New York City Guide: FIFTH AVENUE SHOPPING DISTRICT
At Thirty-fourth Street, Fifth Avenue abruptly emerges from a street of buildings housing wholesale clothing, textile, and bric-a-brac concerns to become the aristocrat of shopping thoroughfares. Some of New York's most exclusive hotels and clubs and fashionable churches as well as many nationally known retail establishments front its broad sidewalks. The top of a Fifth Avenue bus provides one of the best views of the avenue, with its endless flow of well-dressed pedestrians and its conglomeration of architectural styles and signless show windows.
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century Fifth Avenue was a street of fine residences. Its transformation into a retail center in the 1900's aroused such opposition that echoes of protest are still audible. One of those mainly responsible for the invasion of trade was Benjamin Altman, whose store stands on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street, diagonally opposite the Empire State Building. Like many merchant princes who elevated counter trade to a major business, Altman originally opened shop in modest quarters on Third Avenue near Tenth Street and moved on as the flood of population swept gradually northward; in 1906 he came to the present address. Opposite stood the old WaldorfAstoria Hotel (the site of the Empire State Building); to the north marched a double file of baronial homes, citadels of the social peerage.
In order to appease protesting residents, Altman erected a building whose mundane function was decorously hidden by a façade resembling a Florentine palace; until recently not even the owner's name appeared on the exterior. As commerce -- having thus crept in disguise into the avenue -- appropriated most of the district, residents moved farther up the avenue.
Within about a decade ALTMAN'S was joined by OPPENHEIM COLLINS ( 1907) and MCCREERY'S ( 1913), both on West Thirty-fourth Street, and BEST AND COMPANY ( 1910), Fifth Avenue and Thirty-fifth Street. Charles Tiffany commissioned McKim, Mead, and White to build his great jewelry store at 409 Fifth Avenue in the style of the Palazzo Vendramini in Venice, while opposite, at Thirty-sixth Street, rose another palatial shop -- designed by the same architects -- for the Gorham Company, silversmiths, jewelers, and stationers. The latter building is now occupied by RUSSEKS (women's apparel). The construction of LORD AND TAYLOR in 1914 at Thirty-eighth Street marked a break with tradition ( Starrett and Van Vleck were the architects); the avenue now had a building that was frankly commercial as well as dignified. Many of the smaller stores, eclipsed as show places by the graceful candor of the Lord and Taylor edifice, hastily incorporated large display windows and arched entrances. When FRANKLIN SIMON'S ( 1922) arose at Thirty-eighth Street, a new trend in department store architecture, which was to exert considerable influence on American main streets, was definitely established.
About the time of the World War I, Fifth Avenue became the country's leading fashion center: the Fifth Avenue label represented the best in American taste. Real-estate values and rents on the avenue reached astronomical figures, and under merciless competition only the wealthiest and most firmly entrenched establishments survived. The avenue catered exclusively to the wealthy until the 1930's, when medium- and low-price stores gradually appeared. The Fifth Avenue hallmark, however, has lost little of its aura.
Symbolic of the newer trend is the granite-faced home (opened in 1935) of S. H. KRESS AND COMPANY, at the northwest corner of Thirty-ninth Street, which boldly faces the terra-cotta edifice of its competitor, F. W. WOOLWORTH AND COMPANY ( 1939). The simple lines of these buildings, two of the most sumptuous dime stores in America, undoubtedly will influence future fronts along the avenue. At the southeast corner of Fortieth Street is the store of ARNOLD CONSTABLE AND COMPANY, an organization founded in 1825.
