AVENUE OF THE AMERICAS

 

By Carter B. Horsley

Much maligned by planners and architects, The Avenue of the Americas in midtown would be the proud main street of many other cities.

Dominated from the back of the original Rockefeller Center complex and then its rather prosaic expansion in the 1960's to the west side of the avenue, it is a hodge-podge of uncoordinated plazas and rather banal architecture. Yet the 1960's also brought the avenue a couple of notable landmarks, the "Black Rock" of the CBS Building (see The City Review article) and the Blue Slab of the New York Hilton Hotel (see The City Review article). Although the various plazas are less than inspired, at lunchtime they are flooded with workers munching on fodder from a host of exotic food peddlers even as they jostle with the hordes of tourists attracted to Rockefeller Center. The surprising and very impressive renaissance of the West Side in the late 1990's has led to a dramatic upgrading of many properties, not only on the avenue but also on the sidestreets and there is a great deal of vibrancy along the avenue now as its location is no longer at the edge of the commercial district but closer to its center.

For many years, the best things about this avenue were the enamel circular plaques representing the countries of the Americas that were installed on the lampposts in 1953. While not the snappiest of designs, the plaques, one of which is visible at the right in the photograph below, which also shows the avenue's most amusing building, which houses Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a theme restaurant, divert attention from the terrible "modern" lampposts that lamentably replaced the great Bishop's Crook lampposts. The circular plaques add considerable color, and are a nice ceremonial touch and several decades later Rockefeller Center added vertical banners around its properties, further enlivening this avenue.

Facade of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde theme restaurant and circular avenue plaqueTo most New Yorkers, of course, the Avenue of the Americas is merely a rather grandiloquent and pretentious title for plain old Sixth Avenue, whose entire stretch never was very grand except for the relatively short stretch in the high teens of its "Ladies' Mile" of enormous department store buildings that flourished in the early part of the 20th Century. After decades of neglect, fortunately, the "Ladies' Mile" buildings have been renovated and made landmarks and are part of a very desirable neighborhood near the Flatiron District.

The Ladies' Mile, however, stopped well short of contemporary Midtown, running into the city's Flower District in the 20's, south of Herald Square. Wholesale florists still occupy most of the low-rise buildings in the 20's where a flea market regularly fills one large parking lot on weekends. At various times, there have been discussions about rezoning the avenue in the 20's and some developers cast a judicious long-term eye over its potential for major redevelopment, most likely residential, as a logical extension and major improvement of the Chelsea neighborhood, one of the most vibrant and mixed in the city, abounding in a broad range of cultures and incomes.

Herald Square, of course, is a legendary city center, the home of Macy's, the World's Largest Store. But first it was the home of James Gordon Bennett's New York Herald that occupied a delightful Venetian-style low-rise building at the top of the "square" and later became the New York Herald Tribune. The elegant building's south facade at 35th Street was crowed by the marvelous statue of Minerva, goddess of wisdom, and Stuff & Gruff, the bellringers, which were removed when the building was demolished into the little park at the north end of Herald Square. The sculptural group, also known as the James Gordon Bennett Memorial or the Bell Ringers Monument, was designed by Antonin Jean Paul Carles and its architectural new setting was designed by Aymar Embury II. Bennett had inherited the paper from his father and moved it uptown from Park Row into a Stanford White building modeled after the town hall in Verona, Italy. The two-story Herald Building occupied the entire block between 35th and 36th Streets but was demolished in 1921. The bellringers swing at the waist but do not actually ring the bell, stopping just short in their mechanical movement every quarter-hour.

For generations weaned on the charming movie, "Miracle on 34th Street," Herald Square is forever entwined in their memories with Christmas spirits and the jovial visage of Edmund Gwenn playing Macy's Santa Claus. New York has never had a better corporate citizen than Macy's, whose fantastic Thanksgiving Day Parades and special fireworks displays on July 4th have infused the city with magic for many decades. The mammoth store itself has had its ups and downs, but experienced a major revival in the 1970's when it redesigned its basement as The Cellar, a broad, mall-like street emporium, that revitalized its image drastically.

You can't get as big as Macy's without spawning competition and Gimbel's quickly rose to the challenge two blocks south of Macy's on 32nd Street while Saks developed a following on the block in between. Gimbel's eventually took over Saks and created Saks Fifth Avenue, the most upscale of them all on Fifth Avenue, but Gimbel's itself eventually collapsed and was rebuilt and transformed into the first Manhattan outpost of Brooklyn-based Abraham & Straus - A & S. The renovated building sports an ornately neon-festooned facade and bright, white large atrium that is reminiscent of Los Angeles's famous Bradley Building that was featured in the wonderful science fiction movie, "Bladerunner." A & S, however, could not make a go of it and gave the store up after a few years, prematurely perhaps given the renaissance of the West Side in the mid and late 1990's.

The smaller Saks building went through numerous transformations and occupancies, first, Korvette's, then the Herald Center, its current incarnation, a black-glass, slightly bent box within which are some glass-enclosed elevators that afford very good vistas of Herald Square and the Empire State Building.

Although the demolished Herald Building was the most graceful on Herald Square, the famous intersection had other attractive buildings, two of which remain, the former McAlpin Hotel on the southeast corner at 34th Street, which was the city's largest hotel when it opened, and the Martinique Hotel at 32nd Street and Broadway, whose elegance was tarnished by its conversion into a welfare hotel.

The small triangular park between A. & S. Plaza and the Martinique is Greeley Square, named after Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune, which subsequently merged with the New York Herald.

