Madison Avenue

East side of Madison at 53rd Street

By Carter B. Horsley

General Motors dominates Madison Avenue skyline seen from the northNamed after Madison Square from whose east side it starts at 23rd Street, Madison Avenue has always had a lot of cachet but has remained rather a backwater for most of its history overshadowed by the more glamorous, broader and more stately Fifth Avenue and then Park Avenue. The back entrance of the General Motors Building, which dominates the Madison Avenue vista when seen from the north as in the photograph at the left, faces Madison Avenue between 58th and 59th Street, for example, as does the low-rise back of the former Union Carbide Building at 270 Park Avenue and the back of St. Patrick's Cathedral, although the latter has the Archbishop's Residence and Parish House on the avenue.

But it has never lacked personality, as many of Manhattan's large boulevards have, and has undergone two major renaissances that greatly enhanced its celebrity, most of which still comes not from the Midtown District but from the chic boutiques that line the avenue on the Upper East Side.

Lincoln Building on 42nd Street has wing that extends to Madison AvenueThe first major renaissance was the "Terminal City" complex begun by the New York Central Rail Road around its new Grand Central Terminal before the start of World War II. This homogeneous enclave consisted of several major hotels designed mostly by the terminal's architects, Whitney & Warren and Reed & Stem, and some major retail stores and office buildings that stayed closely to their design vocabulary as evidenced by the photograph at the right that shows the east side of the avenue between 41st and 42nd Streets with the majestic Lincoln Building at 60 East 42nd Street, which also has an entrance on the avenue, looming above the mid-rise frontage on the avenue.

Brooks BrothersThe hotels on Madison Avenue from this period included the former Biltmore, Ritz Carlton and Roosevelt, but only the latter remains. The stores included Brooks Brothers, shown at the left, Abercrombie & Fitch, in their own buildings, and Paul Stuart and Tripler's nearby. The Biltmore and Abercrombie & Fitch buildings, unfortunately, were gutted and rebuilt, badly interrupted the consistent design of the avenue in the 40's.

The second major renaissance was the erection of the former A. T. & T. (now Sony) and IBM Buildings across 56th Street from each other. These huge corporate showcases marked a major shift away from other high-end commercial precincts such as Park Avenue and the Avenue of the Americas and denoted a power shift in midtown from the Grand Central Terminal district to the Plaza District, a reflection that the suburbs had taken so many businesses from the city that closeness to the terminal was no longer as attractive to many corporate managers and workers as the more elegant environment of luxury stores and closeness to the expensive expanse of the Upper East Side.

The SONY and the former IBM buildings are really too big in bulk for Madison Avenue, especially the former, which received a significant zoning bonus for its galleries and arcades that were subsequently filled in for retail uses in one of the city's most blatant abuses of zoning integrity in the city's history. The IBM Building, on the other hand, at least made superb, interesting and original additions to the streetscape with its fabulous seating fountain by Michael Hezier, its wonderful bamboo forest skylit atrium and its spectacular, though slightly ominous cantilevered setback corner entrance at 57th Street. Actually the worst offender is the General Motors Building whose enormous bulk blocks most vistas up and down the avenue.

Tall buildings, of course, were not new to Madison Avenue. The second Madison Square Garden on the northeast corner at 26th Street was for decades one of the city's major landmarks. Designed by Stanford White, its tall tower was topped by a lovely statue of Diana by Augustus St. Gaudens. It subsequently was dominated by the great Metropolitan Life Insurance Company tower, designed by Napoleon Le Brun and completed in 1906 as one of the city's greatest skyscrapers, which it still is despite a modernizing renovation many decades later.

In midtown, the very slender slab tower of the former Newsweek Building, set parallel to the avenue at No. 444 between 49th and 50th Streets was one of the most prominent skyscrapers for decades, especially after it added an brightly illuminated digital clock at its top that now promotes New York Magazine.

But it is not as good as 275 and 295 Madison Avenue, two of the city's better Art Deco towers.

275 Madison AvenueThe 43-story 275 Madison Avenue on the southeast corner at 40th Street, shown at the right, was developed by Alfred B. Jones in 1931 and is notable for the incised black marble base that is very stylized and refined. The architect was Kenneth Franzheim.

It pales, course, in comparison with its neighbor one block to the north, the far more flamboyant, 47-story 295 Madison Avenue that was designed by Charles F. Moyer and built in 1929 for Abraham E. Lefcourt, one of the city's most prolific developer of Art Deco skyscrapers.

For decades, Madison Avenue, of course, symbolized the advertising industry and Young & Rubicam was the major tenant at 285 Madison Avenue on the northeast corner of 40th Street, an impressively stout though uninteresting 25-story masonry office building erected in 1926 for Isaac Harby and designed by William L. Rouse and Lafayette A. Goldstone.

