There are some really fine building lobbies in Manhattan, almost all of them dating to the ’30s at the latest, and this is one of the best.
The architects used Babylonian motifs, visible here in the barrel-vaulted ceiling of the lobby and portal as well as in the bronze panels and moldings.
The Fred F. French Building (551 Fifth Avenue) is one of the less-well-known Art Deco skyscrapers in New York City. And that’s a shame, because it’s one of the better designs of that era.
I’ll have more photos and more to say about this building, but for now, I want to introduce you to its exuberant 5th Avenue entrance.
In designing the impressive bronze portal, the architects clearly had the Ishtar Gate of ancient Babylon in mind. Ishtar Gate was built during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562 BC.) The Gate, a marvel of its time, announced to anyone approaching it that he had come to the greatest city of its day.
Perhaps Mr. French’s architects were saying the same thing about Babylon-on-the-Hudson?
Like E. 42nd, 57th Street is a good place to wander if you’re looking for nice architecture. I’d been meaning for some time to go there to photograph the Gordon Bunshaft ski-slope skyscraper at 9 West (aka Solow Building,) and I finally made it last Saturday before the first of my photo tours for the weekend.
What I had in mind set on was some images with the giant red “9″ in the foreground, but what I found instead is this fun-house-mirror view of the former Chickering Hall, a Sullivenesque building at 29 W. 57th, reflected in 9 West.
Chickering Hall was built in 1924 for American Piano Company, which also held controlling interests three other piano builders, Knabe, Chickering, and Mason & Hamlin. The architects, Cross & Cross, designed the facade with gilded spandrels and placed gilded caryatids, female musicians playing lyre and pipes, around the crown. Best of all, there are large representations of the “Cross of the Legion of Honor” on all four sides of the mechanical penthouse. Besides being decorative, the penthouse hides elevator machinery and the water tower. The medal was awarded to Chickering at the 1867 Exposition universelle d’Art et d’industrie in Paris.
9 W. 57th, the “reflector” in this photo, is a 50-story building of 1974 vintage. A design by Gordon Bunschaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, it’s most distinguishing feature is the concave vertical slope of its north and south facades. Bunshaft used the concavity to comply with zoning regulations instead of using the more typical approaches of “wedding cake” setbacks, or of International-style slabs that only take up a fraction of the ground plan. Bunshaft’s original facade treatment for 9 West, with piers and spandrels of white travertine, was rejected by uber-developer Sheldon Solow; Bunshaft then sold the developers of the W.R. Grace Building that exact design, and later came back to Solow with the nearly all-glass facade you see today. Under the skin, these two buildings are structurally near-twins.
Cross & Cross went on to design several other significant buildings in Manhattan, including 20 Exchange Place and the former General Electric Building at 570 Lexington Avenue. That last one is my second-favorite building in the world, but that story is for another time.