THE GENERAL MOTORS BUILDING
A Pre-Postmodern Pionner.
Hi!! We’re back with this travel trough the history of New York skyscrapers during 20th Century. Now, continuing with the 1960’s we’re begun 1968 with this special about the 52-story white-travertine-marble and black-tinted-glass monolith called the General Motors Building.
This building, located in 767 Fifth Avenue in the heart of the Plaza District, opposite Grand Army Plaza and Plaza Hotel, was the first skyscraper of more of 50 stories that build in Fifth Avenue since the construction of the 102-story Empire State Building in 1930-1931. It was designed by Edward Durell Stone with association of Emery Roth & Sons and it was built between 1966 and 1968 to replace the old 28-story Savoy Plaza Hotel.
The 52-story white superslab broke completely the traditional Central Park skyline that until mid 1960’s were dominate by French Renaissance and Art Deco towers of old skyscrapers grand hotels.
The demolition of Savoy-Plaza Hotel.
From mid 1920’s until the mid 1960’s the Grand Army Plaza District, Fifth Avenue and 59th Street was famous for its luxury skyscraper hotels. There are the old French Palazzo Plaza Hotel (Henry J. Hardenbergh, 1907), followed by old 1920’s slabs: the 28-story Beaux-Arts style Savoy Plaza Hotel (McKim, Mead & White, 1926-27), the 40-story French Medieval tower of the Sherry-Netherland Hotel (Schultze & Weaver and Buchman & Kahn, 1927-28) and the 42-story Louis XIV style Pierre Hotel (Schultze & Weaver, 1930). The only office building in the zone was the 31-story Art Deco white ziggurat Squibb Building (Buchman & Kahn, 1930).
The Savoy Plaza was located in Fifth Avenue between East 58th to 59th Streets was one of the most famous New York grand hotels were ever built. But, in autumn 1964 the announcement of this destruction to make way for a 50-story office building for General Motors the city create a painful shock in the city’s preservationist who had lost they fight for save the Pennsylvania Station.
According with Robert A.M. Stern (1997):
“The fifty-story building, designed by Eduard Durell Stone in association with Emery Roth & Sons, occupied the full block between Fifty-eight and Fifty-ninth streets, fifth And Madison avenues, replacing, in addition to the Savoy-Plaza, the four-story Emmet Arcade (in which was located a notable Longchamps restaurant), at the southwest corner of Madison Avenue and Fifty-ninth Street, and the fifteen-story Madison Hotel (1919), at the northwest corner of Madison Avenue and Fifty-eight Street. Since 1927 General Motors, the building’s prime tenant, had been leasing space in a building bearing its name at 1775 Broadway, but the company had come to regard the Broadway location as shabby. The English real estate wheeler-dealer Max Rayne, head of London Merchant Securities Ltd., the Savoy-Plaza’s new owner, believed that the city’s hotel market would drastically soften after the closing of the World’s Fair, and felt the moment was opportune for the hotel’s destruction (Stern, Robert A.M., Mellins, Thomas. Fishman, David. New York 1960. Architecture and urbanism between the Second World War and the Bicentennial. New York. The Monacelli Press. Second Edition. 1997. Page 508).
The Savoy-Plaza (center) from Central Park, looking south. March 1928.
The Savoy-Plaza Hotel (McKim, Mead & White, 1927). January 1928.
A view of the Central Park's Plaza District traditional skyscrapers. July 1945.
The last moments of the Savoy Plaza Hotel. View from Central Park. July 1963.
“Many people were shocked to learn in autumn 1964 that the Savoy Plaza Hotel (McKim, Mead &White, 1927), located on the east side of Fifth Avenue between Fifty-eight and Fifty-nine streets, where it was a part of one of the world’s best-know ensembles, would be torn down to make way for an office building for the General Motors Corporation. In January 1965 a group of women including the novelist Fannie Hurst and Mrs. John A. Warner, the daughter of Alfred E. Smith, formed a preservationist committee called Save Our Landmarks!-Save the Plaza Square. Glenn Fowler later reported in the New York Times that ‘socially prominent women and financially potent women stockholders threatened the $17-billion-a-year giant of American industry with instant destruction unless it abandoned its plan to erect what they called a tombstone in the Savoy Plaza’s stead.’ Here, as the social commentator Roger Starr put it, ‘was a group of ladies not generally considered to be revolutionary’ threatening to ‘abstain from the purchase of Cadillacs’ until a beloved landmark was saved. Nonetheless, the following year the grand hotel way to the wrecker’s ball” (Stern. 1997. Pages 1122-1123).
In the spring of 1966, the Savoy Plaza Hotel was demolished and the site was cleared by the construction of the new General Motors Building.
Demolition of the Savoy-Plaza Hotel. 1966. Photo: Yale Joel. LIFE Magazine.
The design of a modern skyscraper.
