PARK AVENUE PLAZA/RACQUET
& TENNIS CLUB
(The Park Avenue Plaza office
tower rises in the middle of the block bounded by 52nd and 53rd
Streets, directly behind the club at 350 Park Avenue)
Architect: Skidmore, Owings
& Merrill (office tower); McKim Mead & White (club)
Developer: Fisher Brothers
(tower); private club (club)
Erected: 1981 (tower); 1916
By Carter B. Horsley
The controversial development of a major skyscraper
behind one of the city's most prestigious private clubs was a
fascinating example of historic preservation.
The 15-sided, 44-story office tower pays homage
to its neighbor across 53rd Street, Lever House (see The
City Review article), designed by the same architectural firm,
in its use of a green-glass facade, but its real claim to fame
is the daring game of "one-upmanship" that it engaged
in with its prominent neighbor to the east, the exclusive Racquet
& Tennis Club.
The Fisher Brothers, one of seven legendary
building families that reshaped the Manhattan skyline in the first
three decades after World War 11, were one of the city's most
successful developers. They had entered negotiations with the
club to purchase its unused air rights, but balked at the price
the club wanted.
After several years of negotiations, the Fishers
halted the talks when the office of the Borough President granted
them a "Park Avenue Plaza" address for their midblock
site, Such gifts from heaven actually rained with incredible regularity
from Borough Presidents despite the complete mockery it made of
logic and rational planning, to say nothing of ethics in a city
where real estate is not unimportant.
The Fisher cause was also aided by the introduction
at that time of special public galleria legislation that would
give it more than 200,000 square feet, or about 10 extra office
floors, as a bonus for building a 60-foot-wide galleria.
The club, which claimed to be economically
hurting, was not amused. With the granting of a Park Avenue address
to the proposed new tower, it stood to left in the cold and out
a few million dollars for their endowment, or whatever.
In a brilliant stroke of genius, it "announced"
plans to build a 38-story luxury hotel above its famous clubhouse.
The proposed hotel would not alter the Park Avenue facade of the
clubhouse as it would be contained in a tower setback with part
of its foundations rising from a driveway behind the club.
The "announcement," in fact, was
a phone call to me. I was then a real estate news reporter at
The New York Times, but belonged to no clubs on journalistic,
but not The New York Times, principles. The call was from
Jonathan Morse of Morse Harvey Architects. He was a member of
the club, and a total stranger to me. I agreed to meet him when
he told me of the club's plan, which would, if carried to fruition,
block most of the Park Avenue views, the most desirable and the
most expensive, in the proposed Fisher tower.
I had serious doubts, as many have had since,
about the feasibility and legitimacy of Morse's, and the club's,
plan. I told him I could not in good conscience write such a story,
which was certainly a "big" story, until I saw blueprints
and was convinced that the club was officially endorsing the plan
and actually saw where the new hotel's columns would penetrate
the club's interiors.
A few weeks passed. The club's membership voted
to approve the plan, which I was told about in person by the club's
president, Oakleigh Thorne, and I carefully scrutinized the plans
and inspected the premises, with which I was already familiar.
The club presented its plans to the City Planning
Commission and a club vice president assured me that the project
was "economically feasible and would fulfill our requirement
of permitting the club to stay where it is for the foreseeable
There was never any question in my mind that
if the hotel could be built, it would be extremely successful
because of its super prime location overlooking the Seagram Building
(see The City Review article) at what
was then the center of the international corporate world.
A few days later I found a strange man was
sitting at my desk. He said he was Zachary Fisher and had happened
to be in the building to see his good friend, Sydney Gruson, the
paper's vice chairman. I said that was nice and that I was delighted
to meet him and that I had been trying to reach his organization
to get a comment about the club's plans for the story I was writing
about the project for the next day's paper. He suggested that
the proposal was merely a sham and not worth reporting. I explained
that we planned to run the story and would appreciate a comment.
He continued to belittle the proposal and to try to convince me
that it was silly. I told him that I was on deadline and needed
to seat at my desk and computer to start to write the story. He
finally left after saying he did not think the plan was feasible
and I wrote a story for the daily paper that appeared the next
day. It got pushed off the front page by the announcement of the
new A. T. & T. tower designed in Post-Modem style by Johnson/Burgee.
The club had not yet been designated an official
city landmark by the time my story appeared March 31, 1978. (It
was designated a city landmark, May 8, 1979.)
In my article, I quoted the always quotable
Philip Johnson who described the club's proposal as "amazing,
in the fun-and-games department," adding that it would not
be "helpful to the McKim, Mead & White design,"
but was "inevitable," and adding further with no little
sarcasm the question, "Won't it hurt the Fisher Building"
The Fishers had been scheduled for a public
hearing on their project before the City Planning Commission April
12, only 12 days after my story appeared.
The Fishers and the club proceeded quickly
then to come to terms with the club emerging several million dollars
richer and the Fishers getting its air rights.
The clubhouse was the club's third in Manhattan.
For many years, much of the club's ground floor space in the building
had been leased to commercial tenants. The second floor contained
a handsome lounge at the top of the stairs fronting on the club's
open loggia overlooking the plaza of the Seagram Building across
the avenue as well as a dining room and bar to the north and a
billiard room and a card room to the south. The top floor, the
third, contained some squash courts, lockers and the club's pride,
two indoor court tennis courts. "Court tennis' originated
in France when the game was played in streets and players were
permitted to ricochet shots off the walls and low roofs of the
While attractive, none of the interiors of
the club were exceptional. Indeed, they are rather prosaic prosaic
and conventional and not lavish except in volume and location.
The Fishers erected their handsome tower and
one of their major tenants, the First Boston Corporation, was
later thrilled to make a major profit on subleasing part of its
space in the very striking and forceful tower.
It is interesting to contrast this tower with
the one erected by Harry B. Helmsley over the rear of the landmark
Villard Houses nearby on Madison Avenue between 50th and 5lst
Streets (see The City Review article).
There, the bland, dark brown box designed by Emery Roth Sons is
a drab backdrop for the very stately landmark townhouses.
Here, a very good-looking tower of unusual
form and excellent detailing stands proudly and independently
behind the not very distinguished architecture of the club.
Although the club was designed by the city's
most distinguished molders of impressive and elegant Beaux Arts
aesthetics, the club facility is notable primarily for its rustication
and loggia on Park Avenue, but not for its detailing or luxurious
In "New York 1900 Metropolitan Architecture
and Urbanism 1890-1915," published in 1983 by Rizzoli, authors
Robert A. M. Stern, Gregory Gilmartin and Thomas Mellins put it
"The last club in the palazzo tradition
by McKim, Mead & White was the new Racquet & Tennis
Club on Park Avenue, designed by the office in 1916, after McKim
and White, were dead and Mead had retired. It reflected the severity
of the Palazzo Antinori in Florence, but the clubhouse was nevertheless
a somewhat tired design done under the supervision of W. S. Richardson
best known for his fine business sense."
The club obviously learned a few lessons from
The through-block arcade of the Park Avenue
Plaza is one of the best in the city and one of the few that really
deserves the substantial zoning bonus awarded to builders who
provided such public amenities. It is very bright and has a large
skylit waterfall with attractive seating and a stunning stainless
steel food kiosk, extensive landscaped, very attractive escalators
to the office lobby, shown above, on the open, angled second floor,
and a very handsome retail arcade with bay windows.
The tower's plan created more corner offices
and a livelier form and is the best building erected by the Fisher
Brothers. Indeed, it is one of the very best skyscrapers to have
been built in the city after World War II.