By Carter B. Horsley
This large rental apartment
house has fabulous views and one of the best and most elegant
residential locations in the city.
It shares its avenue frontage
with the neo-Georgian-style Knickerbocker Club designed by Delano
It was erected on the site
of a large neo-Georgian-style townhouse owned by Mrs. Marcellus
Hartley Dodge who lived in New Jersey and so rarely used it that
it was considered one of the city's "mystery houses,"
especially since its large garden facing the avenue was for decades
boarded up behind a tall fence.
The house was designed by R.
S. Shapter in 1922 for Mr. and Mrs. Marcellus Hartley Dodge. He
was head of the Remington Arms Company and she was a Rockefeller
After her husband's death,
she spent almost all her time on her estate in Madison, New Jersey,
and used the front yard of the New York townhouse for her many
dogs on her occasional visits back to the city and the house was
filled with much of her art collection of animal paintings by
Rosa Bonheur. The house appeared boarded up but a housekeeper
lived in it most of the time.
Interest in such a prominently
sited property being not used was such that a story about its
redevelopment made the front page of The New York Times after
she died in 1973.
In their excellent book, "New
York 1960, Architecture and Urbanism Between the Second World
War and the Bicentennial" (The Monacelli Press, 1995), Robert
A. M. Stern, Thomas Mellins and David Fishman provided the following
commentary on the redevelopment of this site:
"As originally proposed
for the site, 800 Fifth Avenue was to take advantage of bonuses
recently made available to park-fronting property owners, awarded
not for the inclusion of plazas but for financial contributions
to the maintenance of Central Park. In order to facilitate the
bonus application, the City Planning Commission urged Bernard
Spitzer, the developer, to retain a design architect to rework
the plans drawn by...[his architects], who had also worked with
the developer on 200 Central Park South....Spitzer chose Ulrich
Franzen, who eventually presented a design he described as 'a
stern, proper bottom breaking into a "joie de vivre"
top'; It consisted of fourteen floors built up to the Fifth Avenue
street wall and, set slightly back, a nineteen-story slab punctuated
by bay windows and topped by an ornamental copper roof loosely
suggesting the mansard roof of the Hotel Pierre, its immediate
neighbor to the south. A low wing containing offices was proposed
to run along Sixty-first Street, set back behind a small plaza.
Despite the support of the editors of The New York Times, Franzen's
design was rejected on May 8, 1976, by Community Planning Board
8, which objected to its height, its mid-block plaza and the use
of brown brick for the facade instead of the limestone or light
tan brick typically used along Fifth Avenue. By late June, Franzen
had come up with a second proposal, which Paul Goldberger called
an 'impressive improvement over the old.' In this scheme, Franzen
pushed the tower back twenty feet from the avenue and lined the
base up with the street, treating it as a Classically inspired
limestone screen wall that echoed the base of the Pierre and the
total mass of the Knickerbocker Club. The east facade of 800 Fifth
Avenue, which overlooked a still quite intimate, low-lying landscape
of townhouses, featured boldly staggered ranks of balconies that
were meant to complement the area's residential scale but did
not quite succeed. In July the revised scheme was approved by
the City Planning Commission, and demolition on the Dodge house
was completed by February 1977....When the building was completed
in late 1978, the first tenants were appalled by the shoddy workmanship
inside, the low (8'2") ceilings, the inadequate ventilation
for kitchens and host of other details that belied its claim to
luxury accommodation. Other observers, like Ada Louise Huxtable,
were critical of the exterior. Reflecting on the process that
led to the final design, she wrote: '[Franzen's] first revised
design was full of references to the surroundings so abstract
that only the architect could know for sure...The next version...was
negotiated to death by the city and the community. The result
is a pitiful compendium of watered-down mannerisms that are supposed
to maintain the integrity of the avenue and relate to adjacent
buildings, but speak more clearly of the inflation of costs and
impoverishment of crafts in our own times...If there is any achievement
here, it is making the bland grotesque.' In 1979 Paul Goldberger
characterized the design as one that 'rejects the modernist principle'
of a building as a 'pure object' and seeks an accommodation with
the context, 'at the price of consistency or even at the price
of any rigid ideology at all.' While Goldberger found this approach
fine in theory, in reality the building was 'so big that ideas
and principles don't matter.' Though he found the limestone front
along Fifth Avenue handsome, 'and a welcome attempt at craftsmanship
in a day when putting a chandelier in the lobby is considered
fancy apartment-house design' it was not enough to 'offset the
immense mass behind it.'"
Franzen's first design actually
was the better of the two as its base was quite vigorous and bold
and complex although the top curved bay windows were unrelated
to the rest of the design. Franzen's base was also awkward and
consisted of low curved arches, which he eventually employed for
the mid-block plaza's fence in the second and final design. Spitzer
would subsequently employ large curved bay windows to great effect
in his Corinthian apartment tower on First Avenue at 38th Street,
a building designed by Michael Schimenti.
This building, which is across
the street from the Pierre Hotel, has fabulous views and one of
the best and most elegant residential locations in the city.
This 33-story, yellow-brick
tower was erected by Bernard Spitzer in 1978 and designed by Ulrich
Franzen & Associates with Wechsler & Schimenti as associate
architects. Mr. Spitzer also developed another high-rise apartment
tower on the avenue, No. 985, between 79th and 80th Streets. His
other major projects have included the Corinthian at 38th Street
and First Avenue and 200 Central Park South.
The base of the building on
the avenue is faced with limestone and contains commercial space.
The tower is setback from the base, which helps preserve vistas
of the very handsome towers of the Pierre and Sherry Netherland
hotels from the north. Because the Pierre's tower is setback considerably
on its base, this building has many good corner views of midtown
as well as Central Park. There are corner windows along the side-street
to take advantage of the views. The building, which has 208 apartments,
has many balconies, which are curved, on its east facade.
Rear mid-block garden
This building has a very large
mid-block garden at its rear that has an imposing fence with curved
elements along 61st Street across from an entrance to the Pierre
Hotel. The spacious mid-block plaza usually appears to be locked
to the public.
The building has a concierge
and doorman as well as a garage and a gym and it allows pets.
It has consistent fenestration and discrete air-conditioners.
There is excellent bus service
here and a subway is one block away to the south. This site has
considerable traffic, but is convenient to many fashionable boutiques
Given its very prominent location,
this building is very disappointing, although at least its fake-front
limestone base and setback tower somewhat mitigate its intrusion
into this prestigious precinct.
The tower is setback a bit
from the base but the development has a very large mid-block garden
at its rear that has an imposing fence with curved elements along
61st Street across from an entrance to the Pierre Hotel across