General Motors, in 1964, had its offices in a 27-story Art Deco ziggurat office Building in 1775 Broadway (Shreve Lamb & Harmon, 1927). In 1964 GM announced this intention to build a new 50-story office building in the site of the old Savoy Plaza site, in 767 Fifth Avenue and commissioned to architect Eduard Durell Stone the design of the building in collaboration with Emery Roth & Sons. The definitive design was showed in autumn 1964.
According with Stern (1997):
“Although Stone had prepared schematic designs for skyscrapers, including, in the late 1950s preliminary plans for two versions of a proposed twenty-nine-story tower for an undisclosed site on Third Avenue and, earlier, projects for Sixth Avenue and the theater district, he had never building. In December 1964 Stone presented his design, which called for a vertically banded, marble-clad slab emerging from a one-story, site-filling podium and embraced by twenty-one-foot-high wings along the side streets. The slab itself was to rise for a sheer leap of forty-eight stories, vastly outstripping its near neighbors in mass and height- It would also be much brighter: clad in white marble, it would emphasize ‘the salient characteristic of a skyscraper… vertically,’ to become a dominant player on the Central Park skyline, Stone said that he set out ‘to create a building that will salute the skyline and enhance one of New York’s finest neighborhoods,’ a building with ‘the quality of permanence… designed for the future as well as the present and the past.’ Stone believed that white marble was contextually appropriate to the surrounding buildings, many of which, he pointed out, were clad in marble at least on their lower floors. Moreover, he hoped it would ‘start off a new trend toward buildings that look more permanent and have a light color.’ Probably thinking of the new building’s neighbor, CIT, Stone went on to say that ‘those black buildings that have been modish in the past look perfectly horrible.’” (Stern. Pages 508 and 511).
Since this announcement, the Stone’s proposal for the new General Motors Building gave several critics by specialists and architectural journalists that attack the design because its monumental dimensions will drastically alter the Beaux-Arts canons of the Central Park skyline.
According with Stern (1997):
“The editors of Progressive Architecture were far lee optimist about Stone’s proposal. They compared its arrival opposite the Plaza Hotel to that of a ‘noveau riche nephew come to visit his genteel relations’ and said that the building would ‘drastically alter one of the city’s few areas of Old World charm.’ They were particularly critical of its lack of contextuality: ‘In a group of sedate older buildings, it is liable to be as conspicuous as Gulliver in Lilliput.’ Its ‘statement of vertical strength,’ they pointed out, was inappropriate ‘in an area whose major statement is not strength but dignity. Its crispness and rigidity are more suited to the corporate parade field of Park Avenue than the formality of the ‘parlor’ where it finds itself’” (Stern. 1997. Page 511).
“By early 1965 the design had been refined and the one-story podium had given way to a 200-by-100-foot plaza along Fifth Avenue, an outdoor room slightly larger than Grand Army Plaza itself, lined with shops on three sides and sunk twelve feel below grade in emulation of the sunken court at the heart of Rockefeller Center. The building was intended to make its mark as a prestigious corporate symbol, but with no sacrifice to bottom-line economics. As Cecilia Benattar, a spokesman for the owners put it, ‘We wanted to carry out the spirit of the new zoning concept. We provided the maximum amount of open space encouraged by the zoning law and this earned us the right to take the maximum amount of interior space allowed’” (Stern. 1997. Fragment).
The demolition of the Savoy-Plaza Hotel beginning in late 1965, after it was close when the World’s Fair were end, in October 1965. The hotel was completely demolished during the spring of 1966 and the site was cleared immediately. The foundations for the new General Motors Building were built during the summer until late 1966. The first steel columns of the new building were put on the site in early 1967. The building begun to rises up during the winter of this year. In April of 1967 the building raises 15 stories. In the middle of May the steel structure reach 25 stories. 35 stories in mid-June. In this month, the steel structure begun to dominate the skyline of Central Park surpassed the towers of Sherry-Netherland and Pierre and Essex House hotels. In late-July 1967 the building raises the 50 stories. In August of 1967 the 52-story steel skeleton of the General Motors Building was topped-out.
The works for the installation of the marble facade were begun in the late spring of 1967. For the spring of 1968 the building exterior were completed and its first offices were occupied. In the end, the building was opened in autumn of 1968.
Clearing the site for the General Motors Building. View form the Sherry-Netherland Hotel looking southeast. March 1966.
In May 1967, the steel skeletor of the General Motors Building rising 34 stories and surpassed the 30-story Squibb Building. Night view looking southeast during a jazz concert on Central Park. May 1967.
In October of 1967 the 52-story steel structure of the General Motors was topped-out. Aerial view of Midtown Manhattan looking south showing the GM Building under construction (foreground). October 1967.
The General Motors Building under construction as seen from Fifth Avenue and 49th Street. January 1968.
The building nearing completion from Central Park. April 1968.
Aerial view of the General Motors Building nearing completion. May 1968.
A post-modern pioneer.
