View Full Version : 50 East 42nd Street - Ballet Dancer of a Building

February 8th, 2002, 05:25 PM
January 20, 2002 *NEW YORK TIMES
50 East 42nd Street: Ballet Dancer of a Building, Its Tower Lithe and Trim


NOW that the building across the street has been demolished to make way for a new tower, passers-by can better appreciate the graceful lines of the former Heckscher Building, which was put up in 1916 at the southeast corner of 42nd Street and Madison Avenue. Compared with the clunky office buildings that surround it, 50 East 42nd Street, as the Heckscher Building has long been known, is a ballet dancer of a structure, its setback tower lithe and trim.

Its builder, August Heckscher, was widely praised at the time for teaching a civics lesson in skyscraper reform. But closer inspection of real estate records suggests that he was simply making a civic virtue out of necessity.

In the 1910's, as traffic to Grand Central Terminal increased, development began to transform the north end of Murray Hill. A then-towering 21-story office building at the southwest corner of 42nd and Madison, designed in 1912 and demolished last year, signaled the end of the neighborhood's residential character. The building was completed in 1913, along with a new Grand Central, which replaced its outdated predecessor.

Heckscher, who was born in Germany, had come to the United States after the Civil War and by the 1890's had achieved great wealth in various mining operations. He became interested in real estate development and in 1915 announced plans for a new kind of building. This was before the 1916 Zoning Resolution went into effect, with its requirements for setbacks on tall buildings to allow light and air to reach the street. The 1916 regulations were a response to concerns that buildings like the 21-story structure were causing overcrowding and ruining the city by interfering with light and air.

The only height restriction on office construction before 1916 was the economic limit of how high a building could go before elevators and other systems took up too much of the rentable space.

Heckscher's new building, designed by Jardine, Hill & Murdock, was quite different. Above a five-story base, the 27-story tower sets back from each side, 23 feet from the 42nd Street side. Heckscher told The Real Estate Record & Guide that "it will be a boon to New York if owners of high buildings will build in such a manner that each high building shall be wholly self- contained, light obtained from the outside on each facade."

The 23rd floor was built with a squash court for tenants, who could also use terraces along the top, and the peak of the tower was illuminated.

In 1915 The New York Times praised Heckscher for his early adoption of the ideas for setback towers. If built to the density of the conventional building across the street, the Heckscher Building at the time could perhaps have had double the floor area it wound up with.

"The average structure put up on this site would no doubt have shot up flush with the building line," The Edison Monthly magazine said in 1917. The building was divided into small and medium-size offices. Directories of the 1930's and 40's list tenants like the National Father's Day Committee and the Sky Writing Company of America.

Heckscher cut a large figure in the New York of his time, though sometimes in ways he must not have welcomed. At the time Heckscher was building, he had a 111-foot- long, $80,000 yacht, the Cabrilla. He had been on the defensive for at first supporting the German side in World War I. And in 1918, a year after the United States entered the war, Heckscher sued two women for $500,000 for saying that his yacht had spied every morning on American shipping and that he had reported to German agents. He dropped the suit after receiving an apology.

After the passage of the 1916 Zoning Resolution, he built another Heckscher Building now called the Crown Building at the southwest corner of 57th Street and Fifth Avenue, completed in 1921. Heckscher died in 1941 with an impressive legacy of public charity the Heckscher Museum in Huntington, on Long Island; the Heckscher Foundation for Children, at 104th Street and Fifth Avenue (now El Museo del Barrio); and playgrounds and other gifts. (A grandson, also named August Heckscher, was parks commissioner under Mayor John V. Lindsay, as well as being an author and active in many civic organizations.)

But the widely praised design of 50 East 42nd Street may have been dictated by calculation rather than idealism. At the time it was going up, Heckscher was also constructing another commercial building, at 244 Madison, at 38th Street, battling intense community opposition from the Morgans, Peabodys and other old families who were hoping to keep that section along Madison residential.

