By Carter B. Horsley
east from west.
it was created in the Commissioner's Plan of 1811 that established
a rectilinear street grid for Manhattan's future expansion northwards
on its small, narrow island, the city did not start acquiring
its land until 1824 and then made acquisitions in non-consecutive
the next century or so, its development lurched forward tugged
by the desire of the well-to-do to be a little removed from the
hurly-burly commercial precincts that kept leap-frogging to the
north stopping to pause for a decade or two at major cross-town
thoroughfares such as 14th, 23rd, 34th, 42nd and 59th Streets.
process, much of its former glory has been demolished.
the replacements were stupendously wondrous, such as the transformation
by Rockefeller Center (see The City Review article) of a large stretch of brownstones
of mixed character and virtue and the Beaux Art riches of the
New York Public Library (see The City Review article) replaced the massive fortifications
of the Distributing Reservoir between 40th and 42nd Street.
it was horrendously monstrous as the Pahlavi Foundation's replacement
of the DePinna Store Building at 52nd Street or the 27-story very
bland office tower designed by Carson & Lundin at 600 Fifth
Avenue 48th Street that replaced the famous Collegiate Reformed
Church of St. Nicholas in 1950 and was designated an individual
landmark in 1985, apparently because it had been acquired by Rockefeller
Center Properties since it certainly had no architectural or historical
merit whatsoever, but then the city's preservationists in recent
decades have not been known for consistency.
could argue very persuasively that Manhattan would have been a
much better place if the redevelopment process had made a giant
leap to 110th Street instead of destroying many of the good buildings
between 42nd and 59th Streets and razing almost all of Millionaire's
Row between 61st and 110th Streets.
if you will, that the Penn Central had finished covering its tracks
north of 97th Street and that a third major business district
had been clustered about its major stop at 125th Street and that
the northeast corner of Central Park had been built up to mirror
the elegance of its southeast corner and that Central Park North
had been redeveloped like Central Park South and that East Harlem
had gotten all the high-rise apartments that replaced Fifth Avenue's
history, of course, didn't take that path, unfortunately.
of its central location and breadth and heritage of wealthy enclaves
and dazzling emporiums and as the historic gateway to Central
Park, Fifth Avenue became New York's best internationally known
address, not just for residences, but for offices and retail as
well. In the 1950's, of course, Park Avenue stole its thunder
and clout for commercial addresses for several decades, and in
the 1970's some Upper Fifth Avenue residents also opted for the
quietude of Park Avenue as parades proliferated ad nauseum up
Grand Central Terminal (see The City Review article) broke Lower Manhattan's grip
on the office market, midtown Fifth Avenue really did not emerge
as a major office center until the emergence in the 1930's of
Rockefeller Center as the Depression knocked the wind out of the
development sails that one might have expected in the wake of
the completion of the Empire State Building (see The City
at the start of that decade.
With the Plaza (see The City Review article), the Savoy
Plaza, the Sherry-Netherland (see The City Review article), which is shown at the left,
the Pierre, the St. Regis (see The City Review article) and former Gotham Hotels in
place at the start of the Depression, the northern section of
the avenue in midtown had established itself as the city's supremely
elegant enclave for hotels that satisfied tourists and travelers
as well as the society matrons and debutantes and escorts who
filled their ballrooms and reception facilities.
legendary glamour of the famous hotels was echoed in the stateliness
and grandeur of some of the avenue's better office buildings such
as the former Heckscher Building, now the Crown Building (see
City Review article) and the Aeolian Building (see The
City Review article) at 720 and 689, respectively, both of
which, fortunately, are still standing. The only great mansion
left in midtown is the former Morton Plant home that was converted
to commercial use and is now Cartier's (see The City Review
at 54th Street. (Though not as large as William Vanderbilt's mansion
that was replaced by Bergdorf Goodman (see The City Review
or Andrew Carnegie's at 91st Street, the Plant home was one of
the most beautiful that ever graced the avenue.)
