717 Fifth Avenue

(S.E. comer at 56th Street)

Developer: Corning Glass Works

Architect: Harrison, Abramovitz & Abbe

Erected: 1959

By Carter B. Horsley

Lever House-like facade of Corning Glass Building at 717 Fifth AvenueThis 26-story tower, shown at the left, is an offspring of Lever House (see The City Review article) and the Seagram Building (see The City Review article), borrowing the green-glass facade of the former and the slab tower and plaza of the latter, both well but not brilliantly done.

Yet so strong are its stylistic idols that this is a pleasant, clean-cut addition to Fifth Avenue. Its modest scale and rather small and discrete plaza brought modern architectural design to the upper part of midtown Fifth Avenue. The ground-floor Steuben Glass showroom, in fact, did much to reinforce the elegance of its prime site across 56th Street then from the Bonwit Teller store that was subsequently replaced by Trump Tower.

The building's mid-block lobby extends through to 55th Street and two years after the tower was opened the city passed a major revision of the city's Zoning Resolution, which actually encouraged plazas because of the widespread praise of the large one at the Seagram Building. Several years later, however, the city amended its zoning to create a special district for Fifth Avenue that prohibits plazas in an effort to maintain the streetwall integrity of the avenue, which, of course, was severely compromised by the General Motors Building that was completed in 1968 two blocks to the north.

With its two free-standing flagpoles and shallow fountain surrounding by a seating bench, this building's plaza was making good urban design gestures by continuing the avenue's great banner tradition and by providing public outdoor seating in a congested area.

The slab tower, which is setback behind a low-rise base on 56th Street, which itself is setback considerably from the avenue, now serves as a pleasant foil to the bronze-glass Trump Tower.

The only really special feature of the building is its large concave show window on the avenue that has always highlighted Steuben's crystal showpieces. In late 1998, Steuben indicated it was considering relocation, which would be a shame as its store was one of major contributors to the avenue's continued reputation for elegance. In early 1999, press reports indicated that Steuben was planned to relocate to Madison Avenue and take over space that had been briefly occupied by Shanghai Tang in the midst of a stretch dominated by famous glasswares concerns.

The concave window greatly reduces reflections for windowshoppers, a simple, though expensive, solution that sadly has not been imitated. The deep recess of the window, of course, sacrifices valuable retail space, but this was an institutional installation completed back in the dark ages when banks and tourist offices were beginning to proliferate on the avenue, much to the chagrin of the city's planners who sought to discourage them in their special zoning district for the avenue only to discover they were mostly replaced by very tacky tourist traps with crowded windows, sale signs and a lack of elegance. At least the banks and the tourist offices tended to spend a lot of money on nice materials and their design was usually quite good, if not inspired. Corning and Steuben have been good neighbors on the avenue for a long time.

In the 1990's, the building's large lobby was redone very handsomely and in 2000 Steuben moved out and Boss, a fashion concern, took over its space. The new Boss space, however, filled in much of the handsome plaza and while the two-story space is not unattractive it should not have been allowed.

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