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Who's Minding The Store?

The Louis Vuitton Building

1 East 57th Street

(former New York Trust Co. Building, then Warner Bros. Studio Store Building)

Architect: Cross & Cross; Cowan Commer Architects (alteration, 1996) and Jon Greenberg and Associates (store interior, 1996)

Developer: New York Trust Co., Warner Bros. Studio Store (alteration, 1996); Louis Vuitton remodelling, Jun Aoki, interiors by Peter Marino, 2004

Erected: 1931

Remodeled Louis Vuitton building Fifth Avenue facade 2007

Louis Vuitton opened remodeled building in February, 2004

By Carter B. Horsley

This building and the others now on the same blockfront on the avenue replaced the French chateau-style "Marble Row" of townhouses in 1930. The houses had been designed by Robert Mook and built between 1867 and 1869 for Mrs. Isaac Jones, the wife of the president of the Chemical Bank who was known as Mary Mason Jones. In his book, "Fifth Avenue, The Best Address," (Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1998, see The City Review article), Jerry E. Patterson noted that Mrs. Jones was the aunt of novelist Edith Wharton by marriage and "she makes an unforgettable appearance as Mrs. Mingott in "The Age of Innocence." The Marble Row houses were considered among the city's most elegant. In 1911, the corner site here was occupied by Mrs. Herman Oelrichs who had a large wrought-iron fence around the south and west sides of the building, which was across 57th Street from a very large stone mansion owned by Mrs. Collis P. Huntington behind a taller wrought-iron fence on the site that would eventually house the present Tiffany Building (see The City Review article).

For most of its life, this marble-faced building was merely formally impressive.

View from the southwest in 2004

View from the southwest in 2004

The deep real estate recession that began in the late 1980's, however, tarnished its image somewhat as its ground floor and double-height second floor retail spaces, long used for banking facilities, were vacant at the very epicenter of the city's most elegant and famous shopping district.

Like Europeans and Middle Easterners in the 1970's, the Japanese rushed in to the rescue buying up lots of prime and even so-called "trophy" buildings. Dai-Ichi America, a Japanese concern, bought this building and for a while Tiffany's was rumored to be considering expanding across 57th Street into much of its space.

The store remained vacant for a very long time, raising widespread concerns that the upgrading of the avenue from low-end tourist traps that had replaced many of the long-established, high-end vendors might have ended.

Initially, reaction to the news that Warner Bros. Studio Store had leased the space in late 1993 was relief that the deadening impact of the store's vacancy at such a prime location was ending. That relief gave way, however, to concerns that the new store might just be rank commercialism, imported from the West coast no less.

Warner Bros. Store interior

Warner Bros. Store had dramatic interiors

Some people were put at ease somewhat by the storefront's bas reliefs of the company's cartoon stars, which were executed with considerable artistry and gracefulness, although the Batmobile initially put in the second-floor window facing the avenue was not a good omen as automobile showrooms really are not all that alluring to Manhattanites.

Some people, also, were not overly amused to see Superman lifting the glass-enclosed elevator just inside the entrance at the building's corner. Batman and Superman, they thought, belonged more to the Hard Rock, or Harley Davidson, Cafe further to the west than on "stately" Fifth Avenue.

What with IBM selling its cantilevered, green slab office tower (see The City Review article) and closing its great museum facility just down the block on Madison Avenue and AT&T absconding with its large, gilded "Spirit of Telecommunications" statue and relinquishing its brand new building  (see The City Review article) to Sony, which quickly filled up much of its public spaces with showrooms, one might think the neighborhood was going to the dogs.

Lo and behold, what were those very large, colorful hangings in Warner's enormous second-floor windows? Why it was Whistler's Mother, Lautrec, Munch's Screamer, and a lot of great artists' great paintings. On closer inspection, of course, it was just the rowdy, rambunctious and rude gang from Looney Tunes who learned the avenue's once stylish dress code and had become artistic.  Remarkable.  Wonderful!

So, I ventured inside. What a crowded mess of mugs of memorabilia along with assorted T-shirts and caps and jammies! So many customers! Hell, this should be at Coney Island, or maybe Times Square.

