Friday, July 1, 2016

The L. Alavoine & Co. Facade -- No. 712 Fifth Avenue

To the right of No. 712 is the former Coty Building with its wall of Lalique windows.

In 1875 the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church erected its $1 million building on northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 55th Street.  Organized in 1808 as the Center Street Presbyterian Church, the congregation had moved to Duane Street in 1836 and to Fifth Avenue and 19th Street in 1836.  The new location, in the midst of the developing mansion district, would be its final move.

Eight years earlier the church enticed Irish missionary Rev. Dr. John Hall to take the position of pastor.  He moved his family from Dublin that year.  The wealth of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church was reflected in his salary.  He was initially paid $6,000 in gold (approximately $100,000 in 2016); a salary which would eventually increase to $15,000.

On August 16, 1886 John S. Kennedy filed plans for a $75,000 parsonage to be built next door to the church, at No. 712 Fifth Avenue.  The plans described it as “four stories high, and be built of brick and brownstone.”

Rev. Dr. John Hall was a potent force in the high society congregation.   For more than a decade the parsonage was the scene of high-end receptions, church functions and society evens. 

Hall became ill in March 1898, “suffering from prostration,” however doctors assured the public he would recover.  On March 29 The Sun reported “He passed a very comfortable night, and his condition was noticeably improved by it.”  But Hall did not recover.  He died later that year, in September.

The house was never again used as a parsonage.  The Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church leased it to William Baylis.  The millionaire and his family lived here until 1906.  By now the incursion of commerce into Millionaires’ Row was well underway.  Within the year Charles A. Gould would abandon his mansion next door, at No. 714, and convert it to a commercial building.

On May 9, 1906 The New York Times reported that the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church had leased its parsonage to L. Alavoine & Co., society art dealers and decorators.  The announcement said the firm “will make few changes in the front of the house, which will continue to have the outward appearance of a private dwelling, but on the rear of the lot an art gallery will be erected.”

But apparently Alavoine & Co. and the church were not done with negotiations.   In August L. Alavoine & Co. announced that planned alterations would cost $20,000.  But by spring 1907 nothing had been done.

Then, on March 23, 1907 the Record & Guide reported “One building will be demolished at 712 5th av for the five-story store and office building…which the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church Congregation…are to build from plans by Albert S. Gottlieb.”  The announcement noted that the building was being constructed for the use of its tenant, L. Alavoine & Co.  “The front will be of limestone and brick…and the cost is estimated at $50,000.”

Completed in 1908 Gottlieb’s handsome neo-French Classic building mimicked the 18th century row houses of Paris.  The architect carefully carried on the proportions, the mansard roof and cornice line of the abutting Gould mansion.  Corinthian pilasters, wrought iron grills at the upper openings, carved swag panels and balustrade decorated with great stone urns created a high-end residential look.

L. Alavoine & Co. had been in business in America since 1853.  The firm not only sold valuable paintings and artwork to New York City’s wealthiest citizens, it decorated their homes as well.  In fact, its influence was so noteworthy that when millionaire James B. Haggin began alterations to the massive George Crocker mansion at No 1 East 64th Street in 1912, L. Alavoine & Co. was listed as architects on the plans.

Not long after moving into No. 712 Fifth Avenue L. Alavoine & Co. welcomed a subtenant.  In 1909 high-end Paris jeweler Pierre Cartier opened his New York City branch store here.  Within seven years his business would demand a building of its own; and in 1916 he negotiated a deal to take over Morton Plant’s superb mansion at the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street.

The French owners of L. Alavoine & Co. were most likely instrumental in space being leased to L’Union des Arts as war broke out in Europe.  On April 8, 1917 The New York Times explained that the charity “contributes to the assistance and protection of artists, painters, sculptors, and literary men who are victims of the war.”  The organization was patronized by some of Manhattan’s wealthiest socialites, among them Mrs. Vincent Astor, Mrs. Jules Bache, Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney, Mrs. O. H. Harriman, Mrs. Frederick Havemeyer and Mrs. Frederick Vanderbilt.

