57th Street

By Carter B. Horsley

The city's grandest major cross-town thoroughfare, 57th Street is perhaps the street that best represents New York City, running the gamut from glamour to ghastly.

There are super luxury residences at Sutton Place on the far east end and tenements on the far west side. It contains the headquarters of Channel 13, New York's Public Broadcasting Station, and the Warner Bros. Design Store. It hosts Carnegie Hall and the Art Students League and Steinway Piano's and The Economist as well as Ford Automobile Showrooms, the Hard Rock Cafe, Planet Hollywood, the Bat Bar and McDonald's. It has Tiffany's and tourist traps.

Looking west on 57th Street at Christmas time from east of Fifth Avenue

Architecturally, it has the glorious gilded chimney of the Crown Building, shown above, at Fifth Avenue (see The City Review article), the marvelous Art Deco style of the Fuller Building on Madison Avenue caddycorner from the sleek cantilevered dark green former IBM office tower (shown below), the sleek slope of 9 West 57th Street ane the flèche-topped Ritz Tower (see The City Review article) on the plus side.

57th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues.  Angled tower is former IBM Building

But it also has the uninspired blandness of the reflective-glass facade of the Greenwich Savings Bank Building on Third Avenue and quite a few white-brick monstrosities such as the Excelsior apartment tower at Second Avenue.

It has grown in fits and spurts and had more than its shares of ups and downs. The Osborne cooperative apartment building was one of the city's first luxury apartment buildings, but it has lost its cornice and is surrounded by an eclectic and not always inspired group of modern apartment buildings.

Some of the most famous names in retailing have made the street their home, such as Bonwit Teller and Galleries Lafayette, only to close while other boutique buildings seem to change every few months. Bonwit Teller moved off Fifth Avenue to make way for Trump Tower (see The City Review article) and into a very handsome dark red polished granite between Tiffany's and the former IBM Building. After only a few years, however, it closed and Galleries Lafayette, the famous French store, moved into the same building, only to fail after only a few years. In 1996, Nike demolished the very handsome low-rise building to erect its own new Nike Town. The only conceiveable reason for tearing down the old building would appear to be a desire to keep up with the construction Jones on the north side of this street between Fifth and Madison Avenues where Chanel erected a nice, but very bland and restrained mid-rise tower in 1996 when construction also began on a new tower for Louis Vuitton, the luggage maker.

Dior and LVMH tops

LHMV Tower's top across from IBM Building

The narrow, 23-story Vuitton tower, shown above, was designed by Christian de Portzamparc, the well-known French architect, in association with the New York architectural firm of Hiller/Eggers and was very favorably anticipated by many members of the New York architectural press, who were impressed with its use of unusual glazing and slightly off-beat, off-center facade. The Vuitton Building, however, ran into major construction delays and did not open until December, 1999. It is an interesting but minor building severely limited by the city's rigid zoning regulations. Its angularity and unusual colors, however, were most welcome.

For many years, 57th Street had the city's most important art galleries and then Sotheby's opened up on Madison Avenue at 76th Street and many dealers followed to the Upper East Side (only to be later abandoned by Sotheby's, which built a very ugly, unartistic and undistinguished loft-type ugly building on York Avenue and 72nd Street that spurred a residential renaissance of a once rather drab area).

Carnegie Hall and its very tall office tower at right at Seventh Avenue

Tall building in distance is Metropolitan Tower57th Street still has many important art galleries, especially in the great Fuller Building on the northeast comer of Madison Avenue, but it began to emerge from the doldrums in the early 1980's when two major mini building booms gave it two spectacular new anchor points: the IBM building (see The City Review article) with adjacent Sony building (see The City Review article) at Madison Avenue and the Carnegie Hall and Metropolitan towers (the former shown above and the latter shown in the distance in the photograph at the left) with adjacent CitySpire at Seventh Avenue. The former has been greatly reinforced by the new and impressive Four Seasons Hotel between Madison and Park Avenues and the latter enclave has been made more lively by the proliferation of youth-oriented entertainment and retailing on the street as exemplified by the Hard Rock, shown at the upper left on the previous page, and Planet Hollywood Cafes and the Bat Bar and the nearby Harley Davidson Cafe and the Jekyll and Hyde Club, both on the Avenue of the Americas.

Indeed, it would appear that the Warner Bros. Design Store (see The City Review article), which launched a major expansion in 1996, has been the most dominant influence on the street, indeed, almost in midtown in the mid-90's, demonstrating that entertainment/theme-oriented retail can thrive very well in the heart of a city. Warner Bros. did it right, but imitator Disney botched up its version a few blocks south on Fifth Avenue (see The City Review article), so quality humor, innovation and imagination do count.

In addition to such older, great buildings at the Crown and Fuller and the elegant Ritz Tower on Park Avenue, 57th Street has numerous other buildings of note such as the sloping and controversial but supremely slick office tower at 9 West 57th Street and the ungainly but very impressive and innovative Galleria and the adjacent concave office building at 115 and 135 East 57th Street, respectively, both built by the same developer, Madison Equities, and the very elegant double-height studio apartment building at 322 East 57th Street, one of the most prestigious residential buildings in the city. The street's eastern terminus at Sutton Place is one of the world's most desirable residential enclaves including two driveway co-ops at 1 and 2 Sutton Place and the block of townhouses sharing a very large communal garden overlooking the Fast River between 57th and 58th Street.

The stretch from First to Lexington Avenue still leaves much to be desired in terms of elegance as does the area west of Ninth Avenue.

Traffic in midtown can be a problem as the intersection at Fifth Avenue is universally regarded as the center of the world 'in the latter quarter of the 20th Century and approaches to the Queensborough Bridge create rush-hour havoc further east.

As elegant as its heart is, 57th Street in central midtown is burdened with tourists and office workers and never quite assumes the stylish, casual sauntering ambiance of Madison Avenue window-shoppers on the Upper East Side on Saturdays.

In any other city, 57th Street would be not only the Main Street, but the very heart.

Some interesting West 57th Street rooftops

Some interesting rooftops on West 57th Street

Before World War II, Times Square was the center of the world. After World War II, 57th Street and Fifth Avenue became the center of the world. The new Times Square emerging in the late 90's, happily, is making it a contest again, though it is unlikely to recapture the title as 57th Street still has class--and less congestion.

Apart from its many famous buildings, 57th Street is blessed with many other very interesting and handsome buildings. It is far from perfect. There are still bargain stores and too expensive delis and some pretty unattractive buildings.

But thanks to the tourist-oriented renaissance of the 90's, it has been rejuvenated and is very lively.

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