Wednesday, December 27, 2023

The 1917 Astor Trust Building - 501 Fifth Avenue


On October 16, 1915, the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that architect Montague Flagg had nearly completed plans "for the store and office building, 75x100 ft., at the southeast corner of 5th av. and 42d st., for the Oceanic Investing Co."  A week earlier, the journal had mentioned, "On completion of this structure the banking floor will be occupied by the Astor Trust Co., under a long term lease."

Unlike his well-known brother Ernest Flagg, Montague Flagg had not started his career as an architect, but as a portrait and genre artist.  He spent years in France studying art, including at the famous Ecole des Beaux-Arts.  Although he had been awarded the Thomas R. Proctor Prize for portraiture in the National Academy of Design's 1909 winter exhibition, by the time he started plans for 501 Fifth Avenue, he had essentially abandoned his true passion.

Flagg designed 501 Fifth Avenue in a modern take on Renaissance Revival, its tripartite configuration including an impressive three-story base with vast arches at the second and third floors separated by engaged Corinthian columns.  The 14-story midsection was relatively unadorned, other than triangular pediments over Palladian-inspired fifth floor openings.  The double-height columns reappeared at the top section, where faux balconies clung to the corner windows and a dainty frieze of carved festoons and rosettes ran below the cornice.  

photo by Irving Underhill, from the collection of the Library of Congress.

In 1917, the year the building was completed, the Astor Trust Company merged with Bankers' Trust.  Flagg made note of the change in his design of the main entrance.  The New International Year Book - A Compendium of the World's Progress for the Year 1917 praised the design, saying, "A typical modern bank and office building of conspicuous merit is the building for the Bankers' Trust and the Astor Trust...carried out in a clean-cut, modernized Italian Renaissance type of detail."

Flagg's rendering of the bank's entrance labels it the "Bankers' Trust Company" and tepidly shows the Astor Trust name on the bases of the signs on either side.  image from the collection of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

The tenant list could not have been more diverse.  Among the initial firms to take space were yacht dealer Harry W. Sanford, the publisher of Musical Trades Magazine, the export offices of the Corning Glass Works, the Manufacturer's Aircraft Association, the Bert Electric Car Company, and the Martin Dewey School of Orthodontia.  

Perhaps the most visible tenant was the American Automobile Association, partly because of the ongoing war.  Thousands of young men were housed at Camp Upton on Long Island, awaiting the ships that would take them to the battlefront overseas.  The American Automobile Association launched free Sunday trips to Long Island for their families.  But the program depended on the patriotism and generosity of car owners.  An advertisement in the New-York Tribune on April 9, 1918 used guilt to convince drivers.  Saying that a lack of cars the previous Sunday had resulted in disappointed family members, it continued in part:

Were you to blame?  If you have a motor car that could have gone and did not go down to Upton last Sunday, you are responsible for the disappointment of just as many of these folks as your machine could have carried.

The formation of the Manufacturer's Aircraft Association was a direct result of World War I.   Firms like the Wright Aeronautic Corporation, the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company, and the Gallaudet Aircraft Corporation had been pressured by the U.S. military to share their patents.  The legal obstacles had been preventing the makers from rapidly supplying the government with airplanes to be used for warfare.  The association was formed in 1917, the same year that 501 Fifth Avenue was completed.  Now, by cooperating in a cross-licensing agreement, the various airplane manufacturers were able to swiftly produce the best-quality fighting craft.  Among the association's initial members were Orville Wright and Glenn Curtiss.  

The post-World War I years saw an influx of real estate and development firms move into the building.  Among them were the Harris B. Fischer real estate firm; Felix Ismand, Inc.; the Montray Real Estate agency, which marketed land in Florida; and the Dranyam Realty Corporation, a contracting and construction firm.  