The new white monolith of the General Motors Building was opened in late 1968. In the Fifth Avenue lobby of the building were installed a General Motors exhibition room. The visitor can see in the lobby of the building the new 1969 Impala, Chevrolet, Chevelle, Cadillac, Corvette, Camaro and the new Chevrolet Nova. The lobby’s exhibition room was designed by LeRoy Kiefer in the most pure minimalism design and decorated with giant glass ball lamps composed by little glass plates surrounded a big glass ball that contained the lamp.
The great white slab of the General Motors Building breaks abruptly the skyline of Central Park and was the first skyscraper over 50 stories that build in the district. Few months after of its completion, in 1969 the site behind the Plaza Hotel, on 9 West 57th Street, occupied by low-rises apartment building and slums were cleared for a new 52-story superslab that designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill: The Solow Building. But the history of Solow Building will be treated on other post.
The General Motors Building is modern and minimalism, but it was a pioneer because its white marble and black glass masonry facade that remember the old lines of late 19th Century and early 20th Century skyscrapers breaking with the canons of International Style Modernism that rules in the 1960s Manhattan skyscrapers, considering with late 1960’s and early 1970s skyscrapers like One Astor Plaza, the World Trade Center and Grace Building, a example of the transition between the International Style Modernism and the Postmodernism.
According with architecture historian, Eric P. Nash (1999):
“Stone was a lone voice in the wilderness when he defined the high-modernist orthodoxy of the late 1960s. ‘I am critical of the steel and glass monolithic structures, inspired by Mies,’ he said, ‘particularly the type one finds along Park Avenue now, because I believe architecture should be more permanent in character.’ Stone’s method of making the GM more ‘permanent’ was to return to the skyscraper’s masonry origins in the Chicago School. The GM Building’s three-sided, alternating bays of white marble and black glass recall the oriels of Chicago’s Manhattan Building (William Le baron Jenney, 1891), one of the last great stone-supported tall buildings, and Daniel Burnham’s Flatiron Building. Perhaps top lend an air of modernity, Stone called his glass bays ‘vision panels,’ and pointed out their energy efficiency. Because the bays provided views up and down the avenue, Stone said that they ‘give the occupant of each office a welcome sense of individuality.’ Oddly, the paper-white slab resembles nothing so much as that icon of 1960s impersonality, the IBM punch card” (Nash, Eric P. Manhattan Skyscrapers. New York. Princeton Architectural Press. 1999. Page 123).
Nash (1999) continues:
“Stone’s problem was that the single-handedly tried to find a way out of the glass box that modernist built itself into, without post-modernism’s theoretical apparatus of discontinuity and pastiche. The GM is a failed offshoot because Stone tried to incorporate historicism into modernism’s unyielding mold, rather than to explore and celebrate the discontinuities, as later architects did. Stone wandered into increasingly idiosyncratic, filigreed masonry designs and his career remain in critical neglect” (Nash. 1999. Fragment).
The General Motors Building (Edward Durell Stone and Emery Roth & Sons. 1968). View of the new building from Central Park. May 1968.
View of the building from Central Park South. September 1970. Photo: Ezra Stoller.
A Color view of the building. 1970.
Aerial view of the General Motors Building. October 1968
The Sunken Plaza of General Motors Building was paved with marble and consists in an explanade one floor below the street level and emulates the Rockefeller Center’s Lower Plaza. But it was located in the opposite of Grand Army Plaza and its modernity was criticized by the specialists and preservationists.
Stern (1997) said that New York Times architectural criticism, Ada Louis Huxtable, was an extremely to criticize the General Motors’ plaza:
“Huxtable was now extremely critical of the design she had earlier praised: ‘Its contribution to the rape of the [Grand Army] plaza is a clear demonstration of how the new zoning, like the old zoning, is to be used exclusively as a tool for profit.’ She went on the describe the folly of the building’s plaza, its most egregious urban design failure: ‘To achieve the most bulk possible under the new law, it will have an open plaza facing the existing plaza. Even heard of a redundant plaza? This is it. Something like having two heads. Not only does it provide extra space at the one spot in New York where it is not needed, but it breaks the building line where enclosure is desirable.’ Nor was Huxtable pleased by the piazzetta formed along Madison Avenue, because, she said, the avenue’s ‘best feature, urbanistically, is the intimacy of its small, closely connected, luxurious specially shops that unroll the treasures of the world for the pedestrian. Why destroy that scale and continuity?’ (Stern. 1997. Pages 511-512).
Perhaps, the unpopularity of the General Motors Building’s plaza took effect in the late 1990’s: in 1999, the new GM Building (now know as 767 Fifth Avenue Building) owner, Donald Trump demolished the plaza and covered it with a new street-level austere plaza. Finally, between 2005 and 2006 the building’s plaza was redesigned and rebuilt and in the center was create a big minimalist glass cube in that interior had open a hole that in its interior was stablished a new Apple computers store. The glass cube of the plaza is decorated by a big gray Apple’s logo.
The General Motors Building and its plaza. July 1968.
Aerial view of the General Motors with its plaza. April 1970.
Night view of the building from Central Park. July 1968.
Night view of the General Motors Building from RCA Building. January 1970.
Next, a general panorama of 1968.
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