By Carter B. Horsley
This building and the others now on the same
blockfront on the avenue replaced the French chateau-style "Marble
Row" of townhouses in 1930. The houses had been designed
by Robert Mook and built between 1867 and 1869 for Mrs. Isaac
Jones, the wife of the president of the Chemical Bank who was
known as Mary Mason Jones. In his book, "Fifth Avenue, The
Best Address," (Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.,
1998, see The City Review article),
Jerry E. Patterson noted that Mrs. Jones was the aunt of novelist
Edith Wharton by marriage and "she makes an unforgettable
appearance as Mrs. Mingott in "The Age of Innocence."
The Marble Row houses were considered among the city's most elegant.
In 1911, the corner site here was occupied by Mrs. Herman Oelrichs
who had a large wrought-iron fence around the south and west sides
of the building, which was across 57th Street from a very large
stone mansion owned by Mrs. Collis P. Huntington behind a taller
wrought-iron fence on the site that would eventually house the
present Tiffany Building (see The City Review
For most of its life, this marble-faced building
was merely formally impressive.
The deep real estate recession that began in
the late 1980's, however, tarnished its image somewhat as its
ground floor and double-height second floor retail spaces, long
used for banking facilities, were vacant at the very epicenter
of the city's most elegant and famous shopping district.
Like Europeans and Middle Easterners in the
1970's, the Japanese rushed in to the rescue buying up lots of
prime and even so-called "trophy" buildings. Dai-Ichi
America, a Japanese concern, bought this building and for a while
Tiffany's was rumored to be considering expanding across 57th
Street into much of its space.
The store remained vacant for a very long time,
raising widespread concerns that the upgrading of the avenue from
low-end tourist traps that had replaced many of the long-established,
high-end vendors might have ended.
Initially, reaction to the news that Warner
Bros. Studio Store had leased the space in late 1993 was relief
that the deadening impact of the store's vacancy at such a prime
location was ending. That relief gave way, however, to concerns
that the new store might just be rank commercialism, imported
from the West coast no less.
Some people were put at ease somewhat by the
storefront's bas reliefs of the company's cartoon stars, which
were executed with considerable artistry and gracefulness, although
the Batmobile initially put in the second-floor window facing
the avenue was not a good omen as automobile showrooms really
are not all that alluring to Manhattanites.
Some people, also, were not overly amused to
see Superman lifting the glass-enclosed elevator just inside the
entrance at the building's corner. Batman and Superman, they thought,
belonged more to the Hard Rock, or Harley Davidson, Cafe further
to the west than on "stately" Fifth Avenue.
What with IBM selling its cantilevered, green
slab office tower (see The City Review article)
and closing its great museum facility just down the block on Madison
Avenue and AT&T absconding with its large, gilded "Spirit
of Telecommunications" statue and relinquishing its brand
new building (see The City Review
article) to Sony, which quickly filled up much of its public
spaces with showrooms, one might think the neighborhood was going
to the dogs.
Lo and behold, what were those very large,
colorful hangings in Warner's enormous second-floor windows? Why
it was Whistler's Mother, Lautrec, Munch's Screamer, and a lot
of great artists' great paintings. On closer inspection, of course,
it was just the rowdy, rambunctious and rude gang from Looney
Tunes who learned the avenue's once stylish dress code and had
become artistic. Remarkable. Wonderful!
So, I ventured inside. What a crowded mess
of mugs of memorabilia along with assorted T-shirts and caps and
jammies! So many customers! Hell, this should be at Coney Island,
or maybe Times Square.
I turned around quickly to depart from the
horrendous hordes and who should I see standing by the revolving
door but a very large and impressively attired Daffy (Duck), and
I could tell from his expression that perhaps I should reconsider.
Of course, Daffy was decidedly right.
