Friday, February 9, 2024

The 1930 Rolls Royce Building - 32 East 57th Street


In 1928, the exclusive Miss Chapin's School still occupied the two former mansions at 32 and 34 East 57th Street.  But the Midtown district, now filled with commercial buildings and bustling traffic, was no longer one of posh homes and private schools.  The following year the newly formed 34 East 57th Street Corporation demolished the old residences and hired the architectural firm of Buchman & Kahn to design a 19-story and penthouse office and showroom building on the site.

Completed the following year, the firm's Art Deco design featured a three-story stone base with a massive show window at the ground floor and sleek metal main entrance.  Honeycomb-like bands above the doors mimicked those executed in stone at the second and third floors.

Rusticated piers in brown-gray brick contrasted with the smooth-faced spandrels.  Above the 12th floor, the structure detonated in a series of setbacks and terraces.  

The Great Depression had struck almost simultaneously with the building's groundbreaking.  Ironically, before construction began the owners had negotiated the lease of the main showroom space with one of the world's foremost symbols of spending and luxury--the Rolls-Royce Company.  Now, in the ground floor of the new Rolls-Royce Building (while other New Yorkers waited in bread lines), wealthy customers browsed among the British-based firm's high-end vehicles--touted as "the best automobile in the world."

Vehicles like the 1930 Phantom II were displayed in the ground floor showroom.  The Motor, September 24, 1929.

Rolls-Royce remained in the space until 1936, when, on August 15, The New York Times reported, "As part of its 1937 sales program the Cadillac Motor Car Company yesterday leased large space for showrooms in the former Rolls-Royce building at 32 East Fifty-seventh Street."  The "store, basement, mezzanine and second floor," would be used for the luxury car maker's sales and display purposes.

photograph by Wurts Bros, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In the meantime, the upper floor offices were home to a variety of tenants, including the architectural office of Edward Shepherd Hewitt, and the headquarters of Young America magazine.

With the Depression over, the first of a tradition of art galleries within the building began.  On January 18, 1941, The New York Times reported, "In the Rolls-Royce Building, 32-4 East Fifty-seventh Street, H. V. Allison leased space for his own art salesrooms."  The building would soon be known as a center of art.  

In January 1945, the Kraushaar Galleries moved in.  Founded by Charles Kraushaar in 1885 as an art supply store, it now specialized in the modern art.  On January 6, The Sun reported the gallery had been "installed in spacious rooms that are beautifully adapted to the showing of pictures," adding:

Five American painters long associated with these galleries have been chosen to try out the new rooms—and do it impressively.  These artists are George Luks, Maurice Prendergast, William Glackens, John Sloan and Ernest Lawson, and students of American life as well as of American art will be interested in seeing again the "Garden Party" by the George Luks who never repeated himself; the prismatic coloring of Prendergast and the transcriptions from New York history by Sloan, Glackens, and Lawson.

Already occupying space in the building at the time were the Metropolitan-Reynolds Galleries, the Willard Gallery, and the Bignou Gallery.  On the same day The Sun reported on the Kraushaar Gallery's opening, it announced a showing of seven paintings by Richard Pousette-Dart in the Willard Gallery.

By 1947, the Bucholz Gallery adjoined the Willard Gallery, and the Schaefer Gallery had leased space by 1951.  

One space not dedicated to paintings or sculpture was the H. H. Harmer Gallery, here by 1946.  It was perhaps the country's preeminent auction gallery of rare stamps and would remain in the building for years.  On September 12, 1954, for example, the Washington D.C. Sunday Star announced, "Alfred F. Lichtenstein's prize-winning collection of stamps of Canada is to be sold at auction by H. R. Harmer, Inc., 32 East 57th street, New York City, November 1 to 3 inclusive."

In the meantime, the tradition of luxury automobiles had continued on the lowest floors.  In 1956, Jaguar of New York, Inc. occupied the showrooms and would remain at least through 1966.

Allan Frumkin moved his art gallery into the Rolls-Royce Building in the fall of 1959.  When the Frumkin Gallery opened its exhibition of Theodore Halkin painted reliefs in January 1964, The New York Times remarked, "This is cunning, slightly fiendish work."

One of the building's most visible and long-lasting galleries was the Pace, which leased space in 1968.  The gallery had been founded eight years earlier in Boston.  Some of the world's most recognized artists were represented here.  Such was the case when an exhibition of Louise Nevelson's painted aluminum sculptures was held in May 1971. 

In an article on June 18, 2018, The New York Times journalist Caroline Bankoff described the Pace Gallery as "a humble Boston shop that has turned into a global empire."  She noted that since establishing the gallery at 32 East 57th Street, Pace had galleries "in Chelsea, London, Beijing, Hong Kong, Seoul, Palo Alto and Geneva."

At the time of Bankoff's article, the Wells Gallery also occupied space in the building.

After half a century in 32 East 57th Street, Pace Gallery, now known as Pace/MacGill, left in 2019.  On October 21, 2021, The New York Times reported that the Howard Greenberg Gallery had taken "an entire floor vacated by the Pace Gallery in 32 East 57th Street."  Greenberg opened with a showing of photographs by the first Black photographer hired by Life magazine as a staff photographer.  The exhibition was titled "Gordon Parks: A Choice of Weapons."

Once the destination for Manhattan's wealthiest car shoppers, the Rolls-Royce Building--a sort of sculpture in itself--has been a center of upscale art for more than eight decades.

photographs by the author
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