Warner Bros. monkey atop Empire State Building

Warner Bros. Store interior took note of New York City

I turned around quickly to depart from the horrendous hordes and who should I see standing by the revolving door but a very large and impressively attired Daffy (Duck), and I could tell from his expression that perhaps I should reconsider.

Warner Bros. doormanOf course, Daffy was decidedly right.

I went to the escalator and was aghast to see gremlins trapped inside. They looked pretty upset and not so adorable, but as I got to the second floor I was relieved to see an old-fashioned New York City Fifth Avenue traffic light, albeit without one of the great Mercury bronze statuettes that used to grace them on top.  The mere memory of the lamppost distracted me from the taxicab carnage at its base.  Alright,  this is New York.

And over there was a giant ape sitting on an Empire State building (see The City Review article) that had been Robert Delaunay-ed to perfection with the Chrysler Building (see The City Review article) awfully close by, as shown above. Well, hey, alright!  For many of my fellow loonies the highlight in the store was Bugs Bunny, clad in goopy green, as the Statue of Liberty, with his long ears sprouting through his spiked crown and holding aloft a torch, although maybe it's a carrot.

I suppose the world is divided into Warner's and Walt Disney loyalists.  I loved Huey, Dewey and Louie Duck, though Donald was just too stupid and Mickey and Minnie Mouse seemed too inanely innocent, whereas Bugs and Daffy and Tweetybird had real attitudes - you could tell they could survive well in New York.

Disney, of course, could not sit idly by and not too much later opened its own ambitious store a couple of blocks south on Fifth Avenue while also planning something even more ambitious for 42nd Street. Despite its "serious" commitment to name architects in recent years, Disney's characters are just too sanitized and their appeal is mostly to namby-bambies.  Snow White and Bambi belong in the suburbs, yo!

Such nonsense, of course, is not so dumb.

Urbanities need a sense of humor and humor in architecture is rare and usually does not wear very well over time. Here at the Warner Bros. store, however, it seemed to work just fine and what better place to play with pretense. Hopefully, Warner Bros. will buy Tiffany's and set its Bugs, Daffy, Sylvester and Tweetybird loose there too and let them take over the town if they promise to keep the far more boring Batman and Superman holed up somewhere else, say, the pseudo-New York in Las Vegas.

This store, of course, greatly reinforces the playfulness of the nearby F.A.O. Schwarz toy store one block to the north, which makes great sense since all children should be brought into this area to see Eloise at the Plaza Hotel, smell the horses, and visit the zoo in Central Park, which is not as great a menagerie as it used to be and no longer has elephants and hippos, but is still nice.

After the Disney store opened, it was clear that Warner Bros. had won the war, or at least the first round. The Disney store is a mess: uninspired and with little humor.

Alas, success sometimes breeds heady arrogance and Warner decided to expand from three to nine floors in this elegant building.

The remodeled store, opened with appropriate fanfare and Michael Jordan in late 1996, is not an unmitigated disaster. There are three major new sensations: a multi-story sculpture of an animated city, a new Bugs/Liberty sculpture, and a very high-tech interactive floor. There is even a cafe and the glass elevator has been extended to he full height of the store offering great vistas of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street.

The bad news, however, is that the remodeling has violated the aesthetic integrity of the building, which was not an official city landmark unfortunately.  Its elegant white facade has now sprouted a bronze and glass corner that is mediocre and, more importantly, it has removed a giant stone eagle, similar to those that used to adorn the famous old Penn Station that was demolished. There was no reason whatsoever to remove the corner eagle!  Urrrggggh!

There is no question that this store greatly reinforces the 57th Street corridor as a place that does not ignore the youth market as evidenced by the popularity of the Hard Rock, Planet Hollywood, Motown and Jekyll & Hyde clubs to the west and the new Nike Town store that also opened in late 1996 just across 57th Street. The latter is a major disappointment that clearly took no inspiration from Warner Bros., or Tiffany, or IBM.

