Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The 1924 Aeolian Building--689 Fifth Avenue

Street level is partially obscured in construction netting in early 2014 -- photo by Alice Lum

On his wedding day, November 21, 1895, when William Rockefeller, Jr. walked out of his father’s brownstone mansion at No. 689 Fifth Avenue, the neighborhood was one of refined residences and upscale churches.  Three decades would make quite a difference.

William Rockefeller, Sr. died in 1922, still clinging on to the old residence in a neighborhood now filled with commercial buildings and skyscrapers.  Only a few remnants of the old mansion district remained.  Among the bequests of his $200 million estate, Rockefeller left the house at Fifth Avenue and East 54th Street to his widow.  It would not survive much longer.

A sign hangs on the Rockefeller mansion, built in 1876, announcing its coming demolition -- photo by Byron Co. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYW5VAFZN&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915#/SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYW5VAFZN&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915&PN=2
Already many of the piano manufacturers and dealers were moving north from the lower Fifth Avenue area to West 57th Street.  Only Aeolian Co., manufacturers of player pianos (the Pianola Piano), would be daring enough to consider Fifth Avenue proper.  Like its competitors, Aeolian had already moved several times before the 1920s.  Now it would do so again.

In February 1925 the Rockefeller estate sold the old mansion to the Gould Realty Co. for $1.6 million—a significant $20 million today.  The New York Times called the property “one of the most valuable in the section.”  Within the month plans were announced for the site.

The Aeolian Co., signed a 63-year, $12 million lease for most of the building to be erected by Gould Realty.  The well-known architectural firm of Warren& Wetmore, which had just completed Steinway Hall on West 57th Street, was selected for the project.  Like Steinway & Co., the new tenant would require a concert hall to market its instruments, showrooms and practice rooms, and the obligatory offices.

The architects presented plans for a 14-story structure in the "Francis I style" and construction began just seven months after the Aeolian lease was signed.  More accurately, it would be an elegant neo-Classical building with French Renaissance detailing. 

On the night of April 22, 1926, with construction well underway, fire broke out.  Members of the exclusive University Club across the avenue and guests of the Gotham and St. Regis hotels crowded windows to watch as the blaze spread up three floors and onto the roof of the Jewett Building at No. 22 East 54th Street and then to another.
The day after the fire the façade is smoke-stained.  Letters below the Fifth Avenue cornice read "Aeolian Hall."  -- photo Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYW5VAFZN&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915#/SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYW5VAFZN&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915&PN=1
“The fire completely disrupted Fifth Avenue traffic at the height of the downtown theatre rush and brought prominent society people to their doors to watch the firemen battle the flames,” reported The New York Times the following day.  The fires were extinguished before long; but the damage was a setback to the construction of the new building.

Although the new Aeolian Building would not be fully completed until 1927, the Fifth Avenue Association did not wait.  It presented Warren & Wetmore the gold medal “for the construction of the most beautiful building in the Fifth Avenue district in 1926.”  The association judged 47 new buildings in the Fifth Avenue district before reaching its decision.

The Real Estate Record & Guide agreed, saying “The new Aeolian Building is a graceful addition to the music and art center which dominates the development of upper Fifth Avenue in the neighborhood of Fifty-seventh Street.”

The second story windows were framed with ornately-carved marble.  photograph by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYW5VAFZN&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915#/SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYW5VAFZN&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915&PN=1
The building was completed in January 1927 and within two weeks the Gould Realty Co. sold it to Celia Gould Milne (daughter of George Gould) for $3 million.  On February 24 the $1.5 million structure was dedicated.  Among the speakers was architect Whitney Warren who compared the architecture with music.
Musical motifs refer to the Aeolian Company.  photograph by Alice Lum

“Ancient traditions of pure melody clash along the avenue with the modern dissonance of jazz; the towering, aggressive structures of industry and commerce are like the clarion calls of architecture, all about us.  What to do?  Man is not always strident, the soul is not always in haste, the eye does not always seek the restless gesture of the skyscraper, never attaining its sky—a little rest, a little peace, a simplicity complete, a dream symbolized…by the sounds of lute and viol in castle parks.  I hope that the Aeolian Building conveys something of this.  In its interior it contains all that modern musical demands may require.”

The main showroom featured marble pilasters, crystal chandeliers and marble-tiled floors.  photograph by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYW5VAFZN&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915#/SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYW5VAFZN&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915&PN=1
The New York Times noted “The building, occupying a plot facing 50 freet on Fifth Avenue and 125 feet on Fifty-fourth Street, is designed with setbacks at the tenth, twelfth and fourteenth floors, and has a penthouse tower surmounted by a sloping roof terminated with a lantern finial.”

