Northeast corner at 54th Street

(formerly the Aeolian Building)

Developer: Charles A. Gould

Architect: Warren & Wetmore

Erected: 1926


By Carter B. Horsley

689 fifth AvenueWhen it leased this modest, 14-story building, which the Fifth Avenue Association named as the avenue's outstanding new structure of 1926, the Aeolian company, which manufactured pianos, was following its own tradition of commercial pioneering on the avenue and a general northward move by many of the city's musical concerns.

In 1900, the company took over the piano company of Albert Webber who had his "warerooms" on the avenue at 16th Street. In 1902, the company moved just to the north of the famous A. T. Stewart mansion at 34th Street and ten years later into a new 18-story building with the 1,100-seat Aeolian Hall at 29 West 42nd Street on the former site of the celebrated Latting Tower, a 19th Century landmark and observatory. The New York Symphony Society then split its performances between Aeolian Hall and Carnegie Hall.

By 1924, however, the symphony society decided to move its concerts from Aeolian Hall to the new Mecca Auditorium at 135 West 55th Street, now the City Center for the Performing Arts.

Although its 42nd Street facility had served as a major cultural center in the city with the premiere of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" with Paul Whiteman's Orchestra and with concerts by Rachmaninoff, Busoni and Paderewski, the company sold it to the Schulte Retail Stores for more than $5 million. The building is now home to the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

The Aeolian Company then entered a 63-year lease with Charles A. Gould for a new building at 689 Fifth Avenue on the former site of William Rockefeller's brownstone mansion. The new building was designed in the French Renaissance style by Warren & Wetmore and featured an Indiana limestone facade with a pink granite base and Italian marble panels and insets.

At the building's dedication, Whitney Warren, the architect, said he hoped the new building would bring "a little peace" to the avenue."

"Ancient traditions of pure melody clash along the avenue with the modern dissonance of jazz; the towering aggressive structures of industry and commerce are like the clarion calls of architecture, all about us. What to do? Man is not always strident, the soul is not always in haste, the eye does not always seek the restless gesture of the skyscraper, never attaining its sky," Warren mused.

Like the St. Regis Hotel at the north end of the same block on the avenue, the Aeolian Building meets the corner with a curve rather than a sharp edge and it is one of the few buildings in the city that still has curved corner windows. The avoidance of hard edges, in keeping with Warren's interest in softening the harshness of many skyscrapers, is further accented by the building's bronze ribbon sashes, curved balustrades and cornices and a sloped roof capped by a copper lantern finial covered in gold leaf.

The entrance to the main Aeolian showroom was through a circular vestibule with a floor of Belgian black marble and tavernelle squares, jasper pilasters and a coffered ceiling where Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was rendered in a mural. A 150-seat recital hall was on the second floor. When he remodeled in 1970 the former corner store in the building, then occupied by I. Miller, the shoe retailer, for Dr. Aldo Gucci's fashion store, Ernest Castro of the design firm of Weissberg Castro Associates said he found portions of a mezzanine section of the auditorium behind a partition.

No sooner had the company been occupied in 1927 than it became the star attraction at the auction of the estate of the builder, who had been a founder of the Gould Coupler Company and a prominent yachtsman. The auction was the biggest dispersal of midtown properties since the Astor and Sage auctions five years earlier and more than 3,000 people attended including such leading real estate investors as Robert E. Dowling, Benjamin Winter, Max Nathanson, Charles F. Noyes and J. Clarence Davies. The Aeolian Building was purchased by Mr. Gould's daughter, Mrs. Cecilia Gould Milne, for $3 million, establishing a new high value of $432 a square foot for land and building in that area.

The building's image changed somewhat in 1930 when a bright red door was installed in the building's store at 691 Fifth Avenue heralding the flagship salon for Elizabeth Arden, who was formerly as Florence Nightingale Graham. The Elizabeth Arden Company and its salon are still tenants.

The building set a new retail leasing record in 1970 when Gucci agreed to pay $100 a square foot a year for the corner store. Larry Silverstein, who acquired the property that year, was concerned that the building's architectural integrity might be compromised by two distinctly different retail frontages and was able to convince Elizabeth Arden to help share the costs in the redesign then planned by Dr. Gucci. His designer, Castro, said in an interview that he was very concerned that the storefronts "not clash and destroy" the existing building and that the best solution was to use "only noble materials." The expansive use of travertine marble and stainless steel on the Gucci facades, which wrap around the red Arden door, marked the foreign onslaught that helped buttress New York City during the financial troubles of the 1970's. Castro said he believed it was the first use of stainless steel for fine detailing on building facades (other than machine stamped panels such as are found on the former Mobil Building at 150 East 42nd Street). Several years later, Fortunoff would use a great deal more stainless steel in its nearby store facade on the avenue.

Gucci subsequently expanded into the corner storefront on the avenue directly across 54th Street and then gave up his store in the Aeolian Building, although much of the facade, shown at the right, has not since been changed.

The superb elegance of the building's architecture was not compromised by the Arden and Gucci stores, a rare event in the city.

Together with the nearby St. Regis Hotel and the University Club directly across the avenue and St. Patrick's Cathedral three blocks south, the Aeolian Building has epitomized from its beginning the avenue's often overrated reputation as the world's most stylish street. If one wore blinkers and opened one's eyes standing across the avenue, one would almost think that somehow the greatest Art Nouveau designers of Paris had merged with Palladian-inspired designers from Italy and Neoclassical designers from London to create the newest and highest standards of international urban elegance. This generation of commercial buildings did raise standards from the rather clunky and dark brownstone mansions that preceded it on the avenue in midtown. If all of the avenue had been so transformed, New York might have given Paris a pretty good run for the money as the urban standard-bearer.

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