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.
To 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
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.
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.
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
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