It was just before Christmas, and thousands were in the mad rush and jostling along Fifth Avenue, with their cameras and shopping bags, to see the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. The shoppers lined up at the boutiques and gift shops in Midtown Manhattan. Just south, however, is a building that doesn’t make a list of must-see places during the holidays. It’s on mine, however, in my annual holiday rituals of walking along the avenue: the lobby of the Fred F. French Building, at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 45th Street. Jewel-like only begins to capture the feeling of quiet elegance of its ground floor during the holidays, with decorated trees of bright twinkling lights and glistening bulbs, the shiny bronze entrances and elevator doors, and the radiant gold, deep blue, and dark green of the Art Deco ceiling.
The French Building lobby, I remind myself, is never to be taken for granted. This is all the more so considering what The Guardian newspaper recently called the “supersizing” of Manhattan, especially the construction of luxury residential housing towers, and the vast changes to various neighborhoods occurring at a rapid pace elsewhere around the city. Looking at the French Building or other places of architectural distinction or beauty prompts even more gratitude when juxtaposed with the fate of others that are falling to the wrecking ball.
For nearly nine decades, the French Building – the headquarters of Fred F. French’s development business – has been a beautiful presence at this corner, and it arose during a decade that saw an unprecedented office building boom on this stretch of Fifth Avenue. The 1927 building has a grand entranceway and lobby, with majestic winged steeds, golden birds, ornate leaves, lavish flowers, and other stunning embellishments. The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the French Building as a city landmark in 1986, assuring that it would survive as an example of “late 1920s exotic architectural design.”
Incorporated in its exotic design are the exquisite decoration and dignified class of its interior. The building is rich in symbolism that the architects intended to convey the values of thrift and shared prosperity through hard work. (Through the “French plan,” average people could buy shares in French’s real estate developments like common stock and earn returns.) Its festive glow and sparkling first floor are also testament to the continuing care of its current owner, The Feil Organization.
Over the years, people establish relationships with a building. They experience it in ways that are particular to them. They notice how the building appears at different times of the day or during particular seasons, or how its profile looks against the sky. They discover and cherish certain features, which become part of a building’s charm and resonance. The French Building is such a place for me. The expressive exterior of golden-orange brick, polychrome panels, zigzag patterns of red and black, and the gold rising sun above cobalt-blue waves at the top, as well as the building’s magnificent lobby, warm a winter day. I’ll vary my route in walking this part of Midtown Manhattan just so that I can walk by or through the entranceway. The skyscraper’s setbacks appear sleek, graceful, and rhythmic.
A Different Fate
But what occurs when one building is saved and another lost? Just 16 blocks south of the French Building, near the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 29th Street, one of Manhattan’s quirkier characters of a building has been lost: the 1897 Bancroft Building. Some people have undoubtedly had a special relationship with this 117-year-old building of red brick and patterned white stone. However, the parent congregation of Marble Collegiate Church, the owner of this structure and two adjacent sites, opted in 2013 to sell the buildings, allowing the Bancroft ultimately to be razed to make way for a mixed-use tower, according to The Real Deal blog. The developer, HFZ Capital, plans to erect a nondescript slab of more than 50 stories.
Some residents organized and campaigned to obtain landmark status and save the Bancroft, but their efforts failed. The developer, in the process of clearing the site for the new tower, placed a shroud around the building as a company began to dismantle it. The shroud appeared almost like mourning.
One building stays, another goes and becomes part of New York’s losses. New York moves on its inexorable path to build, restore, and rebuild, or tear down and construct anew. This process comes to mind in reflecting upon the destinies of the French Building versus the Bancroft Building. Some cared enough 30 years ago to ensure that the French Building would remain for future generations.
The beginning of a new year prompts contemplation on what survives into the future, what makes it, and what doesn’t. This isn’t to say that every old building should be saved. However, it is to grieve that one such as the Bancroft is gone.
This isn’t happenstance. Countless people work very hard and tirelessly to save the places that survive and thrive. New York City’s Historic Districts Council has been involved in the creation of dozens of historic districts and the preservation of many buildings, through campaigning; organizing residents and activists; providing technical help and testimony; educating New Yorkers; and taking on powerful interests. It’s an important group, one among many historic and neighborhood groups in the city and globally that put in many, many hours.
Often, the successes arise out of the dream and dogged persistence of a few. Out of their love and regard for the iconic but neglected New York State Pavilion, from the 1964 New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Matthew Silva, Christian Doran, and Salmaan Khan formed the People for the Pavilion. This grassroots group has been campaigning to get the pavilion restored and to resurrect it into a vibrant place for the Queens community and the city. Doran died suddenly nearly a year ago, but Khan, Silva, and the group continue this initiative. Thus far, their endeavor has paid off in Queens Borough President Melinda Katz obtaining $5.8 million in the New York City budget toward restoration. Many more examples exist of individuals and groups doing their part in the trenches of historic and neighborhood preservation.
These people deserve profound gratitude and recognition, and they don’t receive nearly enough of either. They are worthy of deep appreciation and support for their impact as decades turn into centuries, and a place such as the Fred F. French Building welcomes, for another year, those who love its grace and shimmering loveliness during the holidays. This is work of great honor.
Here are more views of the gorgeous ground level of the French Building, followed by a photograph of the now-lost Bancroft Building and links for further reading.
The Bancroft Building, at 3-7 West 29th Street, has now been lost. The building had an illustrious history and once housed the Camera Club of New York. Here, Alfred Stieglitz, one of the Camera Club’s principals, expanded and edited the journal Camera Notes, making it an integral force in championing the wider consciousness of photography as art.
Photo Credit for the Bancroft Building: Tom Miller, Daytonian in Manhattan, © All Rights Reserved
The Daytonian in Manhattan site provides a fascinating history of this building, as it becomes widely known that the Bancroft faces likely demolition.
Mindfulwalker.com focuses on the inventive design and decorative elements architects conceived of that make three buildings stand out – the Fred F. French, 1927 Barclay-Vesey, and 1930-1931 McGraw-Hill buildings.