THE FRED F. FRENCH BUILDING
551 FIFTH AVENUE
(N.E. corner at 45th Street)
Architect: Sloan & Robertston
Developer: Fred F. French
Fred F. French Building viewed from the southwest
By Carter B. Horsley
The best of three similar slab skyscrapers
on the avenue in the mid-40's, this 38-story tower was the flagship
of one of the city's most important developers who created the
Tudor City residential complex spanning 42nd Street at First Avenue
and who envisioned an even larger project to redevelop 250 acres
of Lower East Side tenements.
Although deserved praised for its rich and
intriguing decoration, this setback skyscraper is perhaps most
interesting for the color of its masonry above its limestone and
bronze base: a warm orange, highlighted by deep red and black
trim at its setbacks. The orange hints fiery sunsets, which, of
course, are emblazoned on its large friezes on the north and south
facades of its flat crown, as shown above. The color is quite
appealing, but surprisingly has been rarely imitated and has survived
the city's grit well.
According to Robert A. M. Stern, Gregory Gilmartin
and Thomas Mellins in their book, "New York 1930 Architecture
and Urbanism Between the Two World Wars," published by Rizzoli
in 1987, the building was "a collaborative design between
H. Douglas Ives (of the French Company's in-house architecture
department) and John Sloan of Sloan & Robertson, who embellished
its innovative mass with a novel ornamental program."
building's astylar detailed complemented its three-dimensional
complexity. Possibly the first skyscraper to have a flat roof,
its straightforward water tank enclosure blazed with vividly polychromed
faience panels that terminated the shaft without resorting to
historical motifs. Ives described the iconography of the panels:
"From the beginnings of architecture down
through the Roman, Romanesque and Gothic periods the use for which
buildings were intended was expressed by symbols, and so in the
French Building we have endeavored in the panels of the top of
the tower to express not only the purpose for which the building
is to be used, commerce, but the character and activities of our
own organization, the Fred F. French Companies. The central motif
of the large panels on the north and south sides is a rising sun,
progress, flanked on either side by two winged griffins, integrity
and watchfulness. At either end are two beehives with golden bees,
the symbols of thrift and industry. The panels on the east and
west sides contain heads of Mercury, the messenger, spreading
the message of the French plan."
In discussing the entrance, shown at the left,
the authors noted that, "inspired by the Ishtar Gate, the
decorative program was a most literal evocation of Manhattan as
the New Babylon, of the skyscraper as Nebuchadnezzar's hanging
garden in the desert."
The slab form here has elevators at the eastern
end of the tower and the rectilinear floor plan enabled the building
to appear narrow or large depending on the vantage point.
While the setbacks are placed to conform with
the city's complex "sky-exposure plane" zoning requirements
designed to ensure some penetration of "light and air"
to lowly pedestrians, the thrust of the slender upper half of
the building is very graceful and is a good argument against plazas
on broad boulevards where maintaining a consistent building line
and a relatively consistent mid-rise cornice line is very important.
The rather small lobby, shown below, is brightly
painted in dark blue and gold and is quite regal.
Art Deco is at its best when it is not so specifically
reminiscent of past styles as here, yet this is a very impressive
and exotic tower that contributed significantly to the grandeur
and international repute of Fifth Avenue.