(formerly the Goelet Building)
608 Fifth Avenue
Southwest corner at 49th Street
E. H. Faile & Co. with Victor L. F. Hafner;
Lester Tichy Associates (alteration of lower floors)
Erected: 1931; 1966 (alteration of lower floors)
By Carter B. Horsley
A jewel, this 11-story building is one of New
York's finest Art Deco buildings.
With its bold patterned facade and luscious,
colored materials, it is extraordinarily strong, design-wise,
for its meager size.
Part of Goelet's wealth came from Chemical
Bank and he decided to replace his mansion on the site when Rockefeller
Center began construction. The building was designed to be used
either as a store or a combination of office and retail uses and
to maximize his retail space, he cantilevered much of the construction.
For many years, the Swiss Center's decorative
mullions, shown in the photograph at the left, around the second
floor detracted a bit from the original design, but fortunately
were not too intrusive on the rich deep-green and white Dover
cream marbles used on the facade.
The massing of the building, which was designated
an official city landmark in 1992, is quite sophisticated with
two wings separated by a light well on the sidestreet. The wings
have corner setbacks and are joined by a taller, recessed mechanical
penthouse that is very handsome.
The extravagant but very intimate lobby spaces
employ black and brown marbles in wide bands to contrast with
green and silver ceilings and lustrous elevator doors, shown at
the right, and corner light grills, shown below. The overall effect
is sumptuous and very elegant.
The main street facades of the wings are highly
articulated with two wide vertical green marble piers between
which are three thin ones and the wide ones are also flanked by
one other thin pier on the outer sides.
The horizontal bands of windows, furthermore,
are slightly inset.
The overall effect is International Style more
than Art Deco, although the lobby decoration is full, magnificent
In his excellent book:
"Streetscapes, Tales of Manhattan's Significant Buildings
and Landmarks," (Harry N. Abrams, 2003), Christopher Gray
devotes a chapter to this building in which he made the following
"In 1882, Ogden
Goelet built a mansion at 608 Fifth Avenue at the southwest corner
of 49th Street. He died in 1897 bu8t the house remained standing
until the death of his widow in 1929. The Goelets rarely sold
land, and in 1930 the family chose to erect a new structure on
the site adaptable for use as offices, a single department storeo,
or small shops, largely because the pending development of Rockefeller
Center made it difficult to forecast the most desirable use. The
columns on the first floor were set in to allow uninterrupted
show-window space, and the second floor was hung from the third
to increase head room in the first -floor area. But it is the
styling of 608 Fifth Avenue that sets it apart - way apart. Perhaps
the term 'geometric moderne' is fairly close, but it still doesn't
do justice to what the marble trade magazine Through the Ages,
called 'a modernist's dream' in 1932. The building is one giant
Art Moderne cigarette case of marble - Dover white at the floor
levels'; verde antique green at the store levels; vertical stripes
at the crown; and Yule Colorado golden at the door - all accented
by aluminum trim. The bronze doorway was designed after the Goelet
family coat of arms....Inside, the lobby is an explosion of zigzag
modernism and different marbles - aurora rossa, samosa golden,
American pavonazzo, bleu belge, numidian red, and Belgian black,
under an aluminum ceiling."
Mr. Gray also noted that
famous architecture critic Lewis Mumford considered the building's
design "a retardataire holdover of the Art Deco of
the 1920s and Mr. Gray maintained that 'Indeed, there is an awkward,
ungainly quality to the massing and in the restless conflict between
the vertical and horizontal elements of the design; the rich facade
does not complement the structure itself."
Mr. Gray's comments are,
as always, accurate, although in this case he underestimates the
overall temperament of the building as a jewel fit to be a machine
and as a work of architecture not intimidated by fads and labels
and bold enough to assert a personality that would not be truly
appreciated until after the battles fought decades later by the