With Pennsylvania Station only a long block away, Herald Square was a bustling center, but its difficult traffic congestion and proximity to the no-nonsense hustle of the Garment Center immediately to the north mitigated against its emergence as an upscale retail center. For many years, 32nd Street between the Avenue of the Americas and Seventh Avenue served as a major center for photography stores, many of which remain, but for several decades they have been not the best bargains in town by far. However, a new generation of retailers have sprouted along 32nd Street and it is now a brightly lit street with prolific signs that are rather dazzling at night.

One block to the east, Fifth Avenue boasted for several decades many fine, upscale stores such as B. Altman's, Lord & Taylor, Russek's, Sloan's, Gorham's and Tiffany's, but only Lord & Taylor remains as Tiffany's moved further uptown to 57th Street and the other stores closed. In the 1960's, the area received a boost when Ohrbach's moved to 34th Street a few doors west of Fifth Avenue from Lower Fifth Avenue, but by then the area had already begun to seriously deteriorate.

Tourists still flock, of course, to the Empire State Building and Macy's and Madison Square Garden and the train station still generate very high pedestrian traffic and many commuters from New Jersey use the PATH trains that have an underground terminal at 33rd Street under Herald Square.

The blockfronts at both the north and south ends of Herald Square are developable eventually as is the east side of the Avenue of the Americas between 35th and 36th Streets and such redevelopments, if attractively and excitingly design could improve the ambiance of Herald Square substantially. But Herald Square is not likely to witness a major improvement until the city rezones much of the Flower District south of it on the Avenue of the Americas and the future of the Garment Center.

The city from time to time announces plans to try to improve the terrible traffic congestion at Herald Square but has yet to implement them. In the mid-90's, the area began to experience a retail revival and the upgrading of the L.I.R.R. station and the planned upgrading of the Amtrak facilities nearby promised to improve the area somewhat by making these major transportation nodes somewhat more attractive.

A major deterrent to the avenue's upgrading, of course, was the Sixth Avenue "El," which was not torn down until 1939 and redevelopment of the avenue was delayed by World War II and did not begin to occur for almost two more decades when Rockefeller Center began expanding to the west.

Time-Life Building in the center

The Garment Center never really extended to both sides of the Avenue of the Americas in the 30's and the area remains messy and undistinguished. The Rockefeller Center expansion, which includes the Celanese, McGraw-Hill and Exxon Buildings, all designed by Harrison & Abramovitz, shown below, the Time-Life, shown above, and Sperry Rand Buildings and the New York Hilton Hotel, were impressive in scale and corporate tenancy, but with the exception of the Time-Life Building (see The City Review article) and the New York Hilton abominable architecturally. This group, which emerged in the early 1960's, attracted other developers such as the Dursts who build 1111 and 1133 Avenue of the Americas of which only the latter, a polished black granite tower, is attractive. The Tishmans build a very bulky black tower at 1166 Avenue of the Americas, but were plagued with a holdout and created a large midblock plaza that a major tenant in the building, the International Paper Company, had planned to plant a Sequoia tree, which never happened.

West side of the avenue showing several of the buildings of Rockefeller Center's expansion

The avenue's best building in midtown, of course, is CBS's "Black Rock," but the Fishers build another black tower with a handsome plaza with two globular spray fountains whose major tenant, Burlington Industries, for many years maintained an interesting ground-floor exhibition known as The Mill.

The "Black Rock" is really not a rich black but a very dark gray-black flannel color and the black anodized aluminum panels of the Burlington building and 1166 have turned grayish because they are not regularly cleaned and restored. The avenue does boast, however, a truly black building, the polished black granite tower at 1133, which is simple and very elegant, although the rounded south corner of the low-rise base was a well-intentioned but less than superb attempt to mitigate its sharp edges at street level. It is shown at the left in the photograph on the second preceding page.

North of 43rd Street, the avenue is pretty well developed. While the huge monoliths of this section of the avenue are a disappointing lot by and large, it is impressive if only because of its sheer bulk. The area around Radio City Music Hall and the Exxon, shown at the left in the photograph on the preceding page, and McGraw-Hill Buildings is particularly fascinating at lunch time when thousands of workers clog the rather narrow sidewalks amid a cornucopia of exotic sidewalk food vendors as drape themselves as best they can on plaza perches. It is an astonishing testimony to the popularity of the vendors, or more realistically to the absence of cheap restaurants. By all rights, the vendors should not be allowed here as traffic is bad enough, but the peddling planning debate is at its most difficult here.

The opening of the Harley-Davidson Cafe on the southeast corner at 56th Street in the early 1990's and the Jekyll and Hyde club between 57th and 58th Streets in 1995 were welcome additions to the avenue, which solely needs more restaurants and saloons. With its motorcycle canopy and engine light fixtures, the Harley-Davidson Cafe is a light-hearted infusion of youthful energy for an otherwise pretty drab urban environment, but it closed in 2002. The Jekyll and Hyde Club further intensifies the theme park ambiance along 57th Street that makes the stretch from the Warner Bros. Studio Store at Fifth Avenue to Le Bar Bat just west of Eighth Avenue attract so many tourists and families in addition to workers and shoppers to the area.

Hopefully, the city will encourage high-rise residential development along the avenue in the 20's that will significantly add to the mix of uses and such development is likely to be quite successful because of its proximity not only to midtown but to the chic environs of Chelsea, the Flatiron District and Greenwich Village.

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