By Carter B. Horsley
This 21-story structure has only 17 apartments
and is one of the city's most stylish white-brick apartment buildings.
Designed by Robert L. Bien for the Frouge Corporation,
the building was completed in 1963 and converted to a cooperative
five years later.
Its top is reminiscent of an oceanliner with
its very large curved window bays on the two highest floors facing
the avenue beneath its large enclosed watertank superstructure
that has a rather dramatically perforated rooftop watertank enclosure.
The central portion of the side-street facade
has decorative angled piers that give the building a strong sense
of upward thrust although they are contained between horizontal
bands of large picture windows at the building's corners. The
central portion of the avenue frontage consists of balconies with
thin railings that are largely recessed but that also protrude
slightly and the base of the building on the avenue is recessed
behind some landscaping and a grill wall. The composition is quite
energetic and a blend of the delicacy of Edward Durrell Stone
and the strength of Le Corbusier. While the building is not a
masterpiece, its setback massing and facade experimentation is
vigorous. In sharp contrast with the multitude of white-brick
apartment buildings erected in its generation, this building is
interesting, although a bit out-of-place for such a choice location
across from Central Park.
In his excellent book, "New York's Fabulous
Luxury Apartments with Original Floor Plans from the Dakota, River
House, Olympic Tower and Other Great Buildings," (Dover Publications,
Inc., 1987), Andrew Alpern wrote that this building "represents
a return to the privacy of one apartment to a floor and to the
distinct separation of the private bedroom area from the more
public entertaining rooms." "For parties, the plan affords
three very spacious main rooms all of which open onto a large
entrance gallery. Two bathrooms are available in this area together
with ample closet space," Alpern noted.
Alpern was not, however, enthusiastic about
the building's exterior: "It is unfortunate that the exterior
of 857 does not approach the quality of its interior. The facade
is a gauche assemblage of disparate materials that contrasts sharply
with its more sedate neighbors."
Despite such criticism, the building is certainly
one of the better post-war buildings on the avenue and its layouts
and views are impeccable. It is convenient to cross-town bus service
and a local subway station is at 67th Street and Lexington Avenue
and many of the world's most famous boutiques are just a block
away on Madison Avenue.
The building, which has great views and a doorman,
was erected on the site of the mansion of George Gould, the son
of robber baron Jay Gould.
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 provide the following commentary
on this building:
"In 1961 yet another venerable Fifth Avenue
townhouse, the fifty-room, six-story limestone mansion at 1 East
Sixty-seventh Street, was purchased by a builder and slated for
demolition. The house had been designed in 1895 by Horace Trumbauer
for George Jay Gould. In 1924, a year after Gould's death, it
was purchased by Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II. When Mrs. Vanderbilt
died in 1934 at the age of eighty-nine, her daughter, the Countess
Lâszló Szechenyi, sold it to the Institute of International
Education. The garish seventeen-story apartment at 857 Fifth Avenue
(1963) that replaced the Gould house was designed by Robert Bien.
It was a glaring contrast to its predecessor, whose 'aura of old,
pre-Revolution Paris,' according to New York Times reporter
Thomas W. Ennis had helped make it 'one of the most imposing of
the many costly homes that made Fifth Avenue a world-famous residential
thoroughfare.' The new building's lower floors flaunted to passersby
the aggressive banality of the architect's design: along the Fifth
Avenue frontage the building was raised on two-story high, red-marble-clad
columns set upon a landscaped podium that seemed better suited
to an outer-borough or suburban location than one on Fifth Avenue.
The cladding continued along the Sixty-seventh Street facade,
which continued the building's principal entrance. Above the base,
a predominantly white-brick exterior included a disarming array
of other materials, and decorative elements....Among the building's
tackier details were the black metal railings enclosing the awkwardly
recessed terraces that face Central Park and the Brutalist-inspired,
oddly undulating concrete piers on the Sixty-seventy Street facade.
Inside, the apartments were quite luxurious by contemporary standards,
with one unit to a floor; a triplex penthouse had two ship-like
curving bay windows slightly cantilevered out toward Central Park.
The generosity of the apartment layouts made the building's facade
seem all the more regrettable."
Brutalism, best represented in the city by
the Whitney Museum of American Art on Madison Avenue and the MetLife
(former PanAm) Building straddling Park Avenue, has had few defenders
in the city despite its vigorous and bold sculptural approach
to design. Bien's design here is far better than many of its contemporaries
although it is not a masterpiece. The "oddly undulating concrete
piers" were, in fact, a most welcome departure from the city's
rectinilearity as were the cantilevered curved bay windows. Bien
here experimented much more wildly than most of his more famous
peers. The critics, of course, are correct in lamenting the loss
of a major mansion.