By Carter B. Horsley

Stately, handsome and imposing, Park Avenue comes closest of all the major avenues and cross-streets in Midtown to being a grand boulevard.

But, like most of the city, it misses greatness.

In its prime, from the time its railroad tracks had been covered over and its flanks built up to a consistent cornice line in an elegant and exploded neo-Classical fashion to just before the redevelopment of most of its apartment houses and hotels in midtown to "modern" and glassy office towers, it came very close indeed.

In fact, for a few short years when its center mall was much wider and filled with serpentine, landscaped walkways and seating areas, it lived up to its name, at least for that stretch, and certainly was the best New York had to offer to utopists: a serene and secure sanctuary of dignified power whose masonry cliffs harbored the rich, the famous and the powerful.

As the bastions of reserved, restrained and respectable high-rise living gave way to the onslaught of corporate clout, the avenue became more famous. The business address became Park Avenue, not Fifth Avenue, which was already well developed and very commercial and filled with public buses.

At its beginnings, corporate Park Avenue presaged great things. First the cool lines and openness of Lever House (see The City Review article) in 1954 and four years later the bronzed refinement of the Seagram Building (see The City Review article) and its remarkably large and broad and open plaza. Sadly, however, the subsequent redevelopment between 47th and 57th Streets over the next three decades was not only not up to such a high design level, it bordered on being abysmal, with really only one exception, the Union Carbide (then the Manny Hanny, then the Chemical and now a Chase) Building at 270 Park Avenue at 47th Street and even that tower had its critics who correctly observed that it related to nothing and was so tall that it created a visual imbalance along the avenue, legitimate points that nonetheless do not detract from its superb massing and great curtain wall when considered independently, apart from its context.

Fortunately, a few handsome apartment houses survive, such as 417 and 480, but the promise of a glittering new center of the corporate world has faded.

In retrospect, it might have been better, from a preservationist's viewpoint, had Lever House and the Seagram Building been erected on Third Avenue, where the "El" was finally completed demolished in 1955, or the Avenue of the Americas, which would not begin to be significantly redeveloped by Rockefeller Center interests for another decade. Madison and Lexington Avenues were considered too narrow in those days for corporate showcases. Third Avenue, of course, was further removed from Fifth and its former dingy reputation certainly inspired caution about redevelopment.

Most of the new corporate structures for companies like Chemical Bank, Westvaco, Colgate-Palmolive, I.T.T. and the Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company, at 277, 299, 300, 320 and 350 Park Avenue, respectively, were the commercial equivalent of the white-brick "monstrosities" that passed as new high-rise apartment buildings in Manhattan in the 1950's and 1960's - cheap, ugly and totally bereft of any design sensibility, minimalist marble lobbies in the office towers and canopies in the residential buildings making feeble attempts to pass for respectability and reflecting an utter boorishness on the part of developers then such as the Urises, the Fishers and the Rudins. All were designed by Emery Roth & Sons, a firm best known for its "skyscraper palazzi" along Central Park West such as the San Remo and the Beresford and the Ritz on the northeast corner at 57th Street and Park Avenue.

In some instances, such as the Westvaco Building, built by the Fisher Brothers in 1967, at 299 Park Avenue, the design, a large black tower with no setbacks and thin stainless steel mullions providing a strong rhythmic sense of verticality, was good if not inspired, in comparison with the utter blandness of the 25-story Colgate-Palmolive Building in 1955 for Percy and Harold D. Uris at 300 Park Avenue, a beige box with an horizontal emphasis that conveys the heaviness of a fat plantation owner sleeping and immovable on some stodgy club verandah. New Yorkers usually don't wear white dinner jackets because the city is dirty and pale beige glass suits don't wear well either. The Westvaco building at least was a big improvement in curtain-wall design over the black 50-story Chemical Bank Building, built a few years earlier in 1964 by Stanley Stahl.

