In describing Fifth Avenue around 57th Street in 1876, a writer pointed out the newly-built mansion of Adele L. S. Stevens at the southwest corner. He said that with the exception of Alexander Stewart’s white marble palace, “It is the most expensive house ever built in this city.” The value of the land alone was $250,000. By the turn of the century Cornelius Vanderbilt’s mammoth chateau filled the entire block to the north and William C. Whitney was living in the Stevens house.
But times were changing. In February 1920 The New York Times remembered “At that time the neighborhood of Fifty-seventh Street was called pre-eminently the aristocratic quarter of the city. It retained that prestige until half a dozen years or so ago, when the upward march of trade invaded Fifty-seventh Street, and now few of its handsome residences remain.”
Among those last few survivals were the Whitney and Vanderbilt mansions. But while Alice Vanderbilt remained until 1926, the Whitney home had been converted for commercial purposes years earlier. The end of the line for the Stevens-Whitney mansion was inevitable following its purchase by August Heckscher in 1919.
On February 15, 1920 the New-York Tribune announced “The sensational development planned for the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Fifty-seventh Street by George Backer and August Heckscher will mark a new epoch in the structural and commercial future of Fifth Avenue. The building is to be thirty stories high and will be a combination of stores, showrooms, offices, apartments and a theater. At least $8,500,000 is involved in the project.” The ambitious scheme would include 10 stories of theater, concert and art exhibition space.
August Heckscher had leased the land to Backer; but after Backer disclosed his grand plans, Heckscher purchased a half-interest in the project. “Heckscher Building is the title selected for the great structure,” reported the Tribune.
The men had commissioned the architectural firm of Warren & Wetmore to design the building, deemed by the Tribune to be “in the modern French Renaissance style.” Perhaps best known for Grand Central Terminal, completed in 1913, the architects had designed a towering shaft atop the ten-story theater block. But there were problems. The 1916 Zoning Resolution provisions mandated set-backs to prevent the blocking of sunlight to the city streets. Warren & Wetmore were forced to go back to the drawing board.
On August 15 The New York Times reported that a “radical change” had been made in the Heckscher Building plans. The entire theater idea was scrapped and the structure’s height, originally 32 stories, was reduced to 25. The architects now described the style as “Francis I,” which The Times felt “will make the building one of the finest examples of its type in the country.”
“The first nine stories of the main portion of the building and the entire Fifty-sixth Street façade will be built of limestone, the exterior of the remaining walls to be face brick ornamented with terra cotta,” advised the newspaper.
The completed structure was decorated with French Renaissance elements and rose to an imposing chateauesque tower with a pyramidal roof accentuated by ornate dormers and oculi. Above the crown-like finial a 12-foot gold-plated weathervane in the form of a rooster perched.
|The Architectural Forum, October 1921 (copyright expired)
Critic C. Matlack Price commented on the architects’ successful dealing with the new setback laws. “Conforming to the law, architectural thought has turned the situation to splendid account.” He compared the “pyramidal profile” to “great Babylonian buildings, with terraces and gardens flaunting themselves hundreds of feet in the air.” The Architectural Forum agreed. In October 1921 it wrote “the silhouette of the building is perhaps as attractive as that of any in the city with the exception of the Woolworth Tower.”
|The weathervane and the decorative four-story chimney are evident in this photograph. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The advertisements for space in the new building were fashioned as letters from August Heckscher, complete with signature. One, published in The Evening World on September 27, 1921, ended with a reference to the golden rooster and the change in the neighborhood. “Le Coq d’Or, which crowns the Heckscher Building, will always stand as the beacon of progress.”
The area had been for several years the center for New York’s high-end interior decorating and art firms. Several became early tenants in the Heckscher Building. The first was Warwick House, Ltd., “dealers in tapestries and paintings” which leased the entire 22nd floor in November 1921. For years it had done business at No. 45 East 57th Street. The New-York Tribune reported they “expect to move into their new home about January 1 after making extensive decorations.” The newspaper saw the move as significant as “it marks the first step on the part of art and antique dealers to abandoning the customer street level locations in favor of a floor at such height.”
|Two eras: The Heckscher Building looms over the massive Cornelius Vanderbilt mansion. from the collection of the Library of Congress
Warwick House would be joined by Stroheim & Romann, interior decorators, who took 15,000 square feet at $45,000 a year in January 1922. On January 15 the New York Herald mentioned that “in light of the fact that Fifth avenue and Fifty-seventh street is firmly ensconced as the center of dealers in objects d’art, antiques and of decorators, the establishment of a new center of the upholstery and decorative trade in the Hecksher Building seems both inevitable and imminent.”
