(Northeast corner at 57th Street)

Developer: Arthur Brisbane

Architect: Emery Roth & Sons and Thomas Hastings

Erected: 1926

The Ritz Tower

By Carter B. Horsley

The city's most elegant apartment hotel, the Ritz, shown at the left, is best known for its rooftop finials, and as the former site of Le Pavillon, the famous and expensive French restaurant that for many years occupied most of its 57th Street retail frontage, but its real significance was in making an individualistic tower an acceptable residential building form and in creating setback terraces. When it was built, it nearly tripled the heights to which luxury apartment houses were then soaring.

With its prime location and classic formality, this 540-foot-high tower, furthermore, was a very, very dominant and prominent element of the midtown skyline when it was erected.

It was, in fact, a very major skyscraper in the city's history.

In her delightful book, "New York, New York," published in 1993 by Henry Holt and Company, Elizabeth Hawes wrote about architect Emery Roth:

"It was only in the 1920's, however, as buildings and spirits began to soar, that Roth could begin to express his intuitive attraction to height and let classicism bend to contemporary yearnings. Then, with a single building, the Ritz Tower on 57th Street and Park, he changed the direction of residential architecture.

The appearance of the Ritz in 1925 seemed like a symbolic event. It expressed what was in people's imagination, caught the Jazz Age in stone, and announced the beginning, at last, of the modern age. At forty-one stories, it was the first residential skyscraper in the city and the tallest such structure in the world. It looked like sheer verticality as it narrowed, like a telescope, up through its setbacks, to a tower in the clouds. It was a 'sky-puncture,' 'a flare,' the critics said, quite overcome, noting that 'even the 'professional' New Yorker, who has ceased to [be] awed by the wonders of the present age, stops to view and contemplate the actual arrival of the home five hundred feet high.'

The Ritz Tower was a residential hotel, managed by the Ritz Carlton Hotel Company, for the building code still restricted the height of even a setback apartment house. Yet the Ritz was as full-blown a response to the 1916 zoning law as [Hugh] Ferriss [the great architectural artist whose drawings of the New York metropolis where highly influential] might have orchestrated. Its verticality was insistent, exaggerated by corner ornament that drew the eye up from setback to setback to a finial on the roof, and there was active life up on the terraces and balconies and behind the tall windows of the towers. Arthur Brisbane, the popular Hearst editor and real estate developer who had commissioned the building from Roth, lived in baronial splendor in an eighteen-room duplex with a solarium and garden on the nineteenth and twentieth floors. He and all his vertical neighbors had unbroken views for twenty-five miles in four directions.

The Ritz Tower...dominated the skyline with its image and its ideas. It inspired a new generation of hotels and apartment hotels, and it effected a new attitude toward an aerial city, and an aerial home. Architects came to see it and to study it, for it established a precedent in high-rise construction. Penthouse and terrace apartments became fashionable and proliferated; style-conscious tenants staged parties on terraces and planted gardens in the air."

According to Robert A. M. Stern, Gregory Gilmartin and Thomas Mellins, the Ritz Tower "was intended from the beginning to be the apogee of urban living."

In their book, "New York 1930, Architecture and Urbanism Between the Two World Wars," published in 1987 by Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., they wrote that "Roth's first design called for a thirty-story building setting back at the nineteenth floor to culminate in a square tower containing duplex studio apartments with eighteen-foot-high ceilings, surmounted by a pyramidal roof atop which was to stand either the statue of Diana, then being removed from the soon-to-be-demolished Madison Square Garden, or a replica. Brisbane's own eighteen-room apartment on the nineteenth and twentieth floors was designed to include a 30-foot-wide by 62-foot-long by 24-foot-high living room with an organ gallery at one end. While the organization of Roth's scheme was ingenious, its massing was clumsy, with abrupt setback transitions. More important, the articulation of the facades was conventional and the building lacked not only a consistent image but a distinct sense of verticality."

"Apparently Brisbane sensed the inadequacy of the design, or perhaps Roth himself, for in the course of its development Thomas Hastings became a co-architect, although not every publication credited his contribution. Hastings, the surviving partner of the firm of Carrère & Hastings, was sixty-six years old, but continued to be reasonably active," the authors continued.