With the war over, space in the building was leased to another high-end art dealer, Arthur H. Harlow & Co.  Harlow had established the firm in 1911 at No. 569 Fifth Avenue.  Like L. Alavoine & Co. the artworks handled by Harlow ranged from Old Masters, like Rembrandt etchings, to more modern paintings like works by Cezanne.

Arthur Harlow opened with an exhibition of American Impressionist painter Paul Dougherty. The New York Herald, February 27, 1921

Edouard Ferman, president of L. Alavoine & Co. died on May 23, 1933.  Although the firm gave up the ground floor space to A. Schmidt Sons, another art dealer and decorator, in 1934, it continued on in the Fifth Avenue building.  In 1936 L. Alavoine & Co. launched its most impressive exhibition to date: five complete French rooms were temporarily installed.  On November 8 The New York Times opined “In these paneled interiors, brought over entire from Old World palaces, a rare opportunity is offered to see French decorative art at its best.”

By the time L. Alavoine & Co. decorated the Jesse Isidore Strauss residence on Park Avenue, the Art Deco style was all the rage.  photograph from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

That same year Arthur H. Harlow & Co. moved from No. 712 Fifth Avenue to Rockefeller Center.  L. Alavoine & Co. and A. Schmidt Son remained nearly until mid-century.  In 1948 A. Schmidt Son discontinued business, selling at auction its stock of French and English furniture, paintings, Georgian silver, porcelains, tapestries and Oriental rugs.

In its place Louis Carr Gallery moved in.  Unlike its predecessors, the gallery dealt in modernist paintings “of the last decade” according to its opening announcement.  The art and antiques tradition continued in the building as Associated American Artists Galleries moved in during June 1956 from across the avenue at No 711; and the Albert Landry Gallery opened in January 1959.

Change would come after Harry Winston sold the building in October 1963.  The jeweler, whose business was at the southwest corner of 56th Street at No. 718, also owned No. 714.  The purchaser was Gotham Development Corporation for the Italian Rizzoli-Editore Corporation.

After gentle renovations, Rizzoli opened its vast bookstore with green marble floors, polished walnut woodwork and cultured atmosphere.  No run-of-the-mill bookstore, it offered Fifth Avenue shoppers one-of-a-kind Christmas gifts in 1959.  Available here were the 30-copy edition of Picasso’s Cocu Magnifique, with 12 signed etchings for $36,000; or Chagall’s The Circus, priced at $6,500. For the less extravagant shopper, Salvatore Dali’s Alice in Wonderland could be purchased for $750.

In 1983 the magnificent Art Deco Bonwit Teller building designed by E. J. Kahn diagonally across the avenue was demolished to be replaced by the splashy Trump Tower.  Paul Goldberger, writing in The New York Times said “the overall effect was to change the nature of the avenue, replacing the dignity of the old masonry buildings with the glitter of the new.”

On the tail of Donald Trump’s spectacle came the threat of another.  In 1984 rumors of plans to demolish Nos. 712 and 714 to create an L-shaped 44-story skyscraper circulated.  Preservationists scrambled to protect the buildings, noting in part that the Coty Building next door contained three stories of irreplaceable and priceless Rene Lalique windows.

Although both buildings were granted landmark designation; it applied only to the facades.  In 1985 the architectural firms of Kohn Pederson Fox Associates and Schuman Lichtenstein Claman & Efron designed a 56-story tower for Solomon Equities “to slip behind the facades of the landmark Rizzoli and Coty Buildings.” 

The new trend of “facadism” was highly controversial.  While it maintained the historic face of the Fifth Avenue block, the two buildings were now, as described by Paul Goldberger, “a doormat for the tower, a small stoop cowering before a ponderous skyscraper of entirely different scale.”

The facades serve as false fronts to the soaring skyscraper behind.

The L. Alavoine & Co. building, as well as the Coty Building, survive in the form of stage sets in front of the looming skyscraper.  But, at least, the early 20th century commercial personality of the block has been preserved.

photographs by the author

1 comment:

  1. If only this kind of compromise could have been worked on the recent West 57th Street (East, too, for that matter) where so many buildings with similar grace and style have simply been erased.