The Aeolian Building and Aeolian Hall would be about more than merely pianos.  Before long the firm dedicated showrooms to radios, the Aeolian “Radiolas.”  In 1920s America the radio was not just an exciting new form of technology; it was a piece of furniture with a choice of period-inspired cabinets that conformed with any décor.

The Hall sometimes doubled as a venue for temporary art exhibits.   On February 5, 1928 a private exhibition of works by Prince Jacques de Broglie was opened in Aeolian Hall.  “There are forty pen and ink drawings representing the history since 984 of the Castle of Chaumont-sur-Loire, home of the de Broglie family, a dozen unique clocks and some statuettes,” reported The New York Times.  “The clocks were designed by Prince de Broglie to represent various styles of art, Hispano-Moresque, Hindoo, Gothic, Louis XV, and others.”
Aeolian Hall set for a concert in 1927. photo by Byron Co. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYW5VAFZN&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915#/SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYW5VAFZN&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915&PN=3
In August 1929 the building acquired its most important tenant (other than, of course, Aeolian).  Women’s cosmetics and beauty firm Elizabeth Arden took over five upper floors as well as a portion of the ground floor.   Founded by Florence Nightingale Graham (who took the name Elizabeth Arden) the company was an early example of a tremendously successful endeavor conceived of, developed and run by a woman.  To clearly identify the Elizabeth Arden entrance from that of Aeolian, architect Mott B. Schmidt designed an incongruous modern entrance framed in polished black stone at the northern end of the Fifth Avenue façade.

While Aeolian had been busy manufacturing and selling player pianos, Polish immigrant Israel Miller had been busy as well.  A shoemaker, he arrived in New York in 1892 and began making footwear for theatrical productions.  In 1911 he opened a small store on Times Square and in 1926, as the Aeolian Building was nearing completion, he purchased the property and expanded his store.
High above Fifth Avenue carved shells and festoons, grotesque faces and stone urns go mostly unnoticed from below -- photograph by Alice Lum

By the time Israel Miller died unexpected in August 1929 his I. Miller & Sons, Inc. had several outlets throughout Manhattan.  On December 13, 1938 The Times reported that the Miller shoe stores would be taking over the first floor of the Aeolian Building as well.  Aeolian moved on.  It had joined the piano firms on West 57th Street, leasing half of Chickering Hall.

“I Miller & Sons, Inc., dealers in women’s shoes, have taken the store at 689 Fifth Avenue on the northeast corner of Fifty-Fourth Street, formerly occupied by the Aeolian Company.”  The newspaper noted “This will be the third Fifth Avenue store to be occupied by the Miller firm and the fifth in New York.”

The shoe merchants announced that they intended to remodel the exterior of the building and “the interior will be rebuilt and air-conditioned.”  Changes to the ten-year old, award-winning Warren & Wetmore facade were intended to update the design.

“New windows will be installed, and the corner entrance will have one of the largest pieces of bent glass ever to be made and installed in New York,” said The Times.  The firm commissioned architects Robert Carson (for the exterior renovations) and Louis Freedland (for the interiors).

I. Miller Shoes scraped the lower two floors flat and changed the windows.  Mott Schmidt's somewhat obtrusive black doorway of 1930 is seen at left. -- photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYW5VAFZN&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915#/SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYW5VAFZN&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915&PN=3
Carson streamlined the classical-ornamented ground floor, eliminating the limestone pilasters, installing new show windows and a corner entrance.  The marble window framings at the second floor were taken away and the entire stripped-down two stories were clad in a grey-yellow marble.  Thankfully, the bronze garlands and scalloped window openings were preserved. 

Upstairs Elizabeth Arden continued selling cosmetics and pampering society women in her salon.  Even the Great Depression could not stifle the luxurious business.  On January 26, 1930 The New York Times noted that Elizabeth Arden’s Red Door Salon included “treatment rooms, rooms for exercise, tap dancing, and rooms for the use of the electric mask treatments and other innovations.”  In 1930 the corner door was painted a bright red for the Arden Red Door Salon.

In 1944 Elizabeth Arden purchased the former Aeolian Building from the Milne estate.  Arden and I. Miller shared the ground floor space for decades until the shoe company left in 1970.  By now Elizabeth Arden filled 11 of the 14 floors and the structure was universally known as the Elizabeth Arden Building and Arden's red door had moved to the main corner entrance.

