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The Swiss Center

(formerly the Goelet Building)

608 Fifth Avenue

Southwest corner at 49th Street

E. H. Faile & Co. with Victor L. F. Hafner; Lester Tichy Associates (alteration of lower floors)

Erected: 1931; 1966 (alteration of lower floors)


 View from the northeast

Building seen from the northeast

By Carter B. Horsley

A jewel, this 11-story building is one of New York's finest Art Deco buildings.

With its bold patterned facade and luscious, colored materials, it is extraordinarily strong, design-wise, for its meager size.

Part of Goelet's wealth came from Chemical Bank and he decided to replace his mansion on the site when Rockefeller Center began construction. The building was designed to be used either as a store or a combination of office and retail uses and to maximize his retail space, he cantilevered much of the construction.

For many years, the Swiss Center's decorative mullions, shown in the photograph at the left, around the second floor detracted a bit from the original design, but fortunately were not too intrusive on the rich deep-green and white Dover cream marbles used on the facade.

The massing of the building, which was designated an official city landmark in 1992, is quite sophisticated with two wings separated by a light well on the sidestreet. The wings have corner setbacks and are joined by a taller, recessed mechanical penthouse that is very handsome.

Elevator doors

Elevator doors are sumptuous

The extravagant but very intimate lobby spaces employ black and brown marbles in wide bands to contrast with green and silver ceilings and lustrous elevator doors, shown at the right, and corner light grills, shown below. The overall effect is sumptuous and very elegant.

The main street facades of the wings are highly articulated with two wide vertical green marble piers between which are three thin ones and the wide ones are also flanked by one other thin pier on the outer sides.

The horizontal bands of windows, furthermore, are slightly inset.

Art Deco details in vestibule

Art Deco detail abounds in vestibule

The overall effect is International Style more than Art Deco, although the lobby decoration is full, magnificent Art Deco.

In his excellent book: "Streetscapes, Tales of Manhattan's Significant Buildings and Landmarks," (Harry N. Abrams, 2003), Christopher Gray devotes a chapter to this building in which he made the following observations:

"In 1882, Ogden Goelet built a mansion at 608 Fifth Avenue at the southwest corner of 49th Street. He died in 1897 bu8t the house remained standing until the death of his widow in 1929. The Goelets rarely sold land, and in 1930 the family chose to erect a new structure on the site adaptable for use as offices, a single department storeo, or small shops, largely because the pending development of Rockefeller Center made it difficult to forecast the most desirable use. The columns on the first floor were set in to allow uninterrupted show-window space, and the second floor was hung from the third to increase head room in the first -floor area. But it is the styling of 608 Fifth Avenue that sets it apart - way apart. Perhaps the term 'geometric moderne' is fairly close, but it still doesn't do justice to what the marble trade magazine Through the Ages, called 'a modernist's dream' in 1932. The building is one giant Art Moderne cigarette case of marble - Dover white at the floor levels'; verde antique green at the store levels; vertical stripes at the crown; and Yule Colorado golden at the door - all accented by aluminum trim. The bronze doorway was designed after the Goelet family coat of arms....Inside, the lobby is an explosion of zigzag modernism and different marbles - aurora rossa, samosa golden, American pavonazzo, bleu belge, numidian red, and Belgian black, under an aluminum ceiling."

Mr. Gray also noted that famous architecture critic Lewis Mumford considered the building's design "a retardataire holdover of the Art Deco of the 1920s and Mr. Gray maintained that 'Indeed, there is an awkward, ungainly quality to the massing and in the restless conflict between the vertical and horizontal elements of the design; the rich facade does not complement the structure itself."

Mr. Gray's comments are, as always, accurate, although in this case he underestimates the overall temperament of the building as a jewel fit to be a machine and as a work of architecture not intimidated by fads and labels and bold enough to assert a personality that would not be truly appreciated until after the battles fought decades later by the Deconstructivists.

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