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The History of 3 Midtown Neighbors
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THE writer Paul Goldberger has noted that an opening night pan may close a Broadway show, but that architectural criticism goes straight to the recycling bin.
That is certainly borne out by the Mutt and Jeff and Mutt triplet of buildings on the west side of Fifth Avenue from 48th to 49th Street.
One, a tepid modern skyscraper, is a designated city landmark; one a singular Art Deco cube, despised by Lewis Mumford but also a landmark; and, one, right in the middle, was highly praised in its time but is now just a piece of classical wreckage, ignored by all.
In 1924 the Childs restaurant chain hired the architect William Van Alen to design what The New York Times predicted would be “one of the finest buildings along Fifth Avenue in this section,” in the middle of the block at No. 604.
When the building was completed in 1925, International Studio magazine pronounced it “a veritable jewel-box” that appeared “at first blush to be entirely of rock crystal.” The writer was referring to the taut expanse of plate glass brought out flush to the chaste limestone facade, with Art Deco overtones. This streamlined character contrasts with the sophisticated classical stone carving in very low relief.
Mr. Van Alen, who a few years later designed the Chrysler Building, used the setback of an adjacent church on the south side to give Childs a fenestrational tour de force, six floors of curved corner windows free of corner columns. From an angle, a pedestrian could look right through the corner.
According to The New York Sun of Dec. 6, 1930, this was the first structure in the United States without corner columns. In a 1928 article in The Times on the modernism of Le Corbusier, the architect and theorist Catherine Bauer said the Childs Building had “caused more professional controversy than almost any other building in America.”
The Goelet family owned the north corner of the block at 49th Street, and in 1930 retained the engineer Edward Hall Faile, working with the architect Victor Hafner, to design a business building for the site. Completed in 1932, this arresting structure, in a sort of cubist Art Deco style, has a confusing crisscross pattern of green and white marble with aluminum trim. It is a curiosity that the Goelet Building, right next door to the innovative Childs, also has cantilevered windows — but only on the first two floors, to provide more retail display space.
Lewis Mumford, the architectural critic for The New Yorker, rarely dipped his pen in honey. He contemptuously called the Goelet design “an excellent period reproduction — Modernique, 1925,” considering the structure a backward-looking parody. On the other hand, Mr. Goldberger, in his 1979 guidebook “The City Observed: New York,” calls it “a marvel — New York’s real early modern gem.”
By the middle of the century, the concept of ornament on architecture was bugling retreat. In 1949 the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company built a 28-story office building, 600 Fifth Avenue, at the south end of the block. Perhaps because the company sought access to Rockefeller Center’s underground concourse, it chose as architects Carson & Lundin, who had designed some later buildings there.
The architects very roughly followed the pattern of the Rockefeller Center of the 1930s, vertical slabs of limestone flanking windows, and spandrel panels of the same material. But on the early Rockefeller Center buildings, the spandrel panels were chosen with obvious horizontal bedding, an ingenious contrast with the otherwise plain vertical piers. This is clearly seen on the adjacent building, the 1938 Time and Life Building at 1 Rockefeller Plaza. That also has the characteristic sumptuous sculptural program of heroic polychromed figure scenes; 600 Fifth Avenue is absolutely bare.
If a critic did review the exterior design of 600 Fifth at the time of construction, the account does not surface in a close review of the literature. Rockefeller Center bought 600 Fifth in 1963; the Landmarks Commission portrays it in its designation report as “the last addition to the Rockefeller Center complex.” The writer Carter Horsley, on his Web site thecityreview, gives what appears to be the only published critical evaluation of 600 Fifth: “very bland” with “no architectural or historical merit whatsoever.”
Notwithstanding its critical success, Mr. Van Alen’s Childs Building was completely ignored in the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s comprehensive “Midtown West Survey” of 1979. But the survey did include the flanking buildings on the block, 600 and 608, listing them in the highest category of significance.
Both 600 and 608 were heard for landmark status in 1983, and designated in 1985 and 1992 respectively; the former only because it had been acquired by Rockefeller Center, according to Mr. Horsley’s account, which adds “but then the city’s preservationists in recent decades have not been known for consistency.”
By comparison, the Childs structure is a prophet without honor, now occupied by the T. G. I. Friday’s chain, and painted in swimming-pool blue with circus-red trim. The grimy white and red-striped advertising awnings are a particularly cruel touch for a structure with the elegance of a Parisian dress shop.
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