Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Gothic-Art Deco General Electric Building - 570 Lexington Avenue

Cross & Cross deliberately chose harmonious materials and colors to create unity with St. Bartholomew's Church -- photo by Fletcher6
The tracks of the cinder- and smoke-belching trains that ran up the center of Park Avenue from Grand Central Terminal were dropped below street level and covered over in 1913, creating a wide handsome boulevard.  The neighborhood changed from somewhat gritty to undeniably classy.

In 1914 Bertram Goodhue’s magnificent Byzantine-inspired St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church began rising.  The masterful building would pose a challenge to architects Cross & Cross thirteen years later.

The Jazz Age arrived in New York City in the 1920s and with it came the architectural style that would become synonymous with Manhattan at the time:  Art Deco.  It was also a dizzying time of new technology, including motion pictures and the radio.

The Bartholomew Building Corporation planned a soaring skyscraper on Lexington Avenue and 51st Street, directly behind Goodhue’s church, still under construction.  In 1929 the firm commissioned Cross & Cross to design the building using the direction of the chief tenant, the Radio Victor Corporation of America—later known simply as RCA.  Because the influential radio company, which owned the R-K-O chain of motion picture theaters and the National Broadcasting Company, had already signed a lease for nine full floors, it was given a free hand at the design direction.

The new skyscraper rises high above the dome of St. Bartholomew's -- photo NYPL Collection
The architects were to erect a 50-story building that reflected the modernity and energy of Radio Victor.  Yet it was not to clash with the nearly-completed Byzantine church on Park Avenue for which it would form a backdrop.    It would be a rare and early example of architectural sensitivity and contextual design.

What resulted was a slender tower of nearly-matching brick and terra cotta, creating what writer Carter B. Horsley has called the “unofficial campanile to the church.”  But while the skyscraper honored Goodhue’s Byzantine design, it did not bow to it.  The façade, from sidewalk to crown, was frosted with spiky Art Deco ornamentation that symbolized the radio age. 

Only photographer Berenice Abbott could capture the two buildings so perfectly -- photo NYPL Collection
Electric charges, zig zags, stylized bolt-like figures with electric rays sparking from their heads grace the façade and unique crown.   There were symbols of radio dials and needles in the grooves of records, and musical instruments at the 12th floor recall RCA’s recording business

Upon the completion of the building in 1931, the Real Estate Record and Guide interviewed John W. Cross who explained the challenge of representing radio in masonry.  “Romantic though radio may be,” he said, “it is at the same time intangible and elusive—a thing which can be captured visually only through symbolism.”

Cross pointed out the lobby, rendered in red marble and aluminum, was “free from any suggestion of past times or places.”  Instead, its Art Deco detailing and fixtures represented everything modern and current.

Without a doubt the most striking feature was the crown, 570-feet above the ground:  a jumble of spikes and intertwined bolts and figures symbolizing the force of radio.  Carter B. Horsley went so far as to say “this tower boasts a fantastic top that may well be the most original and attractive skyscraper roof in the world.”

The crown has been described as one of the most impressive in the world -- photo by MegaMatic
Despite the dark cloud of the Great Depression, other impressive construction projects were going on simultaneously, among them the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center.   Even before Radio Victor moved into the its new offices in what was now called the RCA Building, there was change in the works.   The company’s Annual Report for the Year 1930 disclosed that the firm “had intended to make its permanent home” in the “thoroughly modern office building at 570 Lexington Avenue.”

But the siren song of Rockefeller Center was too alluring.

“However, subsequent crystallization of plans for the construction of Radio City made it apparent that the opportunity for occupancy of this community should not be sacrificed,” the report said.   Even before the company moved in, it was preparing to move out.  “The building will be occupied by RCA pending the completion of Radio City about three years hence.”

When RCA moved out in 1933 it took the name of the RCA Building with it to Rockefeller Center.  Its offices were taken over by the parent company, General Electric which immediately rechristened 570 Lexington as the General Electric Building.

The artistic details Cross & Cross had lavished on the structure were perfectly applicable to General Electric—electric bolts and zig zags were as much about electricity as radio waves.  The company made only a few design changes—changing the RCA clock over the entrance to the GE logo, for instance.

General Electric added its own logo to the clock under two fists holding an electric bolt.  Behind, the astonishing brickwork can be seen. -- photo by Lockley
The headquarters of General Electric remained in the building for three decades until, in 1974, the firm relocated to Fairfield, Connecticut.   Difficult economic conditions and an aging, out-of-date skyscraper resulted in the firm's being unable to rent office space.  By 1993 the building had only a one-third occupancy and was not bringing in enough rent to cover expenses.

The company donated the building to Columbia University in 1993, earning itself a $40 million tax deduction.

Columbia, not wanting the burden of General Electric’s white elephant, partnered with Quantum Realty Partners and the Mendik Company to convert it into a money-making property.  The group commissioned architects WCA Design Group to update the building and restore the lobby and exterior lower three floors.

The $3.5 million project restored the exterior marble, cleaned out the accumulation of half-a-century of small modern additions like fire call boxes in the lobby and disguised the 10-year old subway entrance as an original Art Deco element.

The magnificent once-RCA Building, then General Electric Building, now 570 Lexington Avenue is one of the most remarkable structures in the city and too often left off the must-see list of tourists and New Yorkers alike.


  1. yes, the crown is quite a striking feature...
    good hearing from you Tom,... :)

  2. I had the pleasure of working in this beautiful building for about 7 months in 2005. As someone who love Art Deco architecture, I absolutely loved my brief time in this building. I worked for a financial services company and on our floor we had balconies that we could go out on and smoke if we wanted (something that was frowned upon but allowed by my employer). As a cigar smoker who worked 2-3 late nights in a row each month, I loved being able to step out on the balcony late in the evening and take a break with a cup of coffee and cigar and enjoy the view. Numerous times we tried to convince the building manager to allow us up into the crown so we could see the detail but it never worked.

    Thank you for this post and the pictures. Having discovered your site accidentally I will be back.