The Bankers Trust Building at 280 Park AvenueIn the 1960's, of course, Brutalism was rearing its head in architectural circles and the Bankers Trust Building at 280 Park Avenue, shown at the right, was a good attempt in 1962 to import it to Park Avenue, beating the really Brutalist onslaught of the former Pan Am Building (now the MetLife Building, see The City Review article) by a year. The 30-story Bankers Trust Building, almost was attractive because of its large windows indented in the bold fenestration pattern, but the proportions are just a bit too big and the airy effect of its cream-colored concrete facade doesn't take flight in the base, but works better in its setback. Well-known industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss was brought in as a designer on this project, which at least attempted to break the setback mold by eliminating/sacrificing some of the setbacks to create a simpler profile. A few years later, in 1971, the bank built a bigger building as an addition behind the Park Avenue tower and the new building, known as 280 Park Avenue East, was black with a sleek but simple facade, a good decision that permitted it to become an unobtrusive backdrop for the Park Avenue tower. The addition, designed by Emery Roth & Sons and Oppenheimer, Brady & Lehrecke, is, in fact, one of the city's better black boxes and boasts one of the city's most elegant private luncheon clubs, the Board Room, with excellent midtown views and understated modern decor.

In stark contrast to the Bankers Trust Building on the avenue, Emery Roth & Sons' 1969 design for Samuel Rudin's 44-story 345 Park Avenue is much more assertive and lamentable as it boldly upthrusts itself between the Seagram Building and St. Bartholomew's Church. For many years, it should be noted, this was one of the most successful buildings in the city, from a landlord's viewpoint, as it was quite efficient for tenants in a supremely prime location, so the blame cannot rest solely on the developers who were serving a marketplace of corporate boobs. A small, five-story wing projecting out to the avenue from the setback tower, which also has a raised plaza, ruins whatever impressiveness this tower might have had by interrupting its soar like a loud cough during a concert. Another major developer suggested to the Rudins that the wing was wrong and should be at least moved to the south of the plot to open up vistas of the Seagram Building's plaza but did not prevail as they argued that it "contained" the plaza better. On the best of all avenues, the wing should be removed, which would broaden the raised plaza, open up more views of the Seagram Building and the church, and make the Rudin tower more handsome. (One could argue, perhaps, that the Seagram Building has been blessed by having two large unattractive neighbors to make it look even better since the former Citibank Building at 399 Park Avenue, just to the north of it, is very large and very bland and uninspired. although it had its windows made reflective to be more contextual with the bank's famous Citicorp Center on Lexington Avenue and it modernized its lobby.) The Rudin tower's curtain wall, in fact, is somewhat interesting in its large, blockish interplay of protruding spandrels and Percy and Harold D. Uris obviously were aware of it when they commissioned Shreve, Lamb & Harmon Associates to build a fairly similar tower in 1967 for American Brands at 245 Park Avenue that replaced the former Grand Central Palace, an exhibition building that was erected in 1913.

Percy and Harold Uris also built the 34-story I.T.T. Building was built in 1961 and the 30-story "Manny Hanny" building the following year. The designs, which comply, "as-of-right" with the city's zoning at the time that called for setback towers, are again minimalist but at least the towers are somewhat more graceful and interesting that the stubby Colgate-Palmolive box on the former site of the Deaf and Dumb Asylum that had been bought in 1856 by Columbia University. (Henry Steinwig, who later changed his name to Steinway, opened a piano factory on the site of the Seagram Building in 1860, two blocks south of the F. & M. Schaefer Brewery.)

Until Gerald Hines began, mostly in the 1970's, to demonstrated that good design made economic sense, most major commercial developers both in New York and across the country were happy merely to satisfy the space needs of major corporations who could pay major rents and make the real estate lenders even happier.

In the mid-1990's, the I.T.T. building was gutted and rebuilt, a belated admission that its design was no longer good enough to attract tenants who could afford high rents. The rebuilt structure sported a peaked roof with "pleated" sides and a rooftop flagpole and a rather trendy fenestration pattern that is not bad, but the overall effect is still ungainly.

But a lack of consistent fine design in its new buildings did not make a total shambles out of Park Avenue in midtown in large part because its anchor and most visible building for many years, the former New York Central Building (now the Helmsley Building, see The City Review article) straddling the avenue was so sensational.

The only remaining other old office building is the former Postum [Cereal] Building at 250 Park Avenue. Designed by Cross & Cross in 1925, the building carried on the "Terminal City" designs of Warren & Wetmore so nobly enunciated at the Helmsley Building (the former New York Central Building) straddling the avenue which actually was completed a few years later. While well-proportioned, 250 Park Avenue lacks great detail and is a little lackluster, but then that is acceptable when it is reinforcing the overall ambiance. A large curved brass pipe ornamental element over the first setback on the avenue is an incongruous later addition.