Despite its now-commercial quality, Fifth Avenue was still the Queen of Avenues and its retail shops were exclusive and expensive.  The red-enameled door of Elizabeth Arden was flanked by two dignified doormen in grey livery.  Arden retained sole possession of her empire of cosmetics-related companies.  When she died in 1966 at the age of 88, she left a fortune of between $30 and $50 million.
photo by Alice Lum

Elizabeth Arden had not looked past her own death and left no provisions for the company’s continuance.   The government quickly laid claim to $37 million in corporate taxes and inheritance taxes and in 1970 the Elizabeth Arden firm was acquired by Eli Lilly & Co.  That same year Gucci elbowed its way into the famous corner store when Dr. Aldo Gucci paid a record-setting $100 per square foot for the space.

Developer Larry Silverstein had purchased the building that year and when Gucci announced that it wanted to redesign the space, he was concerned about preserving the integrity of the beautiful structure.  He brought the Elizabeth Arden executives and Gucci group together to share the costs and cooperate on the renovations.

Architectural design firm Weissberg Castro Associates was given the task of remodeling the famous façade.  Expansive windows were installed and the iconic red door was removed.  While the architects used high-end materials, the resulting ground floor transformation is a 1970s period piece upholding a 1920s gem—a possibly regrettable modification that we seem to have gotten used to.

photo by Alice Lum


  1. Was the Aeolian Building on 42nd Street across from Bryant Park the prior address of the Aeolian Company before moving here? That older building is less interesting to look at but has a certain fame in music history.

    1. Yes. That building was built for Aeolian in 1912.

  2. Years ago the staff at Elizabeth Arden kindly showed me round their salons, and I noticed the exquisitely intertwined EA motifs on the walls, which I was told represented her initials. They didn't, in fact, because they were put there by the AEolian Company, so they were really AE, and not EA. But one can imagine Miss Arden's amazement at finding a building already decorated with her name! No wonder she was enthusiastic to move in. By the way, the titles of the Aeolian photographs on the website of the Museum of the City of New York are frequently wrong, in respect of both date and place. The Aeolian concert hall shown above, with a large piano keyboard banner, is in fact the older and more famous hall at the previous Aeolian building, at 29 W 42nd Street (or indeed W 43rd Street, which was the actual concertgoing entrance). That Aeolian Hall was financed by a group of investors got together by Frederick Bourne, once President of Singer Sewing Machine, and Commodore of the New York Yacht Club, and Aeolian moved in on October 14th, 1912. Aeolian lost a great deal of money in England in the early 1920s, resulting in a debt of roughly $1,000,000 for the US parent company. Perhaps for this reason, or perhaps because Frederick Bourne's estate was being wound up by his children, Aeolian was asked to leave W 42nd Street. I'm certain they didn't want to move, because they had NBC on the premises and also the New York Symphony Orchestra, but they put a brave face on it and sold the idea that the move (back) to Fifth Avenue was actually a sign of progress.

    1. Yes...Aeolian Hall was on 42nd and this article was about the Aeolian building. Good eye Rex Lawson!

  3. Re: Aeolian Hall vs. Aeolian Building. . . which one housed the actual "HALL"? The one on 42nd or the one on Fifth? Thanks.

  4. OH! And does that "hall" still exist?

  5. I used to co-run then manage the piano "Salon" on the third floor of 689 (2004-2010), which is still in operation. Your contemporary pictures show the banners I hung in the windows. Yamaha was the parent company, and they were very proud to have returned to this piano-centric building. I'm delighted that the MCNY has photos of the interior from the Aeolian time. The penthouse actually still looks like it did, without the pipe organ. You should know that the auditorium shot must have been from 42nd Street. That space wouldn't have fit inside the little 689. Fascinating to see more about my old office. Never saw this on your listed chapters before. Thanks.

  6. During the time Aeolian was located on West 42nd Street (and later at 689 Fifth), Aeolian was well known for its high quality pianos including Weber and Steck as well as their Duo-Art reproducing player piano system which was installed in Steinway grand pianos and in Weber and Steck pianos. Aeolian had recording studios in both the 42nd St and the later 689 Fifth Ave locations where famous pianists would record reproducing piano rolls. Some of the many famous pianists of the 1920's that made rolls for Aeolian were Arthur Rubinstein, Joseph Hoffmann, Paderewski and George Gershwin. There are many fine examples of these instruments on Youtube.

    1. Did Percy Grainger make piano rolls there too? His mother suicided from the 18th floor in 1922 when visiting Percy's manager.