Far more stately was Warren & Wetmore's robust and palatial design for Arthur B. Jones's 200 Madison Avenue that was built the same year as 285. This boxy red-brick edifice seems like some exploded English country house with its balustrades, escutcheons and ram's heads, shown below, along with its ornate rooftop.

The same architects were far more inventive the previous year in their narrow Art Deco jewel at 183 Madison Avenue on the southeast corner at 34th Street that sports the most sumptuous Art Deco sculpted doors in the city on the avenue frontage.

185 Madison AvenueClinton & Russell's bright and colorful design for the 17-story office tower at 185 Madison Avenue on the northeast corner at 34th Street, shown at the left, has very fine proportions and is an excellent reminder that the City Beautiful movement was very still very much alive when it was built in 1911.

Although the avenue's towers are quite eclectic, not all were inspired. The attempt by Jack Weiler and the William Kaufman Organization to blend a Venetian arch motif to a conventional tower designed by Emery Roth & Sons at the 40-story office tower built in 1967 at 437 Madison Avenue on the southeast corner at 49th Street is neither dainty or graceful, although its plaza area and street lamps were good efforts to enliven the streetscape, a trademark of the Kaufman organization, the city's most innovative developers in the post-war period.

Morgan's CourtOne of the avenue's most notorious buildings is the sliver apartment tower shown at the right that is known as Morgan's Court, because it is half a block south of the Morgan Library on the avenue. The tower, which has a rounded corner facing southwest and a very boldly sculpted base and unusual gatehouse entrance on the avenue, was prominently featured in the movie, "Sliver," that featured Sharon Stone in a sleazy, but quite disturbing mystery thriller. The building, erected by the Perlbinders, was slow to sell its units and its very narrow form was one of several sliver buildings that aroused considerable public ire in the 1980's that resulted in the city rezoning several areas to prevent more such ungainly, awkward projects. The base here is so visually interesting, however, that the weird juxtaposition of styles is as good New York street theater as you can get even if the tower is a bad letdown.

The only other very major skyscraper on the avenue in midtown is 520 Madison Avenue between 53rd and 54th Streets that received more attention for building around a holdout, Reidy's Restaurant, than for its polished red granite facade, slanted base, sidewalk clock (that is visible in the first photograph in this section), stepped roofline and handsome midblock plaza. The building's street environment is actually very attractive, and the slanted setback and reflectiveness of the tower have mitigated the impact of its large bulk on the avenue. The holdout, Reidy's, eventually closed and was replaced by a brewery pub.

Another, more modest office tower is catty corner at 54th Street, 535 Madison Avenue. While this building also has a very attractive midblock plaza with waterfall and trees, it is most distinguished for having its entrance under a sliced-off corner of the building like the IBM Building and a sliced-top like 599 Lexington Avenue, which is not surprising since all three buildings were designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes, and a silver gray metallic facade and a stilt like Citicorp Center two blocks to the east.

In midtown, the avenue's really major project has not been built yet, and well may not, the 72-story skyscraper planned to replace the Manhattan Savings Bank Building at 383 Madison Avenue that was built by Robert C. Knapp and W. Seward Webb, the founder of the famous Webb & Knapp real estate company that was taken over and fantastically expanded by William Zeckendorf. The 14-story building between 46th and 47th Street on the former site of the luxurious Ritz Carlton Hotel was built in 1923 and designed by Cross & Cross. The proposed tower, put forward by Ware Travelstead, that would have replaced it would have used about 700,000 square feet of unused air rights over Grand Central Terminal and while only slightly shorter than the Chrysler Building it would have been much bulkier. Designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox, the proposed tower, whose facades slanted inwards above its low-rise base, would have been one of the most attractive in the world, but the project was opposed by the city, which thwarted the transfer of the air rights with very controversial legislation. Another developer, Howard Ronson, took over the site, but also ran into difficulties and eventually the site was taken over by a group that planned to build a modest building, at least in comparison with the Travelstead tower, for Bear, Stearns & Co., Inc. That project began to go forward in 1998 and was completed in late 2000, a very huge tower with a glass top.

But big buildings are not the avenue's forté or charm as the first photograph in this section suggests.

Like Park Avenue's development prior to World War II, it maintained a fairly consistent roofline of about 15 stories and many of its buildings followed neo-classical form of limestone bases, dark brick masonry shafts and pronounced cornices, an immensely attractive urban formula. Virtually all buildings of this building held fast to their building lines and rather than full setbacks had indented lightwells that add a rhythmic texture and complexity to the avenue. Madison and Lexington Avenues are considerably narrower than Fifth and Park Avenues and therefore the closer proximity of buildings made the "light and air" zoning issue more important, until the city bent over backwards to accommodate A. T . & T. for its new "headquarters" building, which was doubly farcical because not only did the company renege on its promise to stay in the building, it had already relocated the bulk of its headquarters operations to one of the world's most lavish corporate campuses in Basking Ridge, N.J.