The first Warner store brought a long-overdue attention to the fine quality of its building. Eye-level design is widely practiced in New York and especially on Madison Avenue tends to ignore the rest of a building's architecture and focused exclusively on its retail frontage. For many of Madison Avenue's rather shabby brownstones, official landmarks in the city's, but hardly anyone else's, eyes, that is alright, but it can be frightful when the building is distinctive, as is the case here.  Initially, then, one was very thankful that the retail presence here did not totally ruin, or dominate, the architectural integrity of the building to any serious extent. The redesign of the building is not atrocious, but it is outrageous for it completely rapes the dignified integrity of the handsome building, without a peep, not surprisingly, from the city's preservationists!  Although the building is not an official landmark, it is far better than the majority of such structures.

1 West 57th Street

1 West 57th Street in snow storm prior to Warner Bros. invasion


White marble is wonderful. The Greeks and the Romans knew it and so did the New York Trust Company that erected this 15-story edifice, once described as "one of the most regal" in the country. Perhaps the marble was chosen for the facade because the building replaced the last of the Marble Row townhouses on 57th Street designed by Robert Mook in the late 1860's, or perhaps merely because the trust company felt its purity and cool touch would be reassuring to its clientele.

The building's simple design certainly conveyed a powerful sense of stability.  Indeed, its stepped top recalls a huge Greek or Roman mausoleum in its boxiness, although it is enlivened by its Mayan-inspired frieze of palm leaves and its Art Deco eagles, one of which is shown below, at the corner setbacks.

Surviving eagle on terrace

Surviving eagle on building terrace

The new bas reliefs on the front of the Warner store were reason enough to applaud this venture and hopefully when archaeologists in the future unearth them they'll be as impressed with their frivolity and sprightliness as much as the Art Deco designers were with the great strength of Mayan architecture and design and realize that this must have been a very special and important temple.

Of course, a lot depends on timing and upon a subsequent return to this crazy playpen I was shocked to discover that the great window hangings had been replaced not by other witty updates and parodies of great paintings, but by huge Photoplay-like images of movie stars Jodie Foster, Mel Gibson and James Garner promoting their latest flick, "Maverick."  These are certainly, likable, indeed, bankable, stars, but here they are, more importantly, rank commercials.  Zadzooks!

We've been flimflammed!

If Warner Bros. had tried to erect giant billboards around this building to promote their latest blockbuster it most likely would have encountered some protest, perhaps from Tiffany's, or Bergdorf Goodman, or even the august Municipal Art Society.  What is ingenious, of course, is the placing of their huge, poster-like hangings behind such enormous windows. You might think that someone turned Warner Bros. onto one of the city's brilliant zoning lawyers. Such a ploy!

The store did revert to less commercial windows for a while, but not as artistic as the original ones. But then with the release of "Batman Forever," it reverted to the commercial uses again. The new expansion obviously reflects the store's remarkable success - a success as significant in its own way as the opening of the Gucci store on the avenue decades before.  In the process, however, it has lost much of its charm to crass commercialism at the city's epicenter of elegance.

Oiy-veh! Fate certoonly/cartoonly is fickle. The city has been Trojan-Horsed! It's the Rape of the Looney Tunes!

Captain Marvel, please, to the rescoo! Call up the Fifth Avenue Association! Shame of Warner Bros.! Repent and redeem! Please bring back the comic masterpieces and banish the publicity photos and be beloved once more!

On January 2, 2001, signs, sadly, appeared in the display windows of the store announcing a "Store Closing Sale." In the summer of 2002 the building was sheathed in construction netting and LVMH, the luxury goods conglomerate that owns Louis Vuitton, Moet champagne and many other famous brands, was planning to transform the building yet again.

New Louis Vuitton facade

New partial facade has gauze-like windows, some with huge projections

In February, 2004, the remodeled building open with much of its facade covered in a very pale blue-green glass with gauze-like styling. Some of the Fifth Avenue windows had large projection screens for a while.



The new facade covered the lower four floors of the building and most of the 57th Street corner. The new glossy partial facade was not as elegant as the building's original white marble and the contents of the stylish store were a far cry from Warner Bros. Store's wildness, and more in keeping with the block's high fashion presence. In most locations, this would be a most welcome addition, but for those young in heart the Warner Bros. Store will be sorely missed for its frolicksomeness. According to the Louis Vuitton website, "Its glass façade was designed by Jun Aoki. When night falls, sections of the façade light up, evoking a streetlamp in the fog. The interior was designed by the American architect Peter Marino. The store plays with shapes and verticality." (2/22/04)

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