From Fortieth to Forty-second Street, on the west side of Fifth Avenue, where the Croton Reservoir was once located, is the Central Building of the New York Public Library. Behind it are the 9.603 acres of BRYANT PARK, the site from 1822 to 1825 of Potter's Field, and of the 1853 World's Fair. The huge Crystal Palace (an inferior copy of the London structure), which dominated that fair, was gutted by fire in 1856. In 1871 the land, which had been acquired by the city in 1822, was reserved for a park and called Reservoir Park. Thirteen years later it was renamed for the New York editor and poet, William Cullen Bryant, but not until 1933, after the park had been torn up many times, was the present landscape plan adopted. One of its interesting features is the library's outdoor "reading room," maintained in summer under the trees.
Across West Fortieth Street, at No. 40, are the black and gold peaks of the AMERICAN RADIATOR BUILDING. The structure, designed by Raymond Hood and built in 1924, was an early attempt to clothe a skyscraper in bold colors. The unusual tower design of the building permits window light on all sides, the tall shaft merging at the top into a complexity of setback forms. The NATIONAL REPUBLICAN CLUB and the ENGINEERS' CLUB have quarters at 54 and 32 West Fortieth Street, respectively. Around the block, at 1 West Thirty-ninth Street, is the gown shop of LANE BRYANT, INC., noted for its maternity-clothing department; the ENGINEERING SOCIETIES BUILDING, with its library and auditorium, is at No. 29.
At the intersection of Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue stands the 699-foot building known as 500 FIFTH AVENUE, designed by Shreve, Lamb, and Harmon, architects of the Empire State Building. The architecture of the RUPPERT BUILDING, 535 Fifth Avenue, was the cause of a publicized controversy. H. Craig Severance, its designer, sued the New Yorker for stating that "the central tower . . . has the grace of an overgrown grain elevator." The suit was settled by publication of a satisfactory retraction. Nevertheless for about a decade it put a damper on architectural criticism. In retrospect the magazine's comments seem more unusual than the design of the building. The FIFTH AVENUE BANK on the northwest corner is an interesting landmark made of three brownstone residences. The bank has occupied the premises since 1890.
The thirty-eight-story FRENCH BUILDING, 551 Fifth Avenue, was erected in 1927 by the Fred F. French Company, who were also the architects. The use of the maximum volume permitted by setback laws resulted in an awkward massing of the tower in comparison with the lower part of the building. An unusual element in the design is the somewhat questionable faïence polychromy.
The building at 575 Fifth Avenue is occupied by the firm of W. AND J. SLOANE, a furniture house of note. The FINLEY J. SHEPARD RESIDENCE at the northeast corner of Forty-seventh Street, and the HOME OF ROBERT W. GOELET at the southeast corner of Forty-eighth, brownstone houses typical of the old Fifth Avenue, are two of the very few remaining residences on Fifth Avenue south of Sixtieth Street. Opposite the Goelet home is the nationally known jewelry establishment of BLACK, STARR, AND FROST-GORHAM, INC.
The brownstone edifice on the northwest corner of Forty-eighth Street houses the COLLEGIATE CHURCH OF ST. NICHOLAS, the oldest congregation in Manhattan, dating from 1628. Theodore Roosevelt was a member of this church, and his pew is marked by a tablet. The first Collegiate church to bear the name St. Nicholas was built in 1642 inside Fort Amsterdam. The present building, erected in 1872, was designed by W. Wheeler Smith. The dark silhouette of its sharp spire is in dramatic contrast to the flat gray walls of the massive RCA Building in Rockefeller Center beyond.
SAKS FIFTH AVENUE, Forty-ninth to Fiftieth Street, was the first of the larger stores to be built on the upper avenue. Saks, Bergdorf-Goodman, Bonwit Teller, and a few other avenue shops are widely known for their striking window displays, mounted with the care of a Belasco stage-set. Rockefeller Center, across the street, supplies an effect of rare architectural unity to this section of the avenue. In the RCA Building of the Center is the popular New York Museum of Science and Industry.