I went to the escalator and was aghast to see
gremlins trapped inside. They looked pretty upset and not so adorable,
but as I got to the second floor I was relieved to see an old-fashioned
New York City Fifth Avenue traffic light, albeit without one of
the great Mercury bronze statuettes that used to grace them on
top. The mere memory of the lamppost distracted me from
the taxicab carnage at its base. Alright, this is
And over there was a giant ape sitting on an
Empire State building (see The City Review
article) that had been Robert Delaunay-ed to perfection with
the Chrysler Building (see The City Review
article) awfully close by, as shown above. Well, hey, alright!
For many of my fellow loonies the highlight in the store
was Bugs Bunny, clad in goopy green, as the Statue of Liberty,
with his long ears sprouting through his spiked crown and holding
aloft a torch, although maybe it's a carrot.
I suppose the world is divided into Warner's
and Walt Disney loyalists. I loved Huey, Dewey and Louie
Duck, though Donald was just too stupid and Mickey and Minnie
Mouse seemed too inanely innocent, whereas Bugs and Daffy and
Tweetybird had real attitudes - you could tell they could survive
well in New York.
Disney, of course, could not sit idly by and
not too much later opened its own ambitious store a couple of
blocks south on Fifth Avenue while also planning something even
more ambitious for 42nd Street. Despite its "serious"
commitment to name architects in recent years, Disney's characters
are just too sanitized and their appeal is mostly to namby-bambies.
Snow White and Bambi belong in the suburbs, yo!
Such nonsense, of course, is not so dumb.
Urbanities need a sense of humor and humor
in architecture is rare and usually does not wear very well over
time. Here at the Warner Bros. store, however, it seemed to work
just fine and what better place to play with pretense. Hopefully,
Warner Bros. will buy Tiffany's and set its Bugs, Daffy, Sylvester
and Tweetybird loose there too and let them take over the town
if they promise to keep the far more boring Batman and Superman
holed up somewhere else, say, the pseudo-New York in Las Vegas.
This store, of course, greatly reinforces the
playfulness of the nearby F.A.O. Schwarz toy store one block to
the north, which makes great sense since all children should be
brought into this area to see Eloise at the Plaza Hotel, smell
the horses, and visit the zoo in Central Park, which is not as
great a menagerie as it used to be and no longer has elephants
and hippos, but is still nice.
After the Disney store opened, it was clear
that Warner Bros. had won the war, or at least the first round.
The Disney store is a mess: uninspired and with little humor.
Alas, success sometimes breeds heady arrogance
and Warner decided to expand from three to nine floors in this
The remodeled store, opened with appropriate
fanfare and Michael Jordan in late 1996, is not an unmitigated
disaster. There are three major new sensations: a multi-story
sculpture of an animated city, a new Bugs/Liberty sculpture, and
a very high-tech interactive floor. There is even a cafe and the
glass elevator has been extended to he full height of the store
offering great vistas of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street.
The bad news, however, is that the remodeling
has violated the aesthetic integrity of the building, which was
not an official city landmark unfortunately. Its elegant
white facade has now sprouted a bronze and glass corner that is
mediocre and, more importantly, it has removed a giant stone eagle,
similar to those that used to adorn the famous old Penn Station
that was demolished. There was no reason whatsoever to remove
the corner eagle! Urrrggggh!
There is no question that this store greatly
reinforces the 57th Street corridor as a place that does not ignore
the youth market as evidenced by the popularity of the Hard Rock,
Planet Hollywood, Motown and Jekyll & Hyde clubs to the west
and the new Nike Town store that also opened in late 1996 just
across 57th Street. The latter is a major disappointment that
clearly took no inspiration from Warner Bros., or Tiffany, or
The first Warner store brought a long-overdue
attention to the fine quality of its building. Eye-level design
is widely practiced in New York and especially on Madison Avenue
tends to ignore the rest of a building's architecture and focused
exclusively on its retail frontage. For many of Madison Avenue's
rather shabby brownstones, official landmarks in the city's, but
hardly anyone else's, eyes, that is alright, but it can be frightful
when the building is distinctive, as is the case here. Initially,
then, one was very thankful that the retail presence here did
not totally ruin, or dominate, the architectural integrity of
the building to any serious extent. The redesign of the building
is not atrocious, but it is outrageous for it completely rapes
the dignified integrity of the handsome building, without a peep,
not surprisingly, from the city's preservationists! Although
the building is not an official landmark, it is far better than
the majority of such structures.