Interestingly, one of Montray Real Estate's customers was Glenn Curtiss--a deal that possibly came about through Montray's and the Manufacturer's Aircraft Association's sharing the address.  A Montray Real Estate ad on July 6, 1921 boasted of Curtiss and his partner J. H. Bright taking "ownership of the Curtiss-Bright Ranch, consisting of 14,000 acres, one of the most fertile sections in the world.  The edge of this ranch will be part of the area that everybody expects Miami City to occupy within a few years."  Curtiss was not interested in ranching, however.  He established an "aviation field" on the land.

Greatly because of Prohibition, the Roaring 20s was a time of unbridled gangland warfare, headed by the likes of Al Capone, John Dillinger, and Baby Face Nelson.  Federal investigators ended up at 501 Fifth Avenue on October 1, 1921 when a search warrant was served on the offices of the Auto Ordnance Corporation.  Earlier that week, 495 police riot guns had been seized on the East Side and subsequently traced to the Auto Ordnance Corporation.  A search of the books revealed transactions like that of John J. O'Brien, purportedly a carpenter with the Interborough Rapid Transit Company, who had purchased 50 machine guns.

The Automobile Association of America turned its focus to a contentious proposal by the City of New York in 1922--identification cards with photographs for drivers.  On July 30, the New-York Tribune reported that the association "is preparing to carry the issue to the courts, to ascertain the validity of the ordinance."  A spokesperson explained, "Our members feel that the regulation is a needless and objectionable discrimination, as it affects only the residents of greater New York," adding, "Forty-eight states are now able to identify their motorists without using photographs.  Surely the New York City authorities are equally astute."

Harry W. Sanford was still operating from the building in 1928.  Presumably, his business would be greatly affected by the onslaught of the Great Depression.  Motor Boating, March, 1928

On April 8, 1955, Bankers Trust Company merged with The Public National Bank and Trust Company.  Still operating under the Bankers Trust Company name, the firm continued to lease the ground floor.

Among the tenants here in the 1960s were the Bagby Music Lovers Foundation; the Storecast Corporation of America, "specialists in chainstore merchandising methods;" and the Oceanic Investing Company.  In 1971, the newly-formed Boardroom Reports, a bi-weekly journal, leased space. 

The legal office of Nathan L. Levine had been in the building for years at the time.  He had come into the national spotlight in 1948 when he performed a risky favor for his uncle, Whittaker Chambers.  Chambers had been a courier for a covert Communist espionage agency prior to World War II.  The New York Times reported, "In 1948, Mr. Levine told the House Committee on Un-American Activities that he had hidden the so-called pumpkin papers for 10 years for Mr. Chambers before he turned them over to the Government.  The papers--microfilms of secret Government papers--had been hidden in a pumpkin on the Chambers farm in Maryland."

On the afternoon of January 25, 1972, Levine and a client, Walter Stefani, became engaged in an argument.  Suddenly, Stefani pulled out a gun and shot the 61-year-old attorney in the head.  Two days later Levine died at St. Clare's Hospital.

The 1980s saw a number of travel agencies leasing offices in the building.  Elie Tahari ran a branch of its designer ready-to-wear clothing and accessories store on the second floor by 2011.  And Bagby Music Lovers Foundation, now known as the Bagby Foundation for the Musical Arts, continues to rent space, offering grants to support opera and classical music professionals.

In January 2014, Alan B. Abrahamson, president and CEO of Abrahamson Brothers, owners of the building, spoke to New York Times journalist Vivian Marino about the ongoing restoration of 501 Fifth Avenue.  "The building doesn't look as good as the corner deserves," he said.  Indeed, in the 1960s the limestone base had been modernized by black granite panels.  "I guess at the time it was a good idea, but what happened was it lost the look that really tied it to the library," he said (referring to the New York Public Library directly across the avenue).  "We're restoring that look; we're cleaning the limestone and restoring it."  

The restoration, headed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, cost approximately $10 million.  Included were bronze letters reading "Astor Trust Company" which were affixed to the Fifth Avenue entablature above the third floor.

photographs by the author has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

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