"Fiske Kimball praised the design extravagantly. 'The Ritz tower shoots upward like a slender arrow. On one of the most valuable sites in the world, its area has been voluntarily contracted immediately above the ground stories, with a preference for going high rather than spreading out. It is such works that have emboldened imagination to conceive a city with lance-like towers set in open plots of greenery. Such an extreme will doubtless never be attained, but it augurs that many new visions still lie hidden in the future'."

The three-story limestone base, shown below, is heavily rusticated and fined detailed, but the decision to setback the tower somewhat at the fourth story along the avenue is odd and should have been at the east end to avoid the awkward transition with the building just to the north on the avenue. (One of the preliminary schemes, in fact, was built full on the avenue, although it was stylistic far inferior to the final plan.)

Park Avenue base of tower

Apartment hotels were not subject to the same severe building restrictions as apartment buildings, especially with regard to lot coverage and height.

The apartments here had serving pantries rather than full kitchens, but had food service from the building's kitchens that was delivered in electrically heated dumbwaiters to their floors and delivered by hotel employees. Brisbane's apartment, however, was an exception and had a full kitchen as well as its own dedicated elevator from the lobby.

Originally, a tearoom opened off the hotel's long promenade from the entrance to the concierge desk and elevator lobby. The tearoom was designed as a Pompeian patio with walls painted with landscapes and a ceiling painted with a sunlit sky.

The hotel's main restaurant was next to the tearoom and was sumptuously decorated with tapestries and murals in a formal Louis XV style. According to Steve Ruttenbaum, the author of "Mansions in the Clouds," an excellent book on Emery Roth & Sons, published in 1986 by Balsam Press Inc.,

"Large mirrors and an antique tapestry were hung from the walls, and crystal and brass chandeliers lent an air of opulence. The most distinctive feature of the room was a series of ceiling murals painted by the Hungarian-born artist Willy Pogany. The mural in the center of the ceiling depicted the Ritz Tower itself rising like a rocket from the pavement with its uppermost obelisk piercing the heavens. At the foot of the structure sere heroically scaled male figures representing a stonemason and a farmer and, near the apex, cherubs with garlands floated in midair. Pogany was one of the era's most commercially successful artists, completing murals in many other New York hotels and theaters. In addition to being a painter, sculptor and illustrator, he was also a stage designer for Broadway productions and the Metropolitan Opera Company."

This restaurant space was demolished and replaced by Le Pavillon, which subsequently folded and was replaced by the Women's Bank of New York, which also folded. In the late 1990's, Borders, a bookstore opened a three-level store in the base of the building, which was a good addition for the neighborhood, but not so wonderful for such an elegant building.

Top of the RitzRuttenbaum notes that the rooftop obelisks, shown at the right, were originally all topped with gilded balls, now missing.

In a readers's questions column in The New York Times February 24, 2002, Christopher Gray wrote that Emery Roth's original plans for the tower called for a 18-story base to rise straight up from its building line on Park Avenue, but a hold-out on the corner forced a redesign that called for the three-story base that now exists. The owners leased the property but insisted on a provision that required that the new building have steelwork so that they could "insert a stairway or elevator should the new building 'revert to the landlord.'" The three-story section of the base thus could theoretically be "split off from the rest of the tower if necessary," Mr. Gray wrote.

Brisbane became a co-developer with William Randolph Hearst of the Ziegfield Theater and the Warwick Hotel on the West Side. Brisbane's success with the Ritz was short-lived as he was forced in 1928 to sell it to Hearst who moved into it with actress Marion Davies and lived then until 1938 when he defaulted on his mortgage payments, Ruttenbaum observed.

The full glory of the Ritz Tower is somewhat diminished now, but still very impressive. The very tall Galleria tower, a midblock, through-block, mixed-use project just to its east on the block, sought to minimize its impact on the Ritz Tower by placing its tower on 58th Street, but its proximity, nevertheless, imposes on the Ritz Tower.

The Ritz Tower clearly is a very significant building. Its skyline flèche, the obelisk atop its pyramidal cap, was a daring precursor to the Chrysler Building's famous spire, but in no way as memorable. It is, in fact, oddly distracting, especially if one conjures it topped with the original gilded ball, but perhaps that is only a personal distaste for Teutonic-style spiked helmets. It probably should be raised a bit, to what its height with the gilded ball would have been, sharpened and gilded.


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