White marble is wonderful. The Greeks and the
Romans knew it and so did the New York Trust Company that erected
this 15-story edifice, once described as "one of the most
regal" in the country. Perhaps the marble was chosen for
the facade because the building replaced the last of the Marble
Row townhouses on 57th Street designed by Robert Mook in the late
1860's, or perhaps merely because the trust company felt its purity
and cool touch would be reassuring to its clientele.
The building's simple design certainly conveyed
a powerful sense of stability. Indeed, its stepped top recalls
a huge Greek or Roman mausoleum in its boxiness, although it is
enlivened by its Mayan-inspired frieze of palm leaves and its
Art Deco eagles, one of which is shown below, at the corner setbacks.
The new bas reliefs on the front of the Warner
store were reason enough to applaud this venture and hopefully
when archaeologists in the future unearth them they'll be as impressed
with their frivolity and sprightliness as much as the Art Deco
designers were with the great strength of Mayan architecture and
design and realize that this must have been a very special and
Of course, a lot depends on timing and upon
a subsequent return to this crazy playpen I was shocked to discover
that the great window hangings had been replaced not by other
witty updates and parodies of great paintings, but by huge Photoplay-like
images of movie stars Jodie Foster, Mel Gibson and James Garner
promoting their latest flick, "Maverick." These
are certainly, likable, indeed, bankable, stars, but here they
are, more importantly, rank commercials. Zadzooks!
We've been flimflammed!
If Warner Bros. had tried to erect giant billboards
around this building to promote their latest blockbuster it most
likely would have encountered some protest, perhaps from Tiffany's,
or Bergdorf Goodman, or even the august Municipal Art Society.
What is ingenious, of course, is the placing of their huge,
poster-like hangings behind such enormous windows. You might think
that someone turned Warner Bros. onto one of the city's brilliant
zoning lawyers. Such a ploy!
The store did revert to less commercial windows
for a while, but not as artistic as the original ones. But then
with the release of "Batman Forever," it reverted to
the commercial uses again. The new expansion obviously reflects
the store's remarkable success - a success as significant in its
own way as the opening of the Gucci store on the avenue decades
before. In the process, however, it has lost much of its
charm to crass commercialism at the city's epicenter of elegance.
Oiy-veh! Fate certoonly/cartoonly is fickle.
The city has been Trojan-Horsed! It's the Rape of the Looney Tunes!
Captain Marvel, please, to the rescoo! Call
up the Fifth Avenue Association! Shame of Warner Bros.! Repent
and redeem! Please bring back the comic masterpieces and banish
the publicity photos and be beloved once more!
On January 2, 2001, signs, sadly, appeared
in the display windows of the store announcing a "Store Closing
Sale." In the summer of 2002 the building was sheathed in
construction netting and LVMH, the luxury goods conglomerate that
owns Louis Vuitton, Moet champagne and many other famous brands,
was planning to transform the building yet again.
In February, 2004, the remodeled
building open with much of its facade covered in a very pale blue-green
glass with gauze-like styling. Some of the Fifth Avenue windows
had large projection screens for a while.
The new facade covered the
lower four floors of the building and most of the 57th Street
corner. The new glossy partial facade was not as elegant as the
building's original white marble and the contents of the stylish
store were a far cry from Warner Bros. Store's wildness, and more
in keeping with the block's high fashion presence. In most locations,
this would be a most welcome addition, but for those young in
heart the Warner Bros. Store will be sorely missed for its frolicksomeness.
According to the Louis Vuitton website, "Its glass façade
was designed by Jun Aoki. When night falls, sections of the façade
light up, evoking a streetlamp in the fog. The interior was designed
by the American architect Peter Marino. The store plays with shapes
and verticality." (2/22/04)