(between 59th & 60th Streets)
Developer: Hiro Real Estate (1987 rebuilding);
The C.I.T. Financial Corporation (original 8-story building)
Architect: Fox & Fowle (new tower and old
base rebuilding); Harrison & Abramovitz (original 8-story
Erected: 1987 (tower rebuilding); 1957 (original
By Carter B. Horsley
The original building for the C.I.T. Corporation, a
factoring company headed by Henry Ittelson, a philanthropist and
art collector, was Harrison & Abramovitz's masterpiece, a
8-story building whose protruding stainless steel mullions and
clear glass windows and blue glass spandrels was a machinemaker's
delight with its precision patterns.
Harrison, who was the Rockefellers' favorite
architect, was the supervising architect for the international
team that designed the United Nations complex on the East River
but his major individual commissions - the Albany Mall office
tower complex in Albany, N.Y., and the Exxon, McGraw-Hill and
Celanese buildings of the western extension of Rockefeller Center
along the Avenue of the Americas and the Metropolitan Opera House
at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts on the Upper East
Side - all evidenced a sterility and banal uniformity of vertical
grill-like facades that were as Johnny One-Note as Edward Durrell
Stone's Moorish-like screen designs only nowhere nears as attractive.
As all of Harrison's projects mentioned in
the above paragraph involved Nelson A. Rockefeller, who served
for a while as governor of New York State, perhaps they indicated
that Rockefeller's lack of taste, but since that Rockefeller was
a major art collector it's more likely that Harrison was the one
with no aesthetic sensibility.
In any event, Harrison's C.I.T. building was
a gem both in its pristine facades but also in its massing where
the top seven floors of the building were "floated"
over the Madison Avenue entrance by an indentation, or recessed
band, over the first floor. C.I.T.'s executive suites were broad
expanses of lightly stained plain paneling a la Danish Modern.
In 1981, C.I.T. sold the building in 1981 for
$90 million to Prudential Insurance and moved out two years later.
C.I.T. was acquired for about $1.5 billion around this time by
the Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company.
At one point, Donald Trump had convinced the
Prudential to let him build a major new office tower on this site
designed in Disneyland "castle" style, complete with
moat, by Philip Johnson. Fortunately, the project, known as Trump
Castle, was abandoned before it could conflict, and compare, terribly
with the great Sherry Netherland Hotel tower (see The
City Review article) on the same block.
Prudential proceeded to sell the building to
Hiro Real Estate, owned by the Honzawa brothers of Tokyo, for
$105 million, or $362 a square foot. Hiro also acquired, separately,
the Mobil Building on West 42nd Street.
The Fox & Fowle design, which added 19
floors to the building, whose top is shown above in a view from
Fifth Avenue, is quite brilliant for it not only is evocative
to a certain degree of the high quality curtain wall that Harrison
& Abramovitz had created on the site but also of the Japanese
aesthetic as simply but very effectively expressed in the building's
crown. A silvery cylindrical shape seems to have impressed itself
into the rounded center of the crown, an exquisite, abstract logo.
The green glass curtain wall is one of the
most finely finished in the country and adds considerable brightness
and elegance to this sector of Madison Avenue that has not had
much architectural sparkle. The Madison Avenue frontage of the
building, shown below, is clean-cut and handsome. An especially
nice touch is the planting that surrounds the building on a ledge
on the second floor, a delightful, graceful and subtle form of
urban landscaping that is a modern version of a window plantbox
and should be widely imitated.
The new owners, Hiro Real Estate, had little
success initially renting their retail space at the very high
levels they sought, but had the fine idea of letting an art dealer
exhibit large contemporary paintings in the unfinished and unleased
store spaces of the building along 59th Street, an infinitely
more attractive solution than soaped, opaque windows. In the mid-1990's,
the space was finally rented to Crate & Barrel, a home furnishings
The Japanese, who were are the forefront, by
a very wide margin, of international design from the 1970's onward,
stubbed their toes badly by overpaying for numerous Manhattan
alleged "trophy" buildings. This was one of their first
major building projects and clearly they had learnt their design
lessons at home well for 650 Madison Avenue is even better than
Harrison's original masterpiece.