345 PARK AVENUE

(Between 51st & 52nd Streets)

Developer: Rudin Management

Architect: Emery Roth & Sons

Erected: 1969

345 Park Avenue

By Carter B. Horsley

What should one build adjacent to the Acropolis, or the Lincoln Memorial, or the Statue of Liberty, or the Seagram Building?

Many would consider such questions gravely.

Some might raise the specter of respectful context.

Others might use the opportunity to try to create an equally powerful monument but perhaps in contrasting style.

The Rudins, one of the seven major building families that built much of the city's most important commercial real estate in the first few decades after World War 11, decided on this full-block, 44-story, 1.8-million sq. ft. office tower, just to the south of the Seagram Building that had been completed in 1958.

Cynicism, of course, might lead one to think that Lewis Rudin, the long-time head of the Association For a Better New York) and his brother Jack Rudin had blinders on and forgot all about the Seagram Building.

Melvyn Kaufman, a rival developer, once asked one of the Rudins why they extended a 5-story wing from their tower on its northern comer on the avenue rather than the southern and said he was told that they thought it was more respectful to the Seagram Building to not compete with its plaza on the avenue.

One could, of course, argue that the short wing never should have been built at all as it interrupts vistas of the Seagram Building from the south as shown at the right, but at least it is clear that the Rudins acknowledged the famous bronze skyscraper that they were dwarfing. In retrospect, the answer was not unreasonable, nor was the decision to not try to mimic the Seagram's famous facade.

There are foreground and background buildings. The former are the spectacular glories of the public art of architecture, marvelous, work-in, or live-in, sculptures whose commanding presence brooks no competition. The latter are at best complimentary to one another or foreground buildings and try to be contextual good neighbors.

345 Park Avenue is neither.

Clearly, its whitish concrete facade was an attempt to make the Seagram Building stand out, a decent "background" concept. However, its dark windows make a very strong fenestration pattern and the very siting of both makes it aggressive rather than passive as it juts out towards the avenue, almost gripping it with its paw of a small, aforementioned, wing.

Its facade, furthermore, is no mere sheer wall but a highly articulated series of protruding concrete elements that grasp the air like rough sandpaper. Although not as deeply textured as the former Pan Am Building to the south, this is not a timid looking behemoth.

The concept of repetitive protruding facade elements, of course, is not too unusual and was employed on Morris Lapidus's Summit Hotel on Lexington Avenue and 51st Street in 1961 and, with considerable finesse, by Emery Roth & Sons at 1633 Broadway, also at 51st Street.

It should also be noted that the Rudins had not only to contend with the Seagram Building to the north, but another venerable landmark, the St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church, directly to the south on the avenue. The building, which is raised a few steps above the avenue, has a long plaza on its south side facing the church.

(In 1981, the Rudins demonstrated that they are extremely sensitive to context when they built 560 Lexington Avenue at 50th Street, immediately behind the church and adjacent to the campanile-like, former GE tower at 570 Lexington Avenue. The Rudin building remarkably blends with the church and the former GE building and is a definitive and fine "background" building. When Howard Ronson, another major developer, proposed building a new, tall office building with the church's official approval on part of its garden that would block many of the views in the Rudins' Lexington Avenue building, the Rudins, not surprisingly, actively campaigned against it. The proposed tower was never built.)

Such niceties about aesthetics, however, most often have very little to do in the real office market. 345 Park Avenue has always been a highly desirable building for tenants and commanded impressive rents in part because of its very large floors, in part because of its prime location, and, in no some way, because it overlooks both the Seagram Building and the church!

If given a choice between living in a beautiful apartment building and looking at inferior ones or living in an inferior one and looking at a great one, not a few people might actually elect the lesser building!

A 20-foot-long bronze sculpture by Robert Cook, entitled "Dinoceras," apparently depicting a striated, skeletal animal, is perched on the building's 51st Street plaza.

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