THE RITZ TOWER
455 PARK AVENUE
(Northeast corner at 57th Street)
Developer: Arthur Brisbane
Architect: Emery Roth &
Sons and Thomas Hastings
By Carter B. Horsley
The city's most elegant apartment hotel, the
Ritz, shown at the left, is best known for its rooftop finials,
and as the former site of Le Pavillon, the famous and expensive
French restaurant that for many years occupied most of its 57th
Street retail frontage, but its real significance was in making
an individualistic tower an acceptable residential building form
and in creating setback terraces. When it was built, it nearly
tripled the heights to which luxury apartment houses were then
With its prime location and classic formality,
this 540-foot-high tower, furthermore, was a very, very dominant
and prominent element of the midtown skyline when it was erected.
It was, in fact, a very major skyscraper in
the city's history.
In her delightful book, "New York, New
York," published in 1993 by Henry Holt and Company, Elizabeth
Hawes wrote about architect Emery Roth:
"It was only in the 1920's, however, as
buildings and spirits began to soar, that Roth could begin to
express his intuitive attraction to height and let classicism
bend to contemporary yearnings. Then, with a single building,
the Ritz Tower on 57th Street and Park, he changed the direction
of residential architecture.
The appearance of the Ritz in 1925 seemed like
a symbolic event. It expressed what was in people's imagination,
caught the Jazz Age in stone, and announced the beginning, at
last, of the modern age. At forty-one stories, it was the first
residential skyscraper in the city and the tallest such structure
in the world. It looked like sheer verticality as it narrowed,
like a telescope, up through its setbacks, to a tower in the clouds.
It was a 'sky-puncture,' 'a flare,' the critics said, quite overcome,
noting that 'even the 'professional' New Yorker, who has ceased
to [be] awed by the wonders of the present age, stops to view
and contemplate the actual arrival of the home five hundred feet
The Ritz Tower was a residential hotel, managed
by the Ritz Carlton Hotel Company, for the building code still
restricted the height of even a setback apartment house. Yet the
Ritz was as full-blown a response to the 1916 zoning law as [Hugh]
Ferriss [the great architectural artist whose drawings of the
New York metropolis where highly influential] might have orchestrated.
Its verticality was insistent, exaggerated by corner ornament
that drew the eye up from setback to setback to a finial on the
roof, and there was active life up on the terraces and balconies
and behind the tall windows of the towers. Arthur Brisbane, the
popular Hearst editor and real estate developer who had commissioned
the building from Roth, lived in baronial splendor in an eighteen-room
duplex with a solarium and garden on the nineteenth and twentieth
floors. He and all his vertical neighbors had unbroken views for
twenty-five miles in four directions.
The Ritz Tower...dominated the skyline with
its image and its ideas. It inspired a new generation of hotels
and apartment hotels, and it effected a new attitude toward an
aerial city, and an aerial home. Architects came to see it and
to study it, for it established a precedent in high-rise construction.
Penthouse and terrace apartments became fashionable and proliferated;
style-conscious tenants staged parties on terraces and planted
gardens in the air."
According to Robert A. M. Stern, Gregory Gilmartin
and Thomas Mellins, the Ritz Tower "was intended from the
beginning to be the apogee of urban living."
In their book, "New York 1930, Architecture
and Urbanism Between the Two World Wars," published in 1987
by Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., they wrote that "Roth's
first design called for a thirty-story building setting back at
the nineteenth floor to culminate in a square tower containing
duplex studio apartments with eighteen-foot-high ceilings, surmounted
by a pyramidal roof atop which was to stand either the statue
of Diana, then being removed from the soon-to-be-demolished Madison
Square Garden, or a replica. Brisbane's own eighteen-room apartment
on the nineteenth and twentieth floors was designed to include
a 30-foot-wide by 62-foot-long by 24-foot-high living room with
an organ gallery at one end. While the organization of Roth's
scheme was ingenious, its massing was clumsy, with abrupt setback
transitions. More important, the articulation of the facades was
conventional and the building lacked not only a consistent image
but a distinct sense of verticality."
"Apparently Brisbane sensed the inadequacy
of the design, or perhaps Roth himself, for in the course of its
development Thomas Hastings became a co-architect, although not
every publication credited his contribution. Hastings, the surviving
partner of the firm of Carrère & Hastings, was sixty-six
years old, but continued to be reasonably active," the authors
"Fiske Kimball praised the design extravagantly.
