TOWER/OLYMPIC AIRWAYS BUILDING
645 FIFTH AVENUE (tower); 647 Fifth Avenue
(former Olympic Airways building)
Northeast corner at 51st Street
Developer: Arlen Realty and Development Corporation
and Victory Development Corporation (tower); George W. Vanderbilt
Architect: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (tower);
Hunt & Hunt (former Olympic Airways building)
Erected: 1976 (tower); 1905 (airways building)
By Carter B. Horsley
The first building erected under the city's
Special Fifth Avenue Zoning District regulations that were enacted
in 1971, Olympic Tower, which was completed in 1976, introduced
major mixed-use towers and glass-curtain walls and reintroduced
housing to midtown Fifth Avenue.
The 51-story building contains 225 condominium
apartments on its top 29 floors, more than 250,000-square feet
of office space on floors 2 through 21, retail space and a through-block
public arcade at street level.
The special zoning district was designed to
prevent the avenue's transformation "from an international
boulevard into a street lined with anonymous office buildings"
with bank branches and airline offices dominating the retail scene.
The special zoning district had been enacted
in response to an erosion of the avenue's famous retail base as
prestige stores were replaced by banks, airline ticket offices,
travel agencies and corporate showrooms. The new district limited
such uses to 15 percent of a building's total ground floor area,
although it allowed previously existing uses to continue. The
district provided bonuses for inclusion of arcades parallel to
the avenue and because Olympic Tower used all available bonuses,
not only for the arcade, but also for including housing and retail
uses, it achieved a floor-to-area (FAR) ratio of 21.6, 20 percent
greater than was typically permitted at the time of its construction
in the city's highest density commercial areas when open space
is provided at ground level. By devoting more than the minimum
amount of space to residential uses, the developer - Arlen Realty
& Development Company and Aristotle Socrates Onassis - were
able to erect a building that covers a larger than usual proportion
of the site. The city subsequently reduced the highest permitted
FAR to about 15. (In contrast, most of the city's most internationally
acclaimed skyscrapers created in the first third of the century
have FAR's that were as high as 32.)
In the 19th Century, the site of Olympic Tower
had been used as an orphanage by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese
and was across the avenue from important Vanderbilt mansions.
Subsequently, it was the site of the Union
Club that is now located on the northeast corner of Park Avenue
and 69th Street.
In 1970, Best & Company decided to close
its store in a 12-story building with a marble facade on the site
and to replace it with a 45-story office building that would be
developed by Aristotle Socrates Onassis, the Greek shipowner and
owner of Olympic Airways, and Arlen Properties.
Onassis owned the adjacent, 5-story building
at 647 Fifth Avenue that had originally been a house for George
W. Vanderbilt that had been designed by Hunt & Hunt in 1905.
Onassis and Arlen then acquired the air rights to the former Morton
F. Plant residents at 651 Fifth Avenue on the southeast corner
at 52nd Street that was designed by C. P. H. Gilbert in 1905 and
remodeled by William Welles Bosworth in 1917 for Cartier's. 647
Fifth Avenue was taken over by Versace, the fashion designer,
in the late 1990's.
According to Robert A. M. Stern, Thomas Mellins
and David Fishman in their great book, "New York 1960, Architecture
and Urbanism between the Second World War and the Bicentennial"
(The Monacelli Press, 1995), "it was rumored that the development
team tried to buy the air rights to St. Patrick's Cathedral as
Onassis and the Rapid American Corporation,
which controlled the McCrory Corporation that owned Best &
Co., hired Arlen to develop the property and Arlen commissioned
Morris Lapidus to design the project.
"Lapidus's scheme," the authors wrote,
"called for a 200-foot-tall east-west mid-block slab and
included a shop-lined pedestrian arcade. The arcade would be built
on other acquired properties to the east of Best's, linking Fifty-first
and Fifty-second streets. The scheme also included a mid-block
plaza facing Fifth Avenue on a portion of the 37'6"-wide
site of the Olympic Airways Building, which would be demolished.
Arlen had been reluctant to hire Lapidus because of his lack of
experience with office-building design, but after six other firms
failed to deliver suitable designs, they gave him one week to
show what he could do....His proposal was for a twenty-story shaft
clad in black granite, topped by a twenty-story mirrored cube
'that bloomed like a lovely flower on its stem.' Inside the cube
were to be the most prestigious offices, as well as executive
apartments and a full-floor art gallery, requested by Meshulam
Riklis, chairman of Rapid American. The twentieth floor was to
serve as 'a huge sky plaza, an unrivaled display area for sculpture,
a spacious reception area for visitors, and a congenial lunch-hour
meeting place for people employed in the building.' The scheme
was favorably received by Onassis and Riklis and Lapidus was authorized
to develop plans."
An editorial in The New York Times,
however, entitled "Good-by to Fifth Avenue?" attacked
the design and subsequently Jaquelin Robertson, then head of the
city's Office of Midtown Planning that drafted the new special
Fifth Avenue zoning district, urged the developers to make their
project "a model for the future" and argued "for
a less aggressive, more urbanistically conventional design, suggesting
that Lapidus was not the appropriate choice," the authors
Lapidus was dismissed and replaced by Kahn
& Jacobs and then by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
"Although SOM was able to deliver a more
sophisticated product," on the basis of the firm's previous
urban buildings," the authors maintained, "they seemed
less suited than Lapidus to the concept of mixed use and the functional
and contextual complexities of the new zoning and the site. This
impression was confirmed by the final product, an undifferentiated
slab clad in brown-tinted glass....SOM's design gave no visual
clues to the mix of uses it contained and made almost no effort
to project a welcoming image to the public at large that was expected
to populate its galleria and enter its shops....Olympic Tower's
surfaces did little to enliven the street, and even though the
building hugged the street line, the absence of detail and the
dark glass made the shop doors difficult to find. Clear glass
was eventually substituted at street level and the stores were
leased to sophisticated merchants including Roberta di Camerino,
an Italian shop selling handbags, the venerable leather goods
purveyor Mark Cross, and H. Stern, the jewelers. The original
intention was to extend the building's skin over Onassis's Olympic
Airways building, but after Paul Goldberger, Ada Louise Huxtable
and others protested, the limestone facade of Hunt & Hunt's
original building was maintained."
