(formerly the GE Building and originally the
(S. E. corner at 51st Street)
Developer: The RCA Victor Company
Architect: Cross & Cross
By Carter B. Horsley
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. Bartholomews 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 buildings 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
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 ceilings 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
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 minoritys leaders were quite brilliant in
their public relations strategies that depicted the churchs
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 suns 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 90s,
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.