The avenue also was not hurt by the fact that the commercial encroachment on the avenue basically stopped at 59th Street because of zoning and the remainder of the avenue up to 96th Street had been developed consistently with only two egregious exceptions, the 30-story 733 Park Avenue apartment tower at 71st Street in 1971 and the 28-story 900 Park Avenue apartment tower at 79th Street in 1973.

Park Avenue was originally known as Fourth Avenue when the city's commissioners laid out the street grid that covers most of Manhattan in 1811. It was renamed Park Avenue in 1888, 15 years after "Commodore" Vanderbilt had erected his new terminal at 42nd Street to replace his former depot at 26th Street that gave way to a new Madison Square Garden.

Cornelius van Derbilt was born in 1794 and traced his American ancestors to van Der Bilts who had arrived in 1650. Raised on Staten Island, he eventually started a ferry service to Manhattan and before long developed a shipping business and according to James Trager in his interesting book, "Park Avenue Street of Dreams," published in 1990 by Atheneum, his defiance of another shipping monopoly resulted in a U. S. Supreme Court ruling in 1824 that was a major antitrust decision. van Derbilt's ships began to travel further and Trager wrote that "The Commodore was one of several unscrupulous shipping merchants who profiteered in the Civil War, leasing to the federal government unseaworthy vessels...and began in a small way to buy up railroad shares. ....His initial prize was the New York & Harlem Railroad....While he bought stock, van Derbilt was sidling up to members of the New York City Common Council and bribing them one by one to secure their votes in favor of granting the street-operating franchise that would let the Harlem run south to the Battery." van Derbilt then maneuvered the acquisition of control of the Hudson River Railroad and then, with the help of Chauncey DePeuw, after whose name DePeuw Place just to the east of Grand Central Terminal is named, the New York Central.

The New York & Harlem Railroad had been started in 1832 operating horse-drawn trains between Prince Street and the Bowery and 14th Street but within a couple of years extended its route to 84th Street. By 1837, the horses were replaced by steam engines, but before long their noise and dirt made Fourth Avenue "unattractive except to the poorest shack dwellers," Trager wrote. In 1857, the steam locomotives were banned south of 42nd Street.

"Passenger trains coming into the city still had to be uncoupled from their engines at 42nd Street and moved by horsepower down to the two Madison Square depots," Trager observed, and van Derbilt soon convinced the State Legislature in Albany to give him a charter to erect a new major terminal, completed in 1871, at Fourth Avenue and 42nd Street. The depot's tracks stretched almost from Madison to Lexington Avenues up to 49th Street where they narrowed to four tracks. The railroad, Trager noted, proposed "crossing bridges north of 57th Street but only on the streets that corresponded with entrances to Central Park,"

But public pressure mounted to have the tracks "sunk" and covered. By 1875, four years before the death of Commodore van Derbilt, whose family subsequently changed the spelling to Vanderbilt, the name of the very short avenue just to the west of Grand Central Terminal, the tracks had been enclosed in a tunnel up to 97th Street.

Vanderbilt's 42nd Street terminal of 1871, designed by John B. Snook who had designed a house for his son, William H. Vanderbilt, on Fifth Avenue and 40th Street, a few years before, had a great curved skylit train shed, but as the city and nation prospered, the terminal was not big enough and city residents were concerned about the pollution and noise generated by his trains. His construction chief, Wilbur Wilgus, conceived of a grand scheme for a new terminal that would have two levels of train platforms and put the trains in a tunnel beneath the avenue so that the land over much of the tracks could be profitably developed. The new terminal, designed by Reed & Stem and Warren & Wetmore opened in 1913, was spectacular, beautiful and efficient and ushered in a new, swank era for its neighborhood and for Park Avenue, which had been known as Railroad Alley and which had not been very luxurious before.

South of the new terminal, Park Avenue extended to 34th Street where a widow of a J. P. Morgan partner, Mrs. Robert Bacon, had a red brick townhouse at No. 1 Park Avenue as Murray Hill residents had been calling the street since the 1860's. The city's Board of Alderman approved the same name for the stretch from 43rd to the Harlem River in 1888. The same board, however, voted to extend Park Avenue two blocks further south in 1924 and Mrs. Bacon sued, but lost four years later and her townhouse was renumbered to 7.

