(formerly the GE Building and originally the RCA Building)

(S. E. corner at 51st Street)

Developer: The RCA Victor Company

Architect: Cross & Cross

Erected: 1931

By Carter B. Horsley

570 Park Avenue seen from Park AvenueThis splendid spindly tower, which became the General Electric Building when its lead tenant, RCA Victor was wooed away to Rockefeller Center to put its name on 30 Rockefeller Plaza (see The City Review article), is one of the city's most exquisite Art Deco jewels.

It is ironic that General Electric should end up putting its initials atop 30 Rockefeller Plaza. The moral must be that if you lease a lot of space here there's a big future for your logo spectacular at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

After General Electric replaced the large RCA red neon logo atop 30 Rockefeller Plaza with its own, it gave this building to Columbia University, which, in turn, entered a venture with Bernard Mendik, the developer, and other investors, to lease much of the office space to other tenants.

Tucked behind St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church that fronts on Park Avenue, this tower boasts a fantastic top that may well be the most original and attractive skyscraper roof in the world. (The Chrysler Building's spire, a few blocks south, is wonderful pure Art Deco, but this is a far more elaborate sculpting and is more thematically consistent with its lead tenant's business than the Chrysler's stainless steel wings' relations to an automobile company.)

Rising from its small site, this tower serves as an unofficial campanile to the church and honors it further with its warmly intense color, most unusual for a commercial building and a very early example of contextual skyscraper design.

By today's standards, the lobby, which cannot hold a proverbial candle to the building’s top, is sedate and small although its polished walls and vaulted ceilings are handsome. But in its day it was innovative in its attempt to break new ground.

John W. Cross, the architect, placed an important emphasis on the lobby: "Designing this first floor hall was the sort of task of which one borrows nothing consciously from the wealth of past developments in architectural art, but strikes out into the future as far as imagination can penetrate."

"Romantic though radio may be, it is at the same time intangible and elusive - a thing which can be captured visually only through symbolism. There is vitality in the aluminum ceiling, and although it is vaulted it is free from any suggestion of past times or places. The severity of the vertical lines, which intersect the curves of the ceiling with daring abruptness, is intended to convey the directness and penetration of radio itself. And the slabs of light which issue from concealed sources in the side wall sconces to be reflected downward at a thousand angles from the ceiling’s bright surface, hint at the broadcast stations which curl their signals into every corner of the land," Cross said in the May 30, 1931 issue of the Real Estate Record and Guide.

Top of 570 Lexington Avenue

The building was widely praised for its excellent relation to the Byzantine-influenced style of Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue's St. Bartholomew Church, its immediate neighbor to the west. Many years later, a new office building developed by the Rudin family also paid contextual respect to the church and the tower by opting for a masonry facade of similar tone to that of the two other buildings on the block. The landmark church itself created a major controversy when it attempted to build a new office tower on its south garden facing Park Avenue and was unable to gain approval for the design from the city's Landmarks Preservation Project. The church sued, charging that the denial of the project was an unconstitutional "taking" of property without due compensation. Surprisingly, the church lost its appeal to the U. S. Supreme Court in a ruling that demonstrated that its rulings are often historical political events rather than consistent legal reasoning. The ruling had been awaited with great trepidation by many preservationists for whom it was a very major victory. The church went through many agonies as the proposed project sent a minority of its congregation into a furor that resulted in great acrimony. The minority’s leaders were quite brilliant in their public relations strategies that depicted the church’s leading minister as on an ego trip and drowned out his rather difficult question of what would Christ have done, raise moneys for the poor, or be idolatrous about architecture. The design of the project would, incidentally, have blocked views of many residents and guests in the Waldorf Astoria Towers (see The City Review article) just to the south and office workers in the Rudin building to the west.

One could argue, devastatingly, that a replica or close copy of the 570 Lexington Avenue building at the Park Avenue corner at 50th Street would be a brilliant and completely compatible design and should be built so that the church can use its air rights for its religious purposes of good works as it has indicated it wanted to do. Such a solution in no way violates the integrity of the landmark church and views are absolutely not protected in New York City and no one can feel sorry for the population and owners of the Rudin Building and Waldorf-Astoria. The proposed design, however, was not inspired and the question is probably moot for another generation or so.

A sad commentary on the city's office market is that in the depths of the real estate depression in the early 1990's, this building was donated to Columbia University because its owner could not rent its small floors at rates high enough to cover expenses.

The lobby is quite small but sublimely elegant with its rippled pink marble walls and vaulted gilded ceiling and subtle lighting, giving the effect of being wrapped snugly in satin made of the sun’s fibers at some glorious sunset. The pinkish and rose hues of the building are unusual in the city and have well stood the test of time and complement perfectly the Byzantine splendor of the adjacent church and the reddish masonry facade of the smaller, but also respectful, office building adjacent to the south at 560 Lexington Avenue.

Given the very small plot size of this building, it is quite remarkable how much decorative detail was used, to say nothing of how original and powerful it is. Lightning abounds and the brickwork and mullions are quite rhythmic.

This tower is the quintessence of the romance of a city where nothing is too good for a prime location and for proud and civic-minded developers, a rare but very important breed.

With the corporate downsizing of the 90’s, small floors may, and should, once again return to favor and this wonderful building will become pre-eminent.

Mysterious, mythic and magisterial, this is a great skyscraper.

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