(The Park Avenue Plaza office tower rises in the middle of the block bounded by 52nd and 53rd Streets, directly behind the club at 350 Park Avenue)

Architect: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (office tower); McKim Mead & White (club)

Developer: Fisher Brothers (tower); private club (club)

Erected: 1981 (tower); 1916 (club)

Racquet & Tennis Club on Park Avenue with midblock Park Avenue Plaza tower behind it

By Carter B. Horsley

The controversial development of a major skyscraper behind one of the city's most prestigious private clubs was a fascinating example of historic preservation.

The 15-sided, 44-story office tower pays homage to its neighbor across 53rd Street, Lever House (see The City Review article), designed by the same architectural firm, in its use of a green-glass facade, but its real claim to fame is the daring game of "one-upmanship" that it engaged in with its prominent neighbor to the east, the exclusive Racquet & Tennis Club.

The Fisher Brothers, one of seven legendary building families that reshaped the Manhattan skyline in the first three decades after World War 11, were one of the city's most successful developers. They had entered negotiations with the club to purchase its unused air rights, but balked at the price the club wanted.

After several years of negotiations, the Fishers halted the talks when the office of the Borough President granted them a "Park Avenue Plaza" address for their midblock site, Such gifts from heaven actually rained with incredible regularity from Borough Presidents despite the complete mockery it made of logic and rational planning, to say nothing of ethics in a city where real estate is not unimportant.

The Fisher cause was also aided by the introduction at that time of special public galleria legislation that would give it more than 200,000 square feet, or about 10 extra office floors, as a bonus for building a 60-foot-wide galleria.

The club, which claimed to be economically hurting, was not amused. With the granting of a Park Avenue address to the proposed new tower, it stood to left in the cold and out a few million dollars for their endowment, or whatever.

In a brilliant stroke of genius, it "announced" plans to build a 38-story luxury hotel above its famous clubhouse. The proposed hotel would not alter the Park Avenue facade of the clubhouse as it would be contained in a tower setback with part of its foundations rising from a driveway behind the club.

The "announcement," in fact, was a phone call to me. I was then a real estate news reporter at The New York Times, but belonged to no clubs on journalistic, but not The New York Times, principles. The call was from Jonathan Morse of Morse Harvey Architects. He was a member of the club, and a total stranger to me. I agreed to meet him when he told me of the club's plan, which would, if carried to fruition, block most of the Park Avenue views, the most desirable and the most expensive, in the proposed Fisher tower.

I had serious doubts, as many have had since, about the feasibility and legitimacy of Morse's, and the club's, plan. I told him I could not in good conscience write such a story, which was certainly a "big" story, until I saw blueprints and was convinced that the club was officially endorsing the plan and actually saw where the new hotel's columns would penetrate the club's interiors.

A few weeks passed. The club's membership voted to approve the plan, which I was told about in person by the club's president, Oakleigh Thorne, and I carefully scrutinized the plans and inspected the premises, with which I was already familiar.

The club presented its plans to the City Planning Commission and a club vice president assured me that the project was "economically feasible and would fulfill our requirement of permitting the club to stay where it is for the foreseeable future."

There was never any question in my mind that if the hotel could be built, it would be extremely successful because of its super prime location overlooking the Seagram Building (see The City Review article) at what was then the center of the international corporate world.

A few days later I found a strange man was sitting at my desk. He said he was Zachary Fisher and had happened to be in the building to see his good friend, Sydney Gruson, the paper's vice chairman. I said that was nice and that I was delighted to meet him and that I had been trying to reach his organization to get a comment about the club's plans for the story I was writing about the project for the next day's paper. He suggested that the proposal was merely a sham and not worth reporting. I explained that we planned to run the story and would appreciate a comment. He continued to belittle the proposal and to try to convince me that it was silly. I told him that I was on deadline and needed to seat at my desk and computer to start to write the story. He finally left after saying he did not think the plan was feasible and I wrote a story for the daily paper that appeared the next day. It got pushed off the front page by the announcement of the new A. T. & T. tower designed in Post-Modem style by Johnson/Burgee.

The club had not yet been designated an official city landmark by the time my story appeared March 31, 1978. (It was designated a city landmark, May 8, 1979.)

In my article, I quoted the always quotable Philip Johnson who described the club's proposal as "amazing, in the fun-and-games department," adding that it would not be "helpful to the McKim, Mead & White design," but was "inevitable," and adding further with no little sarcasm the question, "Won't it hurt the Fisher Building"

The Fishers had been scheduled for a public hearing on their project before the City Planning Commission April 12, only 12 days after my story appeared.

The Fishers and the club proceeded quickly then to come to terms with the club emerging several million dollars richer and the Fishers getting its air rights.

The clubhouse was the club's third in Manhattan. For many years, much of the club's ground floor space in the building had been leased to commercial tenants. The second floor contained a handsome lounge at the top of the stairs fronting on the club's open loggia overlooking the plaza of the Seagram Building across the avenue as well as a dining room and bar to the north and a billiard room and a card room to the south. The top floor, the third, contained some squash courts, lockers and the club's pride, two indoor court tennis courts. "Court tennis' originated in France when the game was played in streets and players were permitted to ricochet shots off the walls and low roofs of the surrounding buildings.

While attractive, none of the interiors of the club were exceptional. Indeed, they are rather prosaic prosaic and conventional and not lavish except in volume and location.

The Fishers erected their handsome tower and one of their major tenants, the First Boston Corporation, was later thrilled to make a major profit on subleasing part of its space in the very striking and forceful tower.

It is interesting to contrast this tower with the one erected by Harry B. Helmsley over the rear of the landmark Villard Houses nearby on Madison Avenue between 50th and 5lst Streets (see The City Review article). There, the bland, dark brown box designed by Emery Roth Sons is a drab backdrop for the very stately landmark townhouses.

Here, a very good-looking tower of unusual form and excellent detailing stands proudly and independently behind the not very distinguished architecture of the club.

Although the club was designed by the city's most distinguished molders of impressive and elegant Beaux Arts aesthetics, the club facility is notable primarily for its rustication and loggia on Park Avenue, but not for its detailing or luxurious appointments.

In "New York 1900 Metropolitan Architecture and Urbanism 1890-1915," published in 1983 by Rizzoli, authors Robert A. M. Stern, Gregory Gilmartin and Thomas Mellins put it succinctly:

"The last club in the palazzo tradition by McKim, Mead & White was the new Racquet & Tennis Club on Park Avenue, designed by the office in 1916, after McKim and White, were dead and Mead had retired. It reflected the severity of the Palazzo Antinori in Florence, but the clubhouse was nevertheless a somewhat tired design done under the supervision of W. S. Richardson best known for his fine business sense."

The club obviously learned a few lessons from Richardson.

Lobby of Park Avenue Plaza

The through-block arcade of the Park Avenue Plaza is one of the best in the city and one of the few that really deserves the substantial zoning bonus awarded to builders who provided such public amenities. It is very bright and has a large skylit waterfall with attractive seating and a stunning stainless steel food kiosk, extensive landscaped, very attractive escalators to the office lobby, shown above, on the open, angled second floor, and a very handsome retail arcade with bay windows.

The tower's plan created more corner offices and a livelier form and is the best building erected by the Fisher Brothers. Indeed, it is one of the very best skyscrapers to have been built in the city after World War II.

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