'The Ritz tower shoots upward like a slender arrow. On one of
the most valuable sites in the world, its area has been voluntarily
contracted immediately above the ground stories, with a preference
for going high rather than spreading out. It is such works that
have emboldened imagination to conceive a city with lance-like
towers set in open plots of greenery. Such an extreme will doubtless
never be attained, but it augurs that many new visions still lie
hidden in the future'."
The three-story limestone base, shown below,
is heavily rusticated and fined detailed, but the decision to
setback the tower somewhat at the fourth story along the avenue
is odd and should have been at the east end to avoid the awkward
transition with the building just to the north on the avenue.
(One of the preliminary schemes, in fact, was built full on the
avenue, although it was stylistic far inferior to the final plan.)
Apartment hotels were not subject to the same
severe building restrictions as apartment buildings, especially
with regard to lot coverage and height.
The apartments here had serving pantries rather
than full kitchens, but had food service from the building's kitchens
that was delivered in electrically heated dumbwaiters to their
floors and delivered by hotel employees. Brisbane's apartment,
however, was an exception and had a full kitchen as well as its
own dedicated elevator from the lobby.
Originally, a tearoom opened off the hotel's
long promenade from the entrance to the concierge desk and elevator
lobby. The tearoom was designed as a Pompeian patio with walls
painted with landscapes and a ceiling painted with a sunlit sky.
The hotel's main restaurant was next to the
tearoom and was sumptuously decorated with tapestries and murals
in a formal Louis XV style. According to Steve Ruttenbaum, the
author of "Mansions in the Clouds," an excellent book
on Emery Roth & Sons, published in 1986 by Balsam Press Inc.,
"Large mirrors and an antique tapestry
were hung from the walls, and crystal and brass chandeliers lent
an air of opulence. The most distinctive feature of the room was
a series of ceiling murals painted by the Hungarian-born artist
Willy Pogany. The mural in the center of the ceiling depicted
the Ritz Tower itself rising like a rocket from the pavement with
its uppermost obelisk piercing the heavens. At the foot of the
structure sere heroically scaled male figures representing a stonemason
and a farmer and, near the apex, cherubs with garlands floated
in midair. Pogany was one of the era's most commercially successful
artists, completing murals in many other New York hotels and theaters.
In addition to being a painter, sculptor and illustrator, he was
also a stage designer for Broadway productions and the Metropolitan
This restaurant space was demolished and replaced
by Le Pavillon, which subsequently folded and was replaced by
the Women's Bank of New York, which also folded. In the late 1990's,
Borders, a bookstore opened a three-level store in the base of
the building, which was a good addition for the neighborhood,
but not so wonderful for such an elegant building.
Ruttenbaum notes that the rooftop obelisks, shown at
the right, were originally all topped with gilded balls, now missing.
In a readers's questions column in The New
York Times February 24, 2002, Christopher Gray wrote that
Emery Roth's original plans for the tower called for a 18-story
base to rise straight up from its building line on Park Avenue,
but a hold-out on the corner forced a redesign that called for
the three-story base that now exists. The owners leased the property
but insisted on a provision that required that the new building
have steelwork so that they could "insert a stairway or elevator
should the new building 'revert to the landlord.'" The three-story
section of the base thus could theoretically be "split off
from the rest of the tower if necessary," Mr. Gray wrote.
Brisbane became a co-developer with William
Randolph Hearst of the Ziegfield Theater and the Warwick Hotel
on the West Side. Brisbane's success with the Ritz was short-lived
as he was forced in 1928 to sell it to Hearst who moved into it
with actress Marion Davies and lived then until 1938 when he defaulted
on his mortgage payments, Ruttenbaum observed.
The full glory of the Ritz Tower is somewhat
diminished now, but still very impressive. The very tall Galleria
tower, a midblock, through-block, mixed-use project just to its
east on the block, sought to minimize its impact on the Ritz Tower
by placing its tower on 58th Street, but its proximity, nevertheless,
imposes on the Ritz Tower.
The Ritz Tower clearly is a very significant
building. Its skyline flèche, the obelisk atop its pyramidal
cap, was a daring precursor to the Chrysler Building's famous
spire, but in no way as memorable. It is, in fact, oddly distracting,
especially if one conjures it topped with the original gilded
ball, but perhaps that is only a personal distaste for Teutonic-style
spiked helmets. It probably should be raised a bit, to what its
height with the gilded ball would have been, sharpened and gilded.