Other tenants included the newly-organized Hamilton National Bank; the Consolidated Cigar Corporation; Mosse, Inc., “retailers of linens, trousseaux and children’s layettes;” which took three floors including basement space; and I. Miller shoes. In 1923 the newly-founded American Mercury Magazine, edited by George Jean Nathan and H. L. Mencken, took space in the Heckscher Building.
The extremely high rents (Stroheim & Romann was paying the equivalent of $636,000 a year in 2016 dollars) were turned into a marketing tool in Heckscher Building ads. One in March 1922 touted in part “Just as first water diamonds command a price in excess of paste, just as real Oriental pearls command a price in excess of imitations, so space in the incomparable Heckscher Building…commands a price in excess of other buildings with less value in location, appointments and prestige.”
The advertisement exploited snob appeal, saying “And there is a genuine satisfaction in knowing that your neighbors are automatically restricted, by this item of price, to those who appreciate and value ‘prestige’ in location.”
|Unlike the Francois I exterior, the arcade flaunted its modern Art Deco design photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
One effect of soaring high above the rooftops of the neighboring structures was unexpected and unwelcome to one tenant. Novelist Eleanor Gates moved into her glamorous offices overlooking the Plaza and Central Park; but as autumn 1922 neared, she made a disturbing discovery. A pair of large brown hawks had made their nest “in the plumage of a gilded rooster which tops the tower of the building,” as reported in The Evening World on October 2.
|The ceiling of the elevator lobby was arched and stenciled. photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
While New Yorkers today are happily excited to find hawks roosting on their buildings and welcome the flying predators’ thinning of the vermin population; it was not the case with Eleanor Gates. For months she noticed them returning with Central Park pigeons in their talons. She had pleaded with the Parks Department to do something about the birds with little success.
“Her hatred against [the male hawk] came to a climax Thursday when she saw it flapping its way to its home with a pigeon in its talons, while a flock of little sparrows flutter about it, even settling on its back, picking between its wings in an effort to help the victim,” reported The Evening World. “A few minutes later a little cloud of feathers floated past her window.”
An investigation by Parks Department Superintendent Allen Parke, revealed the remains of a carrier pigeon with aluminum bands on its legs. The Evening World’s somewhat sensational headline read in part “Bird of Prey, Nesting in Gilded Rooster Atop Heckscher Building, Terrorizes Central Park.”
Warren & Wetmore had designed the two-story Fifth Avenue entrance with a blind shell-topped niche flanked by matching leaded glass windows. The architects apparently never intended the niche to hold a statue. It was an element that exasperated internationally-known author and art critique Perriton Maxwell. Complaining to the editor of The New York Times on September 20, 1925, he called New York “a city of empty niches” and said its architects “have left their jobs unfinished.”
|The Architectural Forum, October 1921 (copyright expired)
Maxwell pointed out, among others, the Heckscher Building which “sports a giant niche on its conjoining walls…It is a niche very purposely designed, it would seem. Its obvious completion would be the placing of the counterfeit presentment of a well-known New York philanthropist within its semi-circular sides.” Maxwell’s annoyance would wait more than 60 years to be satisfied.
The building had to contend with worse press than an empty niche. On the afternoon of November 13, 1924 Nell Hansell was working alone in the small office of retired jeweler Walter D. Tusten. At around 1:00 she heard the door open and then gently close. Through the opaque glass of a partition she could see the shadow of a man moving in the outer office.
When she opened the door of her room, she came face-to-face with a “tall, strongly built man, revolver in hand.” He demanded she “Throw up your hands!” But although Nell complied, the obviously surprised and nervous gunman fired his .32-calibre weapon.