The period after World War II has not been
kind to Fifth Avenue although it took a decade or so before serious
destruction began. Just contrast the wonderfully ornate hanging
lanterns at the Sherry Netherland Hotel, at right, with the plain
vanilla wrapper of its apartment building neighbor adjacent to
it, shown at the right.
architecture actually made a fine, though belated postwar start
on the avenue with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's modest little
jewel for the Manufacturers Trust Company at 510 Fifth Avenue
City Review article) at 43rd Street, but otherwise the record
is rather sad.
end of the 1960's, many fine, old retailers were leaving the avenue
as banks, airlines, travel agencies and tourist traps were willing
to pay substantially higher rents and the sophisticated charm
of the avenue gave way to a more corporate and sleazier character.
gone were the graceful bronze statues of Mercury atop the traffic
lights (that were placed on handsome stanchions on the sidewalk
corners rather than hung out like dirty linen over the streets.)
also were the ornate traffic director stands in the middle of
the street and the elegant double lamp street lighting.
most importantly, gone are the open-top, double-decker buses that
provided the greatest sightseeing experience in the world (although
one or two made a comeback in the early 1990's run by private
sightseeing companies). The city's great double-decker buses were
eventually replaced by new, single-height buses that offered air-conditioning,
but no skylights for enjoying the ride and whose black-tinted
windows made viewing from the inside at night virtually impossible
- the idiots who authorized these windows should be chained within
the buses for a year! The double-deckers had to go because the
city wanted to install traffic lights hanging over the street
for the convenience of drivers from New Jersey. Those decision-makers,
probably the same who gave us the incredibly ugly gooseneck street
lamps, should be banished to New Jersey with no rights of return
as well as having the gooseneck street lamps permanently implanted
on their persons!
on the subject of the city's bureaucrats destroying the city with
virtually no public notice or press coverage at the time, the
Bureau of Franchises and Licenses also happened to permit hordes
of suburban commuter buses on Fifth and Madison Avenues, not only
cluttering up and worsening traffic and air pollution but also
forcing the city buses to make stops further apart just to make
life wonderful for the suburbanites who abandoned the city for
selfish and not civic purposes.
Peddlers, of course, as shown at the left
next the very fine new F.A.O. Schwarz sidewalk clock at 58th Street,
are a terrible blight and have made it hard for taxpaying retailers
to justify paying rents that for decades have been among the highest
in the world.
city planners tried to address some of the avenue's problems by
enacting, on March 26, 1971, the Special Fifth Avenue District
from 38th to 58th Streets extending 200 feet to the east and west
into the midblocks off the avenue. The new regulations banned
new plazas and off-street parking facilities, restricted signs
to not more than one-third of retail windows, permitted residential
uses on higher floors to encourage mixed uses to enliven the area
at night, and limited retail use by banks and travel bureaus to
not more than 15 percent of the linear street frontage of the
zoning lot on or within 50 feet of the avenue and no more than
10 percent of the total lot area of the zoning lot within 50 feet
of the avenue.
of the few really good new buildings to be erected on the avenue
was 461 Fifth Avenue (see The City Review article) at 40th Street, designed by
Raul de Armas of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in 1988. Five
years later, another handsome structure went up with a very elegant
stainless steel and glass base on the northeast corner at 46th
major mixed-use buildings were developed on the avenue: Olympic
Tower (see The
City Review article) looming over St. Patrick's Roman Catholic
Cathedral (see The City Review article) at 51st Street and Trump Tower
City Review article), which replaced the wonderful Art Deco
former A. T. Stewart Building that had housed Bonwit Teller for
many years, a far better building than Tiffany's. Despite its
dark bronze glass and brassiness, Trump Tower, designed by Der
Scutt of Swanke Hayden Connell, is a superb project that catapulted
its developer, Donald Trump, into his own hyperbolic legend.
But some bad buildings also went up such as
the atrocious 34-story, sliver tower, designed by Kahn & Jacobs
in 1970, at 489 Fifth Avenue overlooking the New York Public Library
wedged in between the sedate 1916 Rogers Peet Building at 485,
designed by Townsend, Steinle & Haskel, and the handsome 1917
office building at 501 Fifth Avenue, designed for Albert E. Thorne,
George L. Nichols and Albert G. Milbank by Montague Flagg, all
shown at the right. The boldness of the horizontal banding is
impressive, but given the context this design for developer Jesse
J. Secoles is abominable. John Carl Warnecke's frightfully unimaginative
35-story building for a foundation controlled by the Shah of Iran
at 650 Fifth Avenue at 52nd Street in 1979 and Emery Roth &
Sons' disappointing 40-story tower at 575 Fifth Avenue at 47th
Street for Sterling Equities in 1985 are not quite as bad, but
certainly do not embellish the avenue.
city's ailing central artery got a major infusion of healthy and
quality redevelopment in the late 1980's when Solomon Equities
and the Taubman Company erected a new 53-story tower incorporating
a relocated Bendel's at 712 Fifth Avenue (see The City Review
at 56th Street and when Bergdorf Goodman expanded its commitment
to the avenue by opening a large men's store across the street
from its famous store at 58th Street.
closing of B. Altman's at 34th Street, however, in the 1980's
indicated that big department stores still face a very uncertain
future. Fortunately, Peter Malkin, Earl Kazis and Mort Olshan
have assiduously worked to preserve and convert the handsome building
to other uses.
its architectural sum, Fifth Avenue is still pretty impressive
with such masterpieces as The Empire State and Fred F. French
buildings, the New York Public Library, Rockefeller Center, St.
