921

By Carter B. Horsley

Next to the Helmsley Building straddling Park Avenue and the Chrysler Building, this building has the best roof in midtown and its gilded ornamentation and nighttime illumination have made it the glittering "crown" of midtown that sits regally in a throne made and framed by its neighboring and looming skyscrapers.

The developer, a philanthropist who made a fortune in zinc and real estate, called the building "The Tower of Trade." "In the last analysis, whoever will not shop on Fifth Avenue and 57th Street will not shop anywhere," Heckscher mused. The developer, whose grandson and namesake was the New York City Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Commissioner in the Lindsay Administration, maintained that his Fifth Avenue corner "will always be the most valuable and coveted."

So why doesn't the building have a great and large lobby at the international center of the world?

The answer lies in the simple fact that retail space at this location is just too valuable. At one point in the 1980's, space in the immediate vicinity was being offered for about $500 a square foot a year, or about 10 times most of the prime office rents in the area. By the mid-1990's, such rents had fallen about 20 percent, but were still about the most expensive in the world, but by the late 1990's they were on the rise again and office rents in this prime area were reaching all-time peaks especially for spaces with views of Central Park as are available from this building's tower over the low-rise Bergdorf Goodman building (see The City Review article) across 57th Street.

Crown building seen from the northWith showrooms on its lower floors and offices above, this 26-story tower was one of the city's first important mixed-use buildings to comply with the setback provisions of the 1916 Zoning Resolution and one of the last major skyscrapers to be built in the city before the onslaught of the Art Deco style dominated the next decade.

Charles A. Wetmore, the architect, was an investing partner with Heckscher on this project, whose 416-ft.-high crown was capped originally with a 12-ft.-high rooster weathervane that was removed in 1942 to be melted down for the war effort. A recreation of the rooster ought to be made and put on both the French chateau-style pyramid roof and in the lobby.

The small lobby was pleasantly renovated and redesigned in the early 1990's with a great deal of glitz that has given it a brassy, beveled look that makes the space appear larger than it is. While it is an improvement, it looks like a suburban transplant and still has no rooster. Thankfully, of course, the outside of the entrance was not marred and the barrel-vaulted spaces are always welcome.

The notable roof also boasts an elaborate, tall chimney on its southeast corner.

The office entrance is demure, but the three gilded female figures above the entrance, shown below, add grace even if they can't seem to distract the nearly naked youth holding up the great outdoor clock over the entrance of Tiffany's across the avenue.

The corner retail space was occupied for many years by the I. Miller shoe store whose bent wood, undulating wall grills were one of the most impresOne of many plaquessive retail interiors in the city. The space was subsequently leased by Bulgari, the jeweler, which transformed the space and retail frontage into a highly sculpted, abstract facade in pinkish pastel colors that had nothing to do with the rich ornamentation of this building as evidenced by the ornate spandrel bas-reliefs, one of which is shown at the left. The Bulgari facade was sophisticated, but not subtle, a modernistic intrusion whose boldness was on too small a scale to make a major impact and yet too insensitive to the building's design quality to be excused. It could be argued, however, that it formed a symbolic bookend for the tower that is complemented by the also quite modern and stark Fendi storefront at the 56th Street corner on the same block in a different, smaller building. The Bulgari frontage was modified somewhat and "opened up" to be more inviting in the late 1990's.Crown Building seen from the west

In the 1980's, this building became the centerpiece of a major collection of Manhattan commercial properties assembled by the Marcos family of the Philippines. Financial problems, however, soon tied its ownership up in legal disputes for several years. Financial troubles were not new to the building as foreclosure proceedings against it started in 1934 and were not finished until 1938. Mr. Heckscher and several other owners sued Rockefeller Center in 1933 for improper leasing methods that, they claimed, hurt their properties severely during the Depression, but the suit never went to trial. In 1946, Charles F. Noyes and Joseph Durst acquired the building and sold it a few years later to Kenneth S. Keyes and it was sold again in 1966 to Centurion Real Estate Inc.

The building was the original home in 1929 of the Museum of Modern Art (see The City Review article) before it relocated to its new home on West 53rd Street. It also was the first home in 1923 of the American Mercury magazine, a famous literary publication that was edited by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan. The Crown Building occupies the former site of the "vine-covered" townhouse of William C. Whitney and the white marble house of Charles W. Morse.

Crown top at night

While the asymmetrical massing of the setbacks might seem awkward at first glance, it is well balanced over the low-rise mass of the Bergdorf Goodman store complex when seen from Grand Army Plaza and the north. Its ornate, but fine ornamentation and great top make it the dominant building at this worldly center, the gem whose setting is merely a handful of famous skyscrapers.

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