View to the north showing tunnel and MetLife Building in distance

Park Avenue south of the terminal is decidedly quieter than north of it and part of the reason is that it much of its traffic is tunneled, as shown in the photograph above, and lies within an established residential area, Murray Hill, named after John Murray who arrived from Scotland in 1723 and bought a farm, later to become known as Inclenberg, between what was known as the Middle and the Eastern Post Roads from what became 33rd to 39th Streets. According to Trager, "the Middle Road slashed diagonally across what is now Madison Avenue; the Eastern Post Road ran roughly parallel to Lexington Avenue and then cut diagonally east at 35th Street."

99 and 101 Park AvenueThis stretch of the avenue now has a few big office buildings such as the very rakish and dark 101 Park Avenue, that provides a strong counterpart to the dominance of the former Pan Am Building looming over the terminal and 99 Park Avenue, a handsome, crisp, 26-story metal-clad building designed by Emery Roth & Sons and erected in 1954 by Tishman Realty & Construction Co. Inc., both shown at the left, and 90 Park Avenue, a 41-story tower also designed by Emery Roth & Sons in 1964 for Alfred L. Kaskel, and 100 Park Avenue, a 36-story tower designed by Kahn & Jacobs in 1950 for Samuel D. Leidesdorf. Both 90 and 100 are very conventional although the latter was handsomely lit with Art Deco-style fixtures in the early 1990's.

South of 40th Street where the terminal's viaduct empties onto the avenue and into an automobile tunnel that runs to 32nd Street, the avenue becomes residential until 34th Street and very attractive. Indeed, while the sidestreets of Murray Hill have some nice buildings, this section of Park Avenue is as attractive as just about any residential part of the city with a very good mix of low- and high-rise structures.

It actually compares very favorably with most of the residential portion of the avenue north of 59th Street, but it never got as much cachet as the uptown push of major retailers and luxury hotels and boutiques made the Upper East Side a more desirable and expensive neighborhood than Murray Hill, which is hemmed in by more traffic and more commercial neighborhoods. The renaissance of the Flatiron district to the south in the 1980's, however, and its emergence as a sophisticated center for publishing and advertising executives to wine and dine will eventually lead to a substantial increase in Murray Hill real estate values based on its inherent value as an very attractive oasis and enclave with a great central location and considerable character.

57 Park AvenueThe Guatemalan Mission to the United Nations at 57 Park Avenue, for example, shown at the left, was the very fine former limestone Adelaide E. Douglas mansion, designed by Horace Trumbauer in 1911.

52 Park AvenueAcross the street, David Kenneth Specter designed in 1986 one of the city's most attractive modern high-rise residential facades at 52 Park Avenue, show at the right, a project that was not a success initially perhaps because its sliver form precluded large apartments.

In the early part of the 20th Century, this area was highly desirable and many of the city's best hotels were located here such as the Belmont, the Grand Union, the Murray Hill, the Park Avenue and the Vanderbilt, of which only the Vanderbilt survives, albeit now as an apartment building.

The 22-story Belmont, named after August Belmont, one of its backers who made part of his fortune in New York City subways, was the tallest building in midtown when it was opened in 1906 on the west side of the avenue between 41st and 42nd Streets. Designed by Warren & Wetmore, architects also of Grand Central Terminal across 42nd Street, the Belmont was lavish with about 1,000 guest rooms and ornate public rooms and rich furnishings. It closed in 1930 and was demolished the next year. The site remained empty for two more years when it was used for a beer garden that was replaced in 1940 by the Art Deco-style Airlines Terminal Building that was razed for the building in 1982 of the Philip Morris Building that now occupies the site.

One block south of the Belmont was the 500-room Murray Hill Hotel, an eight-story, red sandstone structure that replaced stables and carbarns of the Madison Avenue stage line, according to Trager, who noted that Mark Twain stayed at the hotel during the great blizzard of 1888, that "Drexels and Biddles from Philadelphia reserved suites for Christmas week" and that Harvard and Yale football teams "stopped" there. With red and white marble floors and considerable gilt, the hotel was also, Trager continued, "the only hotel dining room in New York to offer half servings for those with less than robust appetites," was the site of Alf Landon's national headquarters when he was running for President in 1936. The hotel closed in 1947.

