500 PARK AVENUE
(Southwest corner at 59th Street)
(the Amro Bank Building, formerly the Olivetti
Building and originally the Pepsi-Cola Building)
Developer: The Pepsi-Cola Company
Architect: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (original
low-rise office building on the avenue; James Stewart Polshek
& Partners and Schuman Lichtenstein Claman & Efron, high-rise
residential tower expansion on 59th Street)
Erected: 1960 (original low-rise office building);
1986 (tower expansion)
By Carter B. Horsley
The silvery aluminum facade of the 10-story
office building was a jewel of a corporate showcase for Pepsi-Cola,
but its simple, restrained and fine modernity fizzled after a
few years when the soft-drink concern and conglomerate moved its
headquarters to a very handsome new corporate campus in Westchester
County, a major and historically important defection from the
city to the suburbs.
The building has always been highly praised,
indeed, overpraised, for it is not great architecture, only an
very attractive, fine small office building that was even more
incongruous when juxtaposed with its masonry neighbors when it
was built. Its jewel-box quality created by large windows, thin
mullions and superb detailing is undeniable, of course, and it
was following the lead on the avenue of Lever House (see
The City Review article) and the Seagram Building (see The City Review article), so its clean-cut
lines and svelte proportions were well-intentioned in an age that
rarely mentioned the bugaboo of "context." Another reason
that the building has been widely lauded was probably that its
second owner, the Olivetti Corporation, was held in the highest
esteem for its espousal of elegant design.
The 40-story luxury apartment tower addition
is an excellent example of contextual architecture, using the
aluminum and glass facade of the low-rise building as a major
component of its design and setting its tower as far back from
the avenue as possible. The tower is partially covered with a
much darker facade with deeply indented windows that create a
bold and handsome contrast.
This 1984 condominium apartment tower is one
of the finest post-war designs in the city and the winner of a
national award for its architect, James Stewart Polshek, from
the American Institute of Architects.
Its clean-cut, modern lines, incised windows
and asymmetrical massing have been highly influential and the
building is a rare example of a contextual design that complements
a modern landmark, the short office building it is an extension
of at 500 Park Avenue on the southeast corner at 59th Street.
The small, elegant, aluminum-and-glass building was designed by
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill as the headquarters in 1960 for
Pepsico that subsequently became known as the Olivetti Building
and then the Amro Bank Building.
The 16 lower floors of the 40-story tower contain
office space, an advantage to the residents in this multi-use
building as it removes them further from the street's heavy traffic.
The architectural firm of Schuman, Lichtenstein,
Claman & Efron also worked on the design for Charles and Randall
Atkins, who had offices in the small office building and eventually
sold their interest in the planned tower to Tishman Speyer Properties
and the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States.
In an August 16, 1984 column in The New York
Times, Paul Goldberger observed that "The brooding, dark-gay
granite of the office floors at the base is handsome in a cold
and official sort of way, but this strongly undomestic imagery
is the building's only major failing."
"And," he continued, "perhaps it is justified by
the larger purpose it serves - for the granite, used in tandem
with a glass and aluminum skin, creates a dignified backdrop to
Skidmore's delicate modern box. At the same time, the glass and
aluminum sections of the new tower act as a counterpoint to the
older structure, making the overall design a subtle balancing
act of foreground and background, of solid and void, of texture
and flatness. Indeed, this is among midtown's best new towers,
residential or commercial. And the apartments within are generally
excellent, with nine-foot, two-inch ceilings, handsome windowed
kitchens complete with Sub-Zero refrigerators and windowed baths.
With its sprawling entrance gallery, an expansive A unit high
in the tower could almost be a 1920's apartment sleekly renovated
- until you see the wraparound windows of the living room."
The subtlety of Polshek's design is in his
brilliant massing and façade treatment and overall proportions.
