450 FIFTH AVENUE
(Between 39th and 40th Streets)
Developer: The Republic National Bank
Architect: Eli Attia
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
As 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
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 banks 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 citys
Industrial development Authority and an additional $23 million
in bonds were issued to finance the renovation of the banks
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 citys 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 citys
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.
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.