Patrick's Cathedral, the University Club (see The City Review article), the Metropolitan
Club (see The
City Review article), Cartier's, Saks Fifth Avenue (see The City
and Bergdorf Goodman and the Sherry-Netherland and Plaza hotels.
Fifth Avenue is not really about architecture as much as its parades
of people, boulevardiers and fashions. The 57th Street intersection
is the center of the world and has been for half a century.
The agreement in the late 1980's of the owners of the four corner
buildings to hang the great electric light snowflake during the
winter holidays almost makes up for the suburban buses and Rockefeller
Center's Christmas Tree never fails to memorably impress.
was saved by Gucci's leading the foreign invasion of New York
in the early 1970's. Although Harry Winston apparently never got
the message of Tiffany's great designer, Gene Moore, that creative
window displays enhance all values, particularly civic, at least
Winston has stayed on the avenue as other retailers even more
gaudy - Fortunoff - or ersatz - Bulgari - have opened up new stores.
are few development sites left on the avenue in midtown. A couple
of buildings will continue to get new facades from time to time
and reflective glass is still cheaper than richly carved marble
or limestone, unfortunately.
Avenue's most elegant stretch from 49th to 61st Streets remains
very imposing, lively and the best the city has to offer. The
southern stretch from 32nd to 48th Street never was quite as elegant
and over the years has lost a lot of its important retail stores
such as B. Altman's, Gorham's, Sloan's, Woolworth and Kress. Meanwhile,
other, much newer midtown areas with decidedly different personalities
and more pizzazz have emerged such as the new Times Square and
the new office precincts along the Avenue of the Americas and
Madison, Lexington and Third Avenues. What Fifth Avenue in the
30's and 40's needs is an infusion of youth-oriented retail and
restaurants such as has transformed much of the Flatiron Districts
and NoHo, but whether the markets are vibrant enough to accommodate
such an expansion and pay midtown rents is not clear.
are still a few blocks left on the avenue that consist of small-lot
properties and some of this have retained their charm although
the incursion by the Philippine Building, the large mostly blank
wall shown at the left, was not a high-water mark of inspired
design even if the avenue is the proper place for national showcases.
Other blocks have kept a good cluster of older buildings although
their integrity has been marred by ambitious retailers. Sometimes,
the eye-level retail remake has justified the aesthetic breach
because of the importance of the retailer, such as Gucci, or the
plain old flamboyance of the store design such as Fortunoff's,
shown below, whose four-story high angled, chromy facade at least
in the block's tallest building.
such as Childe Hassam and George Luks, had love affairs with Fifth Avenue's
banners and they should be encouraged even more. The Fifth Avenue
Association, a non-profit organization composed by major owners
and tenants in the area, has been active for many years, but its
architectural awards began to lose their significance a number
of years ago and it has not been as active as it should although
it occasionally would complain about peddlers, a genuinely terrible
situation that the city has been far too lax about for two decades.
A more positive trend is the creation in the 1980's of business
improvement districts in which property owners pay for special
services such as sanitation and security and urban design improvements.
Grand Central and Times Square have strong such districts, but
Fifth Avenue is lagging. It shows when people care. In the meantime,
get rid of the suburban buses, replace the traffic lights and
street lamps, bring back or recreate the mercury statues and get
new open and closed double-decker buses with untinted windows
as the city's and the avenue's problems are, individual enterprises
can make a surprising difference. Many poor parents quite naturally
may want to avoid taking their children into F. A. O. Schwarz,
but the toy store happily created an amusing sidewalk clock that
enlivens the street and refreshes an old tradition. And the 1993
Warner Bros. Studio Store at 57th Street (see The City Review
may have been the best thing to have happened on the avenue in
decades with its amusing bas reliefs and huge window posters of
its ornery cartoon heroes posing in caricatures of some of the
world's most famous paintings. A subsequent expansion of the store,
however, significantly altered the handsome building's facade
and not for the better. Nevertheless, hopefully, poor parents
will take their children inside for in the midst of the mountains
of silly merchandise are zany installations that are up to the
level of Red Grooms, the artist, which is to say, fantastic. The
store makes you want to smile whatever the weather and that's