The tower's façade has a distinctly
split personality with a silvery aluminum bay that runs up its
east side to complement the low-rise office building and the strongly
delineated "matte" façade with incised windows
on the other facades. The building, which is a masterpiece, has
a stunning lobby.
Polshek maintained in "James Stewart Polshek
Context and Responsibility," (Rizzoli International Publications,
1988), that the "tower was conceived as a singular piece
of architecture in its own right but also as a building that would
be a backdrop for the elegant integrity of the existing building.
The tower also had the urban design function of clearly indicating
the east-west boundary between commercial Park Avenue to the south
and residential Park Avenue to the north. The parti involved the
creating of a granite shaft perforated by deeply set windows.
From this stone tower unfolded an aluminum and glass envelope
whose twenty-four stories of residences cantilevered twenty-five
feet over the existing building.
The new metal skin was derived from the existing
building, but energy laws and technical constraints regarding
the sizes of glass and available aluminum alloys required a reinterpretation
of the original envelop, the objective being to retain the proportional
subtleties and flush surface characteristics that had always distinguished
In their book, "New York 2000, Architecture
and Urbanism Between The Bicentennial And The Millennium,"
Robert A. M. Stern, David Fishman and Jacob Tilove said that "Polshek's
building could be seen as one of the city's architectural success
stories of the 1980s, involving historic preservation - of a Modernist
building ten years too young for designation by the Landmarks
Preservation Commission - and new construction of a mixed-use
skyscraper of exceptional suavity."
"Described rather improbably by Ada Louise
Huxtable as a 'kind of Pazzi Chapel of corporate design,' Pepsi-Cola
was designed by Gordon Bunshaft," the authors continued,
adding that "When it was completed, Pepsi joined Lever House
lower down on Park Avenue, Manufacturers Trust Company on Fifth
Avenue and Forty-third Street, the Chase Bank in the financial
district - all designed by Bunshaft for Skidmore, Owings &
Merrill - and Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building to form the
greatest concentration in one city of artistically exceptional
When Olivetti decided to leave the building, studies were made
to redevelop the site along with the adjacent Nassau Hotel at
56-60 East 59th Street that was built in 1897 as the Hotel Roland
and designed by F. W. Fisher. The Kalikow real estate organization
acquired the combined site but soon resold it to the Securities
Groups, which was headed by Charles and Randall Atkins. Securities
Group commissioned Polshek to design new offices for it on the
10th and 11th floors of the Pepsi building and then Polshek was
commissioned by the Amsterdam Rotterdam Bank (AMRO) to redesign
the retail spaces in the building.
The Atkinses then commissioned Polshek to design
the adjacent tower that would cantilever 25 feet over the rear
of the Pepsi building. "If a specific source for the design
were to be identified, it would be that of the PSFC Building (1932)
in Philadelphia, designed by George Howe and William Lescaze,"
noted Stern, Mellins and Fishman, who added that "approval
of the plan was held up by the City Planning Commission's study
of midtown zoning, and by 1981, when the Atkinses found themselves
in deep financial trouble, the Securities Groups sold the property
to the Equitable Life Assurance Society, which entered into a
joint partnership with Tishman Speyer Properties to develop the
project according to Polshek's plans."
"When Ada Louise Huxtable reviewed models
and drawings for the scheme in May 1981, she called it 'one of
the most skillful 'shoehorning' jobs, involving an unusual and
uncommon, sensibility to considerations of style and scale,"
the authors continued.
The main entrance to the apartment tower is
midblock on 59th Street, which is quite narrow and usually full
of traffic. The enlarged project, however, is a far more interesting
and better one than the original building and the residential
tower is one of the best looking in the city. Its midblock location,
furthermore, results in unusual views, especially as the tower
of the Delmonico Hotel on the north side of the street is built
closer to the avenue.
The understatement and subtlety of the combined
development results in a powerful assemblage of great grace, a
rarity in a city known for chaos, bravura and an aversion, in
the waning years of the millennium, to modernity and quality design.