THE CARTIER BUILDING
(formerly the Morton F. Plant
651 FIFTH AVENUE
Architect: Robert W. Gibson
and C. P. H. Gilbert (townhouse); William Welles Bosworth (store
Developer: Morton F. Plant
Erected: 1905 (townhouse);
1917 (store conversion)
By Carter B. Horsley
last remaining truly elegant mansion building in midtown, apart
from the Villard Houses on Madison Avenue that was a complex of
6 residences with relatively plain facades, Cartier's is the jewel
of Fifth Avenue.
For many years, it has wrapped
itself with large red ribbons and festooned its balconies with
large toy soldiers as seen in the photo above left, circa 1998.
In November, 2003. it replaced the toy soldiers with three fabulously
amusing and beautiful diamond-like panthers, one on its sidestreet
balcony, one crawling up its corner at Fifth Avenue and one lounging
imperiously atop its cornice on the avenue, as shown above right.
The exquisite detailing and
proportions of this six-story, marble and granite, neo-Italian
Renaissance-style palazzo are peerless and the transformation
from residential to commercial use was minimal, involving the
creation of an entrance on Fifth Avenue, the placement of a superbly
sculpted clock on the Fifth Avenue facade, and storefront windows,
designed impeccably to not mar the building's very fine ambiance.
The paneling on the first floor is original.
The original owner, Morton
F. Plant, was a well-known and successful banker, yachtsman and
owner of baseball teams who had purchased the property from William
K. Vanderbilt whose own mansion was diagonally across Fifth Avenue
from this site. Vanderbilt sold the property with the provision
that it not be used for commercial purposes for at least 25 years.
Plant, however, disliked the rapid commercial redevelopment of
his Fifth Avenue neighborhood and decided to move uptown to a
new townhouse on the northeast corner of the avenue and 86th Street.
He was able to arrange the "premature" transaction with
Vanderbilt and Cartier's, which reportedly exchanged a valuable
pearl necklace for the property.
The building's original entrance
on the sidestreet was magnificently set off by an ornate balcony
and two-story-high Doric pilasters rising to "support"
a low-pitched pediment beneath the intricately carved frieze with
deeply inset "four square" windows beneath the very
At the Christmas holiday season,
Cartier wraps this magnificent building in a very large red, bow-tied
ribbon, a joyous, inspired adornment that puts to shame the puerile
"coverings" that Christo calls art. It would be amusing
and nice if Tiffany's, famed mostly for its delightful blue boxes
with white ribbons, would follow suit and wrap its far less important
building with a large white ribbon. But then, of course, Gimbel's
did not want to talk to Macy's.
Some indication of how wonderful
the Cartier building is can be seen by comparing it with its immediate
neighbor to the south on Fifth Avenue, the quite plain and bland
Olympic Airways Building that was formerly the George W. Vanderbilt
mansion at 647 Fifth Avenue, which was built in the same year
as the Cartier building and designed by Hunt & Hunt. Aristotle
Socrates Onassis, the shipowner who also owned the airline and
was the co-developer of Olympic Tower on the same block, kept
an office at 647 Fifth Avenue. In 1997, however, the Olympic building
was taken over and restored and refurbished by a fashion designer
quite attractively as can be seen at the right in the photograph
at the top of this article.