650 MADISON AVENUE

(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 building)

Erected: 1987 (tower rebuilding); 1957 (original 8-story building)

By Carter B. Horsley

Tower seen from Fifth AvenueThe 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.

Madison Avenue frontage

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 store.

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.

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