The real glory of Madison Avenue in Midtown is the Urban Center in the north wing of the courtyard of the Villard Houses that are incorporated into the New York Palace Hotel between 50th and 51st Streets. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese, Random House and Capitol Cities had at different periods occupied and altered most of the interiors, except for the fabulous Henry Villard/Whitelaw Reid mansion that comprises the south wing around the courtyard. After considerable controversy over the fate of the complex of six attached townhouses, Harry B. Helmsley, the developer of the hotel and New York's most influential, powerful and respected landlord at the time, agreed to a very expensive and spectacular renovation of the townhouses and the north wing has been leased to many of the city's leading architectural and preservation groups and contains handsome and popular exhibition galleries and a wonderful book store, the Urban Book Center. The latter is one of midtown's most civilized oases along with the Morgan Library, the atrium of the former IBM Building and sadly closed IBM Gallery of Arts and Sciences in the basement of the same building, the Museum of Modern Art Garden, Bryant Park on a hot summer day, and the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria. The magnificent major rooms of the Villard/Reid mansion were radically transformed in 1997 by Adam Tihany, the interior designer, for Le Cirque 2000, the famous expensive restaurant. The design did not demolish the extraordinary interiors, but filled them with completely inappropriate and garish furnishings that amused few.

The Morgan Library, of course, is a bit more impressive than the Villard Houses and its belated expansion into the rather somber former headquarters of the Lutheran Church in the United States was handled very well by Voorsanger & Wells. The Morgan runs interesting and esoteric exhibitions that delight connoisseurs of drawings and bibliophiles, but its glory is the original library and office of J. P. Morgan, who was his age's greatest art collector whose collection sadly has been widely scattered but what remains is staggeringly sumptuous and memorable.

The Morgan would be infinitely more popular if it were located further uptown. For many years, Forty-second Street represented a barrier for many New Yorkers almost as great as 96th Street separating the Upper East Side historically from East Harlem. The analogy is rather stretched since Murray Hill, the area in East Midtown between 34th Street and 42nd Street roughly, is one of the city's most attractive neighborhoods physically with excellent sidestreets and an attractive section of Park Avenue. But in New York and in Midtown in particular, especially because of its congested traffic, convenience is at a premium and the 30's are simply inconvenient for most workers in the 40's and 50's. The Depression had stopped the natural redevelopment of the 30's that might seemed to have followed in the wake and shadow of the completion of the Empire State Building in 1932. By the time the economy began to recover after World War II, many elegant retailers, such as Tiffany's, had moved further north from the 30's to the 50's, or had closed. The closing of B. Altman's, one of the city's largest and most impressive stores, on 34th Street in the 1980's was a major blow that is dreaded testimony to the precarious fate of large urban department stores in an age when most Americans settle willingly for their vacuous suburbs and malls. Without a lot of shoppers, a neighborhood loses much of its liveliness and Murray Hill has suffered accordingly, although it is still very pleasant and a surprise to many New Yorkers for its calm in the center of the urban midtown storm. The marble-clad, former B. Altman's Building, fortunately, has been renovated and partially converted into a new science and technology facility for the New York Public Library.

The renaissance of the Flatiron District, beginning in the 1980's, fortunately, has revitalized the area south of 42nd Street dramatically and now is one of the city's most vibrant districts and full of very trendy restaurants. Madison Square Park is surrounded by many of the city's finest skyscrapers including the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company tower, shown at the right in the picture above and below, and the New York Life Insurance Company Building, shown at the left in the same photograph. The scalloped building just to the left of the Metropolitan Life Building was originally planned to be about 100 stories tall and may still be someday as it was built to support such a structure and its construction was curtailed by the Depression.

The 41-story tower at 330 Madison Avenue at 42nd Street that was designed by Kahn & Jacobs and built in 1964 by John J. Reynolds, a real estate broker who handled much of the real estate interests of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese, was the worst thing that happened to the avenue in decades as its banal "modernistic" design was like throwing a plastic sheet over fine furniture. It insulted and besmirched the fine masonry quality of the avenue in midtown. (In the 1970's, at the time that Donald Trump and Hyatt Hotels were planning to rebuild and reclad the former Commodore Hotel on 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue, I submitted a long list of noteworthy masonry buildings in the Grand Central Terminal area that should be included in a historic preservation district to the chairman of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, but no action was taken and the Commodore and several other buildings followed the lead of 330 Madison Avenue, whose lead tenant for many years was the Sperry & Hutchinson Company, in ruining the area's detailed masonry ambiance.

The recladding phenomenon that began in the 1980's continues. One of the slickest was The Related Companies' multi-colored new skin for the Revlon Building across the avenue from the back of the General Motors Building, shown at the right. Its high gloss fits right into the tenant's product line, although the building is more appropriate to Dallas than Manhattan.

Revlon building

The new and very attractive Barney's store at 61st Street and Leonard Stern's handsome office building at 667 Madison Avenue help anchor the north end of the avenue in midtown with quality buildings of considerable elegance.

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