(N.E. corner at 45th Street)

Architect: Sloan & Robertston

Developer: Fred F. French

Erected: 1927


Fred F. French Building

Fred F. French Building viewed from the southwest

By Carter B. Horsley

The best of three similar slab skyscrapers on the avenue in the mid-40's, this 38-story tower was the flagship of one of the city's most important developers who created the Tudor City residential complex spanning 42nd Street at First Avenue and who envisioned an even larger project to redevelop 250 acres of Lower East Side tenements.

Top of Fred F. French Building

Top of the Building

Although deserved praised for its rich and intriguing decoration, this setback skyscraper is perhaps most interesting for the color of its masonry above its limestone and bronze base: a warm orange, highlighted by deep red and black trim at its setbacks. The orange hints fiery sunsets, which, of course, are emblazoned on its large friezes on the north and south facades of its flat crown, as shown above. The color is quite appealing, but surprisingly has been rarely imitated and has survived the city's grit well.

Roof frieze

According to Robert A. M. Stern, Gregory Gilmartin and Thomas Mellins in their book, "New York 1930 Architecture and Urbanism Between the Two World Wars," published by Rizzoli in 1987, the building was "a collaborative design between H. Douglas Ives (of the French Company's in-house architecture department) and John Sloan of Sloan & Robertson, who embellished its innovative mass with a novel ornamental program."

Fred F. French Building

"The building's astylar detailed complemented its three-dimensional complexity. Possibly the first skyscraper to have a flat roof, its straightforward water tank enclosure blazed with vividly polychromed faience panels that terminated the shaft without resorting to historical motifs. Ives described the iconography of the panels:

French building seen from Top of the Rock

"From the beginnings of architecture down through the Roman, Romanesque and Gothic periods the use for which buildings were intended was expressed by symbols, and so in the French Building we have endeavored in the panels of the top of the tower to express not only the purpose for which the building is to be used, commerce, but the character and activities of our own organization, the Fred F. French Companies. The central motif of the large panels on the north and south sides is a rising sun, progress, flanked on either side by two winged griffins, integrity and watchfulness. At either end are two beehives with golden bees, the symbols of thrift and industry. The panels on the east and west sides contain heads of Mercury, the messenger, spreading the message of the French plan."

Fifth Avenue entrance

In discussing the entrance, shown at the left, the authors noted that, "inspired by the Ishtar Gate, the decorative program was a most literal evocation of Manhattan as the New Babylon, of the skyscraper as Nebuchadnezzar's hanging garden in the desert."

The slab form here has elevators at the eastern end of the tower and the rectilinear floor plan enabled the building to appear narrow or large depending on the vantage point.

While the setbacks are placed to conform with the city's complex "sky-exposure plane" zoning requirements designed to ensure some penetration of "light and air" to lowly pedestrians, the thrust of the slender upper half of the building is very graceful and is a good argument against plazas on broad boulevards where maintaining a consistent building line and a relatively consistent mid-rise cornice line is very important.

East midtown skyline

The rather small lobby, shown below, is brightly painted in dark blue and gold and is quite regal.


Art Deco is at its best when it is not so specifically reminiscent of past styles as here, yet this is a very impressive and exotic tower that contributed significantly to the grandeur and international repute of Fifth Avenue.

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