Across the street, Fiftieth to Fifty-first Street, the needle-pointed Gothic towers of St. Patrick's Cathedral rise 330 feet above the surging traffic of the avenue. Two blocks away, on the northwest corner of Fifty-third Street, stands ST. THOMAS CHURCH (Protestant Episcopal), founded in 1823. The present edifice, the work of Cram, Goodhue, and Ferguson, was completed in 1913, and replaces one on the same site destroyed by fire in 1905. The symmetrical main portal appears to call for twin towers, although the building has but one. Consequently the structure lacks the sense of balance of a frankly unsymmetrical design. The interior, of soft yellow sandstone, has great distinction. The beautifully ordered mass of statuary in the great reredos over the altar is the work of Lee Lawrie; and the delicate wood carvings on the pulpit, choir stalls, lectern, and organ case, representing both historical and contemporary subjects, were executed under the supervision of the late Bertram G. Goodhue.
For several generations St. Thomas Church has been noted for its fashionable weddings, and in the ornamental work above the Bride's Door -the entrance to the south of the main portal -- the sculptor chiseled a dollar sign next to a "true-lover's-knot," a comment that has been left unmolested. From St. Thomas, as from the other churches in the neighborhood, come the worshippers who form the Fifth Avenue Easter parade, an event that has attracted thousands of sight-seers since the days of bonnets and bustles. Directly behind the church is the new home of the Museum of Modern Art, II West Fifty-third Street.
Another great city house of the 1880's surviving in this neighborhood is the brownstone RESIDENCE OF CORNELIUS VANDERBILT III, near the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Fifty-first Street. Adjoining it on the north was a more famous dwelling -- designed by Richard M. Hunt -which was razed in 1926. Both were built by W. H. Vanderbilt, and were known as the "twin mansions." The former home of the patrician Union Club on the northeast corner of Fifty-first Street now houses the GRAND CENTRAL GALLERIES, sponsors of the more academic tradition in American art. (Open weekdays 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; admission free.
The building occupied by the UNIVERSITY CLUB, northwest corner of Fifty-fourth Street, was completed in 1900, the work of McKim, Mead, and White. Reminiscent of a fifteenth-century Italian palazzo, it is one of the handsomest structures on the avenue. Decorating the exterior are eighteen college shields carved in marble. The interior has colorful Renaissance frescoes, and murals by H. Siddons Mowbray.
The HOTEL ST. REGIS on the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and Fifty-fifth Street, and the GOTHAM HOTEL on the southwest corner, are the first of the group of luxurious hotels clustering around the southern end of Central Park and the Grand Army Plaza. Both were built at the beginning of the century. In the bar of the St. Regis is Maxfield Parrish's well-known painting, Old King Cole. The Gotham has for years been popular with foreign (particularly English) visitors, and is notable for its cuisine. The press of the expanding Fifth Avenue shopping trade is evident in the installation of stores on its Fifth Avenue abutment, space formerly occupied by a large dining room.
ELIZABETH ARDEN'S at No. 691 and HELENA RUBINSTEIN'S at No. 715, are among the most luxurious beauty salons in the country. The façades exemplify the current trend toward simplicity in retail shop design.
Two of America's best-known jewelry firms are CARTIER'S at the southeast corner of Fifty-second and MARCUS AND COMPANY at No. 681. These establishments, together with Black, Starr, and Frost-Gorham, carry on the avenue's luxury-trade tradition that was started by Tiffany.
On the southwest corner of Fifty-sixth Street, fine crystal ware is displayed in the five-story HOME OF THE STEUBEN GLASS COMPANY, a division of Corning Glass Works. The building, designed by John Gates, has walls chiefly built of glass bricks. The BONWIT TELLER store, dealing exclusively in women's apparel, on the northeast corner of Fifty-sixth Street, has the distinction of being headed by a woman, Mrs. Hortense Odlum. Another fashionable store is Bergdorf-Goodman, on the southwest corner of Fifty-eighth Street.
Source: New York City Guide: A Comprehensive Guide to the Five Boroughs of the Metropolis Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Richmond