"Olympic Tower's curtain wall," the
authors continued, "not only concealed its functional complexities,
it also covered up an unusual structural system consisting of
a thirty-floor cast-in-place reinforced-concrete frame apartment
building atop a twenty-one-story steel-framed office structure.
Apartment dwellers were provided with a high degree of amenities,
including a concierge, a restaurant, a barber and hairdressing
salons, emergency electric power, and saunas and exercise rooms.
The two highest floors consisted of large duplex apartments. In
one apartment, the international arms merchant Adnan Khashogi
installed a swimming pool."
The authors noted that Ada Louise Huxtable
said that the building was "no design triumph," adding
that "It is about as nondescript as anything that size can
OK. The city got a rather anonymous, mixed-use
building. Anonymous in the sense that its façade could
be construed as monotonous and unexciting. That, of course, would
be an extremely harsh judgment as the building's design by Skidmore,
Owings & Merrill is quite slick, if not elegant, a kind of
gigantic Seagram Building with flat facades and without the large
plaza and fountains. Its proportions as a slab tower are good
and its fenestration pattern excellent. The building is not a
pure slab as it has a setback on its north façade and a
low base wing, with its own separate elevator bank accessed from
the through-block arcade, in the middle of the block on 52nd Street.
Until the completion of Trump Tower several
blocks to the north, Olympic tower had the highest profile of
any building on the avenue because it rose without a setback on
The residential entrance is directly on 51st
Street while the office entrance is in the middle of the building's
arcade, which has a 30-foot-high ceiling and escalators to a concourse
The expensive, but quite routine apartments
were designed with 9-foot-ceilings, which was slightly higher
than the norm at the time of its construction, and floor-to-ceiling
windows. (Arthur Erickson, the great Canadian architect, actually
raised his floor on a platform to improve his views from his apartment
in the tower.)
The project came to market about the same time
as another major mixed-use tower, the Galleria
at 115 East 57th Street. Despite the fact that the Galleria was
in fact a far more interesting building architecturally and had
a better residential location, Olympic Tower was more successful
in its initial sales campaign primarily because it targeted international
buyers in Europe and the Middle East, a reflection no doubt that
one of the co-developers, Victory Development Corporation, was
owned by a family trust of Aristotle Socrates Onassis.
The tower has 38,770 square feet of retail
space as compared to about a quarter of a million square feet
that were contained the Best & Co. building that had been
on the site.
An underground connection beneath Fifth Avenue
to Rockefeller Center was considered,
but rejected as too costly.
The building's arcade disappointed a lot of
city planners who eventually insisted on better signage to alert
the public to its presence and subsequently the arcade was substantially
redesigned. The designers involved in the arcade's evolution were
Chermayeff, Geismar & Associates, designers, and Zion &
Breen, landscape architects, and Levien, Deliso & White, designers,
and Abel & Bainnson, landscape architects. The arcade has
a south-facing, multi-tiered waterfall and a café. The
tower's arcade has not always been successful. When its waterfall
is in full cascade, which is not always, and the café is
full, it is a nice experience, but the overall appearance of the
arcade is a little drab and dated and needs some freshening.
The views from within the tower are stunning.
On the one hand, its dark bronze-colored façade both provides
a strong contrasting backdrop for views of the cathedral from
the south as well as reflections of it. On the other hand, the
tower blocks much of the view of the tower's twin spires from
Olympic tower's tall slab is vastly superior
to that of the New York Palace Hotel
behind the cathedral on Madison Avenue, but a more ideal, though
not realistic solution suggested by the fine, white, 38-story
Swiss Bank Tower at 10 East 50th Street that is set back behind
Saks Fifth Avenue, which expanded into it, and does not impinge
on the cathedral. Perhaps sometime in the next millennium when
Olympic Tower's site is redeveloped they will remember to set
the new tower back from the avenue to once again free the glorious
towers of the cathedral to more views.
At its topping-out ceremony, city planners
were invited to hear some short speeches and gobble boiled red
potatoes stuffed with crème fraiche and the finest caviar
and drink some very good champagne. It was an impressive start
for a tower that is still impressive by any standard close to
the epicenter of the world. The best views, of course, are of
the cathedral's spires.
Olympic Tower is slick and a major example
of the Modernist aesthetic in the city. While it is true that
the prior design by Lapidus, who was best known for his flamboyant
hotels in Florida, was very intriguing and exciting, especially
for its time, the current tower was a pioneer in mixed-use building
in the city and its "undifferentiated" south facade
presents a clean backdrop for views of St. Patrick's Cathedral
from the south.
View from Madison Avenue
The exterior of the corner store at Fifth Avenue
was reclad in bright, silvery metal in 1998 and while such a treatment
might have seem to be very much in conflict with the building's
bronze-color facades, it is very elegant and handsome.