The building at 244 Madison was conventional in form, filling more than 90 percent of its lot and rising straight from the building line. Why use setbacks on 42nd Street, but not four blocks south?

An analysis of Heckscher's title to the 42nd Street property yields strong clues. The building at 50 East 42nd replaced five old row houses that faced Madison Avenue and were numbered 307-315 Madison. But Heckscher could secure ownership of only the central three: 309, 311 and 313. He had to lease the northernmost and the southernmost homes.

The lease details of the southerly plot are not clear, but his 1914 lease for the 42nd Street corner required that any new building be erected so that the portion above 315 Madison Avenue 23 feet on Madison and 118 feet down 42nd Street be built "such that it can be made self-contained."

Under that condition, Heckscher would have been required to make any tower have two sets of fire stairs, elevators, plumbing risers and bathrooms and two lobbies one for the main part of the building, another for the part over No. 315.

He also faced the possible loss of any tower above the leasehold site at the end of the lease term. Such costs rose far above a civics lesson, and Heckscher and his architects chose to build only a five-story section over the leasehold sites, with the tower portion rising above only the portion for which he owned the land.

Alan Abramson, a member of the partnership that now owns 50 East 42nd Street, said that the leaseholds were bought out long ago. His group bought the building in the 1960's, and about 10 years ago removed the dropped ceiling in the lobby and found enough of the original coffered ceiling to make molds to restore it entirely. A small plaque below a glass-covered opening in the wall identifies an original steel column with a rivet inserted by Heckscher.

Now 50 East 42nd Street is suddenly prominent again, as the preparations for a new building give a clearer view of Heckscher's tower. The 1912 office building across the street has been demolished so a new 35-story tower, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and built by Brookfield Properties, can rise on the site.

The new tower, which is expected to be completed in 2003, will eventually overshadow Mr. Abramson's building. But that is of no concern to Mr. Abramson, who has nothing but praise for his property.

"It's a successful building," he said, "filling an important niche in a time of big properties, with small and medium-sized space users." *

November 23rd, 2003, 06:26 PM
Architect: ???

Style: Beaux-Arts

Year: 1920s ???

Description: Unkown. Roof shots taken from my company's New York office.










November 23rd, 2003, 07:06 PM
What's your company? Out of the CIBC Building, no doubt.

November 26th, 2003, 06:51 AM
Actually we're located right across from the CIBC building. We're a small software firm for financial companies...

November 26th, 2003, 01:56 PM
Wow! I really like the base of cibc and the facade is great!!! I didnt know about the little protrusions, I just thought that it had some kind of corregation.

November 26th, 2003, 03:01 PM
Description: Unkown. Roof shots taken from my company's New York office.

The New York Times featured this building in Real Estate a couple of months back. Try an online search, there's a great story behind it.

November 26th, 2003, 11:32 PM
Nice to see the top of this beautiful building.

November 29th, 2003, 12:57 AM
Lincoln building looks great in there, too. Anyone got shots of Cipriani, inside?

December 8th, 2003, 01:23 PM
O.K. after doing a lot of thinking about the initial building that ddny posted on 50 East 42nd Street,
I feel that the style is that cross-over from Beaux-Arts to Art Deco.
Almost like a hybrid per-se (Key word here being "almost"). 8)

December 8th, 2003, 03:26 PM
OK... The building was completed in December 1915 (per the plate in the lobby). The elevators show 21 floors, but security and maintenance told me that it is actually 25 floors plus a penthouse (and it really has a 13th floor). This is in step with the article from Edward stating it as 26 floors.

December 8th, 2003, 09:04 PM
I think Zoe already answered it!

December 17th, 2003, 10:57 AM
Yes Stern, Zoe did call into the lobby to check out the plate :)

OK... The building was completed in December 1915 (per the plate in the lobby). The elevators show 21 floors, but security and maintenance told me that it is actually 25 floors plus a penthouse (and it really has a 13th floor). This is in step with the article from Edward stating it as 26 floors.
Still goes to show that many sites has incorrect info on this classic and beautiful building :cry: