Northeast corner at 54th Street
(formerly the Aeolian Building)
Developer: Charles A. Gould
Architect: Warren & Wetmore
By Carter B. Horsley
When 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
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
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.
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
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.