Monday, April 4, 2011

The Charles Scribner & Co Building -- No. 597 5th Avenue

The Scribner Building with the Sephora store in the former bookstore -- photo by Americasroof 
There was a time, long before electronic media and Kindles, when quiet evenings were spent with a bound book. Trips to bookstores were an adventure and one's level of sophistication was often measured by the depth of his personal library.

In 1846 Charles Scribner and Isaac D. Baker formed the publishing firm “Baker & Scribner” which, after Baker’s death, became Charles Scribner Company. By the second half of the 19th Century the company also published highly-popular periodicals, including Century Magazine, the children’s St. Nicholas Magazine and Scribner’s Magazine.

The highly successful company commissioned Ernest Flagg to design its headquarters at 5th Avenue and 21st Street, completed in 1893. Flagg (who is often misrepresented as Charles Scribner II’s brother-in-law, but who was actually married to the former Margaret Bonnell) was a major proponent of the Beaux Arts style. He was in the forefront of architects concerned with adequate light and ventilation, sanitary conditions and zoning laws regulating height of buildings and setbacks.

Two decades later, Flagg was hired again to design a new space further uptown at No. 597 5th Avenue. The architect wrote in his diary on March 10, 1912 “If given a free hand I am sure I can make this the building of my life.”

He was apparently given a free hand.

Flagg produced a striking street-level façade of glass and iron, two stories tall, that illuminated the bookstore of Scribner’s publications inside. At the fourth floor level, the four piers separating the windows above a carved stone balcony featured medallion busts of renowned printers: William Caxton, Aldus Manutius, Johann Gutenberg and Benjamin Franklin.

The central three bays at this level soared five stories, giving verticality to the restrained façade. Above it all, a two-story mansard was accentuated by a bold, double-height dormer ornamented with caryatids. On either end of the cornice sat a large obelisk.

The Scribner Building around 1930 with all the shades tightly drawn against the heat and sun -- Photo NYPL Collection
Upon its opening The New York Times remarked, “Utility as much as beauty was the aim of the architect. Windows, therefore, form practically the entire front and back of every floor, so that the rooms in which the various departments of the house are placed are flooded with daylight, whose effect is still further heightened by the white plaster ceilings and walls and the concrete floor.”

The bookstore was meant to impress. In some areas the ceiling rose to 30 feet. Ornate iron railings scrolled up along the sides of a grand marble staircase and along the book-lined balconies. “Its arched ceiling of a whitish stone is supported by pillars of the same substance,” said The Times. “Its walls, broken by a gallery, are hidden by rows of handsomely bound books upon glass shelves.”
The grand Carrara marble staircase -- photo Princeton University
In 1974 art critic Henry Russell Hitchcock, comparing the bookstore’s interiors to Grand Central Terminal, called them “the grandest interior space that had been created in New York.”

The bookstore from the grand staircase towards Fifth Avenue - Photo Princeton University
Burgundy carpeting, crystal chandeliers and parquet floors were only part of the allure. Authors like Ernest Hemingway, Harper Lee and Truman Capote would be seen regularly there. As a matter of fact, Hemingway added to the building’s lore when, after editor Max Eastman published unkind remarks about the author’s masculinity, he barged into Eastman’s office here and punched him.

Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos once commandeered the store, surrounded by bodyguards, and demanded a copy of every leather-bound book in the store. No matter if it were the same title in three different colors, she wanted all the leather books available. And she got them.

But by 1988 times had changed. Rizzoli International, who now owned the store, announced that keeping the bookstore opened was no longer financially feasible. Charles Scribner III sadly told New York Magazine that he would rather “see the store town down than turned into one of those quick-sale electronics outlets.”

Hope for the beautiful interior was slim. While the façade of the building had been landmarked in 1982, the interior was not. And while the Landmarks Preservation Commission members had been “quietly” visiting the store, even landmark status could not guarantee its survival as a bookstore.

Landmark status came at the 11th hour for the interiors.

In 1996 Benetton took over the retail space as their flagship store. The apparel company hired architects Phillips Janson Group to do a $4 million restoration.

Photo by Ines -
The Carrara marble grand staircase was restored, as were two spiral staircases towards the rear – one of which had to be completed recreated, having been removed decades earlier. A skylight, covered with tar and paint during the World War II black-out, was restored and a glass brick floor – 20% of which had been badly damaged – now shines brightly again.

Caen stone walls, similar to marble, were discovered under ten coats of paint which not only had to be removed, but extracted from the porous stone.

In 2006 the building was sold to A & A Acquisitions for $79.1 million dollars. Flagg’s beautiful creation that he hoped would be the “building of my life” remains one of the centerpieces of 5th Avenue.


  1. This was like a fantasy bookstore to be in, it was so wonderful. Now I walk by and gag on the smell of perfume.

  2. I've heard that the entry level store front was cast at the West Point Foundry?
    Does anybody know?

    1. I am so glad to find this here. I was watching "The Lost Generation" on YouTube and it made me think of Scribners, and many years ago going inside. Scribners is magical. A place from a time gone by that is truly a treasure. Gosh, is it still there? I hope so. Magic really needs no gold dust added to it but to sprinkle a little on top of it all, Scribner's gave us "The Great Gatsby." I think that says it all. Thank you much. CHEERS!