(Between 39th and 40th Streets)
Developer: The Republic National Bank
Architect: Eli Attia
Erected: 1985

Republic tower at night with Empire State at left

By Carter B. Horsley

This 29-story project is one of the most complicated and expensive (on a per foot basis) in the city's history.

The bank originally thought it could develop major sites on both sides of the avenue at this location and planned twin towers, stepped in plan from midblock to the avenue as a major gateway to lower Fifth Avenue. (The dramatic and unusual stepped plan is only on the north facade.)

The property on the east side of the avenue, however, was relinquished and subsequently developed independently and differently from the bank's plan, unfortunately and without as much style and quality.

The bank's intentions here were fine. It decided to incorporate the complete facade of the ornate and very elegant former Knox building, shown on the left below, on the southwest corner of the avenue and 40th Street. The Knox building was named after a famous hat maker and was designed by John H. Duncan in 1902 and sensitively remodeled into a bank building for Republic National by Kahn & Jacobs in 1965.

View from the north of the bank complex Fifth Avenue facade

Republic also sought to maintain much of the mass of the former Kress building, shown on the right above, on the northwest corner of the site and to erect its new tower between the two and extending into both. The simple but good Art Deco-style Kress Building was designed by Edward Sibbert and completed in 1955. The Kress family created a variety store chain that rivaled Woolworth's, but more importantly amassed the greatest collection of Italian Renaissance paintings in the United States, the best of which hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington and in 20 other museums around the country.

Unlike the later preservation aspect of the 712 Fifth Avenue office tower project 16 blocks to the north that saved existing low-rise buildings on the avenue and set its tower back on the site with its entrance on a sidestreet, this project opted to extent its glass tower facades all the way to streetlevel on both the avenue and the sidestreet.

Such a decision is not surprising, but the design solution is especially intriguing, complex and noteworthy.

The north facade of the tower is staggered. The window widths vary significantly as the building seems to curl into pleats, or furl in the wind like a flag as the tower increasingly projects further over the former Knox building, a detail of which is shown below, as it advances westward.

detail of Knox Building facade

The south facade of the tower is setback slightly from the building line of the low-rise buildings, but its facade is flush. The avenue facade of the south low-rise building, however, is stepped, in four levels, downward to the bank's entrance, rhythmically echoing the staggered north facade, though in far fewer steps.

The south low-rise building was given a new facade that is much bolder, and more attractive than the tower's glass curtain wall, though only modern bare bones compared to the rich detailing of the north low-rise building, which is slightly taller.

View from the Top of the Rock

View from the Top of the Rock

The east, south and west facades of the tower are bronze-colored glass and are conventionally detailed, but the north facade, which overlooks the New York Public Library and Bryant Park and is the building's most visible, is a pale beige. The bank, which had published renderings with uniform bronze tower facades, apparently changed its mind at the last minute and thought a lighter palette would be more palatable with civic activists who might see the building hovering over the white library, one of the city's great Beaux Arts buildings.

The bank probably made the decision by committee for it was a terrible decision that badly compromises an otherwise interesting project. There is nothing wrong with asymmetry at all, but the pale beige color is pallid and not attractive and merely stands out as a puzzling mistake: did the bank run out of bronze glass, or was the beige glass cheaper?

north facadeAs the photograph at the right shows, the form of the north facade is very exciting and dynamic. The plan is original, inventive and interesting.

The bank's large lobby is double-height and circular, with a lighted globular chandelier and the lobby extends behind all three building facades. Besides complicating the building's structure to accommodate such a large column free-space, the curves do not relate to anything else in the building except possibly dollar signs. The lobby is slick, polished and impressive in size, but aesthetically it is somewhat disappointing with no hint of the bravura of the rest of the project. The lobby could be redeemed by some strong and hopefully colorful art.

The low-profile bank, which is one of the most profitable in the nation, had special vault requirements that reportedly added significantly to the project's cost.

As quizzical as aspects of the project's design are, one can't help wondering what the bank might have done if it had gone ahead with the twin-towered gateway scheme. One version definitely had a similarly staggered tower and appeared quite attractive. The flat roof is made interesting by the unusual staggered plan.

The notion of a gateway here is something of a conceit, of course, as the location is not on a major cross-street, such as 42nd Street or 34th Street, and the eastern tower would not have been visible from Bryant Park. Furthermore, the eastern tower was set further to the south than the western tower. Nevertheless, Manhattan has not had any good gateways in generations, so one should not quibble, and New York has a small, but rich and magical tradition of twin towers.

Timing, of course, is everything in the real estate game.

A few years after completion of this building, the bank quickly demolished a fairly attractive building adjacent to it on 40th Street, with hardly a whimper from the preservationist community, for expansion. In 1994, the bank unveiled plans by the architectural firm of Fox & Fowle for a 16-story building annex for the bank with 240,000 square feet of space on the former site of the Wendell L. Willkie Building of Freedom House at 20 West 40th Street that was originally designed by Henry J. Hardenburgh, the architecture of the Plaza Hotel, in 1907 for the New York Club.

The Willkie building should never have been demolished and should have been designated an official city landmark as it as one of the handful of important buildings on this very prominent block, which alternates with very interesting, medium tall buildings and short buildings of much inferior quality. The Willkie Building was two doors down from the bank’s Fifth Avenue complex, but abuts another bank building at its rear on 39th Street.

Incredibly, the $55 million cost of the new annex was financed by bonds issued by the city’s Industrial development Authority and an additional $23 million in bonds were issued to finance the renovation of the bank’s data center at One West 39th Street and the bank, furthermore, will receive $6.4 million in tax abatement from the city for 15 years, The New York Times reported.

In its utter stupidity and totally corrupted notion of economic development, the city has lavished its meager funds primarily on some of the richest financial institutions in the world such as banks. The city’s insipid defense is that it is concerned about relocations and an erosion of its tax and job base. While it should, of course, have such concerns, it is preposterous to think that Republic needed the incentives, or the other major financial concerns. The city’s argument that urban competition for such companies is immense and highly competitive is true, but enough is enough and the city should stop subsidizing the rich, especially the very, very rich, and call the bluffs. Of course, the city should also do a lot of other things that would significantly improve its business environment, not the least of which would be a major overhaul of its archaic and arbitrary zoning regulations and a serious review of its landmark regulations.

The bank, of course, has every right to want fair and equal treatment with its competitors and its shareholders should be happy. Indeed, the shareholders should be proud of the bank for its daring and its commitment to interesting design - this is unquestionably a very fine, though imperfect project. The new building is a far smaller and simpler, though again symmetrical project that appears to pay contextual homage to nearby cornice lines. Initial renderings suggested it might be a bit bland and boxy, but Fox & Fowle have in a few short years become of the city highest quality architectural firms in the city so the final result is likely to be not bad.

Given the complexity of the exterior plan, the main banking room, shown below, is something of a disappointment, although its circular form is surprising.

main banking hall

For saving the Knox Building and experimenting with an intriguing form, this project deserves kudos, not quibbles.

At night, of course, the north facade becomes one of the city's most intriguing sights, as shown in the photograph at the top of this article for the bright bands of lights beneath the windows, a smashing touch.

In 2006, HSBC, which took over Republic Bank, revealed its plans to develop a condominium tower using its air rights. The new tower would be on a long-vacant lot at 14 West 40th Street facing The New York Public Library and Bryant Park. The tower would be about 30 stories tall.

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