Monday, July 8, 2019

Then and Now: Park at 56th Street, NYC

Park Avenue at 56th Street, Manhattan

Park Avenue at 56th Street, NYC,
Park Avenue at 56th Street, Manhattan, 1982.
Park Avenue has changed a lot over the years even though it sometimes doesn't seem like it. When I saw the photo above from 1982, it looked pretty standard, as if it could have been taken last week. However, some key features of this photo have changed and are in the process of changing, so I decided to see what the same scene looks like now. Fortunately, the street number on the building at the left is very prominent, so this was an easy location to pinpoint. This is a comparison of Park Avenue at 56th Street from 1982 to 2018.

Park Avenue at 56th Street, NYC,
Park Avenue at 56th Street in August 2018 (Google Street View).
Well, some things are changing on Park Avenue. The large building on the left, 425 Park Avenue, is in the midst of a major reconstruction as of mid-2019. The building seen in the 1982 photo was built in the 1950s and reflected all of the worst design aesthetics of that era: monotony, uniformity, and drabness. It was a generic office building which in 1982 housed, among other large professional businesses, the Finley, Kumble law firm. It had its litigation department on the second floor and real estate and other departments on the 7th floor and some other high floors. It was a favored law firm of Donald Trump and was the firm that won/lost him the USFL case in the 1980s (the USFL "won" $1, but that meant the NFL had to pay it $10 million in the USFL's legal fees). The law firm was one of the first massive, multi-state law firms which later became standard, but Finley, Kumble dissolved in bitter acrimony about five years after that photo.

Park Avenue at 56th Street, NYC,
425 Park Avenue in August 2018 (Google Street View).
The "new" 425 Park Avenue looks like a completely new building. It certainly has little in common with the old one. However, appearances can be deceiving. The core of the old building remains. The quirks of New York City zoning laws have impacted the design, requiring the new building to have the same square footage as the old building. The new building will have two restaurants, which is somewhat curious since the venerable Four Seasons and some other nearby top restaurants have found the current environment difficult and recently have gone out of business. Rather than the drab box of the former 425 Park Avenue, this one will have some originality in its exterior that harkens back to the great structures of the early 20th Century which continue to give the city character and individuality. The wheel turns, and sometimes it turns back in its original direction.

Park Avenue at 56th Street, NYC,
430 Park Avenue, NYC, August 2018 (Google Street View).
Also just barely visible in the 1982 photo is the building on the right. It is 430 Park Avenue, notable for its unusual green exterior. Its appearance and even its very existence have a lot to do with how zoning laws work in Manhattan. It was built in 1916 as the "Avenue Apartments" by famed architects Warren and Wetmore and drastically reconstructed in 1953, around the same time that 425 went up in the 1950s. It was renovated in 2001/2002. It is very boxy because it was grandfathered in under old zoning laws that did not require setbacks. That's why these reconstructions usually retain the inner core of old buildings when it might be cheaper and more efficient to just raze the whole thing and start over. Because the original building was built in the 1920s, the current building can tower over Park Avenue in a way that new construction cannot. It also has high ceilings due to its history as a pre-war apartment building, 12'-16'. One of the building's oddities due to its history is that it is only 60 feet deep, so it is tall and thin. We should all have that shape after 100 years! It would be easy to predict that 430 Park Avenue will soon share the fate of 425 Park, but its fairly recent remodel and maximal usage of its footprint suggests that it isn't going anywhere anytime soon. The building's appearance also is famous for another reason, though.

Title Sequence for North By Northwest, filmed at 430 Park Avenue at 56th Street, NYC,
The Saul Bass title sequence from "North By Northwest" was filmed at 430 Park Avenue. Reflected in the building is traffic on Park Avenue (courtesy MGM).
Incidentally, 430 Park Avenue may look oddly familiar to you, but perhaps you just can't place why. There may be a reason for that because 430 Park Avenue was the building used by Saul Bass for the credits of "North By Northwest" (1959). The sheer green exterior in the international style that you see today was brand new and cutting-edge when they were filming "North By Northwest." That title sequence is considered one of the best ever made. The entire opening part of the title sequence has a green background - including the MGM roaring lion part - because that is the color of 430 Park Avenue. So, to film buffs, it would be tragic to change the exterior of this iconic building, though that will happen eventually because nothing lasts forever. It is still there today, at least, looking exactly as it did in the 1950s.

Park Avenue at 55th Street, NYC,
417 Park Avenue, NYC, in August 2018 (Google Street View).
There are other buildings visible in the 1982 photo that are pretty much unchanged over the past 35 years. The Pan Am Building at the end of the Street is now the Met Life Building. However, it really hasn't changed much otherwise (they had only recently shut down the heliport on top of it due to a tragic accident). The white building just past 425 Park Avenue, 417 Park, was built in 1917 when Park Avenue was still almost exclusively a high-class residential area. It just toodles along, decade after decade, while these transient office buildings come and go around it. The most enduring buildings in Manhattan tend to be high-class residential ones because emptying them for reconstruction or demolition is a herculean task. It is now the last luxury residence that remains along Park Avenue from Grand Central Terminal North to 57th Street and gives the street a little character that the big boxes of the 1950s tried (and ultimately failed) to destroy. It also led the way in converting from an apartment building to a coop way back in 1946, long before that became popular. It is buildings like 417 Park that give the avenue its signature look and show that, once you do something right, there's no reason to change it.

I hope you enjoyed this entry in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. Park Avenue is a prime example that the facade of New York's grand avenues may change with passing fads, but the anchors persevere. Please visit some of our other entries in this series to see how cities evolve over time!


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