SAKS FIFTH AVENUE/SWISS BANK TOWER
611 FIFTH AVENUE (Saks Fifth); 12 East 50th
Developer: Saks Fifth Avenue
Architect: Starrett & Van Vleck (Saks Fifth);
Lee Harris Pomeroy Associates and Abramovitz Kingsland Schiff
Erected: 1924 (Saks Fifth); 1989 (tower)
By Carter B. Horsley
Although its roots were the former Saks store
and Gimbel's on Herald Square, this store has defined retail elegance
on Fifth Avenue more than any other.
Bergdorf's was always more expensive and has
always had far more spectacular shop windows, as, of course, also
did Tiffany's. The Christmas windows at Lord & Taylor and
the former B. Altman's stores lower on Fifth Avenue were also
more family oriented and fun, although in 1998 Saks Fifth Avenue
began to show animated Christmas windows also.
Directly opposite Rockefeller Center (see The City Review article) and just to the
south of St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Cathedral (see The
City Review article), Saks Fifth Avenue had the location and
marketing clout to best them and outlast such other famous stores
on the avenue as Russeks, DePinna and Bonwit Teller.
Unlike many large stores that scorned windows
as wasted selling space and adopted a fortress windows, perhaps
best personified by the now closed and vacant Alexander's on Lexington
Avenue and 58th Street, Saks Fifth Avenue is a very handsome building,
understated, but very elegant in its proportions and materials.
Its tall, multi-paned windows, cutoff corners and very fine detailing
are excellent. Over the years, it expanded boutiques into adjacent
midblock buildings as they become available, finally undergoing
a major expansion into the base of the new, adjoining Swiss Bank
Tower in 1989.
Like many of its competitors, Saks Fifth Avenue
underwent a major interior redesign in the late 1980's and its
was the best of the lot, employing very rich materials in a new,
large central escalator bank.
The new tower, which used air rights from the
store, is tucked tightly behind the almost equally tall Newsweek
Building on Madison Avenue. Its base is superbly handled to complement
the store building.
The limestone tower, shown at the right in the photograph
at the left, is a delightful surprise, a clean and simple, but
well sculpted shaft that is infinitely better than the back wall
of the Newsweek Building and yet calm enough not to detract from
the glory of St. Patrick's Cathedral across 50th Street.
With what are obviously some of the greatest
views in the world of Fifth Avenue, the cathedral and Rockefeller
Center, it is hard to imagine why this tower was not built decades
Saks Fifth Avenue has always been a good, attractive
backdrop for vistas to the east from the sunken plaza staircase
in the Channel Gardens of Rockefeller Center across Fifth Avenue
and now the Swiss Bank Tower is a good, attractive backdrop for
Saks Fifth Avenue and the same vistas.
According to Robert A. M. Stern, Gregory Gilmartin
and Thomas Mellins in "New York 1930, Architecture and Urbanism
Between the Two World Wars," published in 1988 by Rizzoli,
Saks Fifth Avenue "was the first large store building to
be build on Fifth Avenue after the passage of the zoning law of
"Its vaguely English Renaissance design
was said to be inspired by several lesser-known eighteenth-century
London buildings....By 1928, the advertising and merchandising
potential of the New Modernism, already understood by many of
the more sophisticated small retailers, was taken up in earnest
by Adam Gimbel, who ran Saks Fifth Avenue, and set in motion a
succession of renovations in his new building that would unalterably
change the course of retailing. The first and most visible area
of department store design innovation was the show windows....The
conception of window display was first transformed by Joseph Cummings
Chase, whose windows for McCreery's on Thirty-fourth Street pioneered
simplified design, replacing the jumble of merchandise that previously
characterized the windows with a few objects placed to create
a dramatic backdrop for, say, a woman's dress or coat, and using
furniture instead of the traditional ornamental fixtures to hold
merchandise in place. Saks Fifth Avenue carried Chase's principle
much further, employing the architect Fritz Kiesler in 1927 and
the sculptor Alexander Archipenko in 1929 to design simple, striking
In the early 1990's, the store began to hang
many American flags above its canopied shop windows, adding considerable
color to the area and reinforcing the avenue's great flag heritage.
In the late 1990's, Swiss Bank merged with another bank. The tower's
entrance across from the south side of St. Patrick's Roman Catholic
Cathedral, shown at the right, blended nicely with the store's
The store also added a very attractive restaurant
overlooking Fifth Avenue and St. Patrick's Cathedral on its eighth
floor, one of the rare locations in midtown with good midtown
views open to the public.