PARK AVENUE ATRIUM

(the block bounded by Lexington Avenue, DePew Place and 45th and 46th Streets)

Developer: Olympia & York

Architect: The Office of Edward Durell Stone

Erected: 1984

Great skylit atrium with fabulous Lippold sculpture

By Carter B. Horsley

Good things sometimes come in big boxes. Behind the bland facade of this very unattractive, boxy office building is the city's most dazzling lobby. The skylit lobby was once the central air shaft of a masonry office building that was contextually related to Warren & Wetmore's Terminal City enclave around Grand Central Terminal.

Main entrance of this pink granite boxy office building is on Lexington AvenueThe polished pale pink granite exterior almost makes this building seem to disappear under certain light conditions, as can be seen in the photograph at the right, but the interior is an overwhelming, explosive experience in all conditions.

A 23-story atrium banded by office windows and reflective glass spandrels creates dizzying effects that are steadied and improved by generous plantings on several setbacks on the west wall.

The east wall has three banks of glass elevators, thankfully rectilinear rather than bulbous, and their indentations and movements make for an interesting view from the lobby-level restaurant that only occupies about half the atrium lobby space.

All of the above, of course, would only result in a pleasant and elegant variation of the various atrium schemes of John Portman.

What makes this lobby great, however, is the incredible hanging sculpture, "Winged Gamma," by Richard Lippold that resembles wings worthy of a great pharaoh's falcon or fans worthy of a great Japanese geisha.

Looking up at Lippold sculpture and skylight in building's huge atriumThe sculpture, shown at the left and at the top of this article, has three main elements: two spread wings emanating from globes and an arc ladder.

Executed in stainless steel and bronze and about 18-stories or so in height, this sculpture creates dazzling and mesmerizing views that are so entrancing that one must walk all around the lobby and take the elevators and stop on various floors to take it all it.

Unlike some of Lippold's other famous public works such as those in the former Pan Am Building nearby, or at the Avery Fisher Hall at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, this sculpture is not flimsy and is very coherent.

Lippold should be allowed to redo the building's dreary facades by inlaying similar designs in stainless steel and bronze on them.

Unfortunately, the steep grade and the fact that the building had to be raised over the railroad tracks of the nearby railroad station required that the lobby level be up one flight from Lexington Avenue. The escalator lobby off the avenue sadly gives no hint of the glorious space inside.

Olympia & York was one of several giant Canadian development firms that followed the lead of Gerald D. Hines of Houston in significantly upgrading the standard for speculative commercial office buildings by emphasizing good design. Hines's firm, in fact, developed the former Post Office building a block south on Lexington Avenue and demonstrated its finesse with a tower design that well complements the architecture of the base building which it preserved.

The lobby here makes up for the inexcusable and surprising blandness of the exterior and a new restaurant, Colors, hopefully will introduce more people to this astonishing interior space.

In late 1999, The New York Times reported that a new owner of the building was contemplating filling in part of the atrium to create new rentable space. Hopefully this idea will be abandoned for this is one of the city's few awesome spaces.

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