The bullet grazed the secretary’s mouth, knocking out two teeth. Although little harmed, she fell to the floor and pretended to be dead. The would-be hold-up man, William E. Burns, panicked. Expecting only to take whatever he could find in a vacant office, he now believed he had committed murder.
The following day The New York Times reported “The intruder looked down at the motionless form. Then he put the weapon to his right temple and fired.” Hysterical, Nell Hansell ran screaming down the hall to the office of Dr. I. Hirschfeld where she received emergency aid. The dead man, who had previous criminal convictions, left a wife and five young children.
More scurrilous was the shooting on March 29, 1928 which involved a well-known couple. Not only were lawyer Dallet H. Wilson and his wife, the former Esther Evans, known in New York and Washington DC society for lavish entertaining; Esther was famous as a big game hunter in Africa and an amateur flier.
In the fall of 1927 the couple separated and Esther moved into the Wardman Park Inn in Washington, where it was said “Her hotel rooms were filled with trophies of the hunt and with collections from her world tours.”
At 4:00 on March 29, 1928 she entered Suite 1500 in the Heckscher Building—her husband’s 10-room office suite. The two conversed for more than an hour and a half, mostly in quiet tones. Office workers who came in and out of the Wilson’s office noticed they were discussing money. “Mrs. Wilson seemed to be demanding an allowance of $1,000 a month, instead of $450,” reported The Times.
And then the office staff was startled at the sound of two gun shots. Esther had shot Wilson twice, one bullet going through his body. The lawyer survived after two months “in a precarious condition” at City Hospital. At the police station Esther “became hysterical and charged her husband with ‘running around with other women.’” She told police that Wilson had encouraged her safaris and explorations in order to enable his dalliances.
The sensational trial began in on January 19, 1929 and lasted about a week. Every scandalous detail was reported by the press. Esther’s ever-changing testimony included the charge that Wilson had threatened her with a paperweight, that the shooting was an accident, and that she had lost all memory of the incident.
Although the jury found Esther Wilson guilty on January 24, 1929; her gender seems to have come to her advantage. While she could have been sentenced to five years and $1,000 fine; the jury urged six months and no fine.
Later that year, in July, the Hecksher Building welcomed a prestigious tenant when the new Museum of Modern Art moved in. The museum rented about 4,600 square feet on the 12th floor for $12,000 a year. The MoMa opened with an exhibition of 101 works by Cezanne, Gauguin, Seurat and van Gogh.
The museum’s arrival turned out to be as problematic as it was good for the building. As its popularity increased, the building’s elevators were unable to accommodate the rush of visitors and long lines of tenants and museum-goers crowded the lobby.
The Museum of Modern Art remained through the 1932 season. Its last exhibition, organized by architect Philip Johnson, was "Modern Architecture: International Exhibition."
Although August Heckscher had boasted that the golden rooster on the roof “will always stand as the beacon of progress,” it was removed in 1942. The weathervane was donated to the war effort, to be melted down as scrap.
The Heckscher Building became the Genesco Building in 1964 for its newest and largest tenant. Ground floor alterations were made by upscale retail leasers like Bulgari which essentially ignored and discarded Warren & Wetmore’s French Renaissance detailing.
In 1981 Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos sneakily purchased the building through a consortium of international companies. Its name was changed to the Crown Building in 1983, a reference to the tower, and lighting designer Douglas Leigh was commissioned to gild and illuminate the façade. The Times architectural critic Paul Goldberger was both pleased and displeased with the result, saying “it is too gilded, particularly on the lower floors; they look not unlike a person with too much makeup. But near the top, distance reduces the garishness, and the effect is splendid.”
At the same time the empty niche which so annoyed Perriton Maxwell was filled. The two leaded windows were remodeled as near-matching niches (sans shells) and given gold-covered statues. Some called the sculptures the Three Graces, but they are most likely generic.
With the fall of the Marcos regime, numerous lawsuits—including one by the Philippine government—sought possession of the Crown Building. It was acquired by Bernard Spitzer in 1991 for $95 million; sold again in 2014 and in 2015. The $1.8 billion sales price was among the largest in Manhattan real estate history.
non-credited photographs by the author
non-credited photographs by the author