The Grand Union had a well-known restaurant and 350 guest rooms without baths and closed in 1914 when it was condemned for excavations for the city's subways and six years later it was bought by the Pershing Square Building Corporation, which built the handsome building that now occupies the east side of the avenue between 41st and 42nd Street.

The 502-room, 8-story Park Avenue Hotel, funded by A. T. Stewart, the great retailer, occupied the blockfront between 32nd and 33rd Streets on the west side of Fourth Avenue when it was opened in 1878 as The Woman's Home, but two months after its opening its rigid residence rules for working women were abandoned and the facility began to operate as a regular hotel, one of the most attractive in the city. It was torn down in 1927 and replaced by 2 Park Avenue, an important and very bulky Art Deco office building that was much larger than but nowhere near as good-looking as the hotel.

The Vanderbilt Hotel, on the next block at 4 Park Avenue, was converted to apartments and retail space in 1965.

Roman Catholic Church of Our Savior at 59 Park AvenueIn addition to a major private club, the Union League Club, this area also has a very handsome church, the Roman Catholic Church of Our Saviour, shown at the right, at 59 Park Avenue. Erected in 1959, the limestone edifice designed by Paul W. Reilly nicely combines Romanesque touches such as colonnades with a abstract minimalism in a highly dynamic composition that is quite forceful, especially given the very dramatic backdrop of The Town House, an Art Moderne apartment tower at 108 East 38th Street that combines black brick with bright terra cotta panels. Designed in 1930 by Bowden & Russell, the apartment tower is a striking and innovative departure in mid-block design that happily is well accented by the bright light gray limestone facades of the adjacent church on the avenue, one of the city's most felicitous juxtapositions.

As pleasant as the overall environment of Park Avenue south of 42nd Street, it has no masterpieces to rival the avenue north of 42nd Street. Many of its buildings are quite decent, such as One Park Avenue and 475 Park Avenue South at 32nd Street. The former, a 19-story building designed by York & Sawyer in 1926 for Henry Mandel is solidly attractive and slightly similar in massing to the much more important 2 Park Avenue across the avenue. The latter, a 35-story tower designed in 1969 by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon Associates, for Cohen Brothers Realty Corporation has a good massing and vertical emphasis even though its small plaza breaks the building line. Its slightly protruded roofline is an excellent attempt to express a cornice in a modern vocabulary, although its large plaza sculpture, "Triad," by Irving Marantz is a not very successful reworking in bronze of Picasso's famous painting of "Three Musicians."

east side of Park Avenue in Murray HillThe Cohens also erected 4 Park Avenue, a large, warm reddish-orange brick tower that is a mixed-use tower with offices over a school at the southeast corner at 34th Street on the site of a former armory that had a great campanile. The new tower. shown at the right in the picture at the right, has triangular plazas at 34th Street and 33rd Street and its tower was at a 45 degree angle with the city's rectilinear street grid, which opened up unusual views for the office tenants, but set a bad urban planning precedent as it challenged Midtown's traditional streetscape and real estate development patterns. That said, the tower is not all that bad because of its good color, strong verticality and slightly angled, piered and illuminated roof.

(In 1959, the City Council changed the name of Fourth Avenue between 17th and 32nd Streets to Park Avenue South.)

In 1993, many huge bronze sculptures by Botero were temporarily installed in the avenue's center malls in the 50's. Despite their bulbous and distorted shapes, they were incredible and sadly were not permanent, though hopefully some enlightened philanthropist should buy and install at least one of them on the avenue as the malls are great sites for large sculptures, which are certainly preferable to some of the concrete planting urns used on Park Avenue South. In 1997, many brightly colored sculptures by Keith Haring enlivened the avenuescape, but again none were acquired for permanent display.

The tulip plantings in the spring and the lighted Christmas trees during the holidays greatly enliven the avenue and help make its name more meaningful. The more important reality in New York is that buses and commercial traffic such as trucks are banned from Park Avenue, which makes it less unsightly because of the usual ugliness of trucks used regularly in the city, and more exclusive because the poor, who travel on buses, can't gawk at the well-to-do working and living on the avenue.

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