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More Personal History

That’s the west side of Fifth Avenue between 55th and 56th Street. The building on the left is the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church; the group of buildings on the right is 712 Fifth Avenue. The modern tower is the office space of 712, the small buildings in front of it are a complicated story, described below. You’re looking at a large percentage of my first five years of work here.

I was part of the team working on the modern high-rise of 712 Fifth, starting in 1987. I was at the bottom of the totem pole and spent most of my time designing concrete two-way slabs and beams by hand. (If my memory is correct, there was one PC in the drafting room, which was being used for some experiments in CAD; serious calculations were done with a mini-computer in its own air-conditioned temple nearby.) I did a lot of concrete design and detailing for that building on calculation pads in 1987 and 88. My work was the easiest part of the design, befitting the least-experienced member of the team, but I took (and maybe take) some perverse pride in the fact that I designed most of the building if we measure by volume of concrete.

The small facade on the left (next to the church) was the old 710 Fifth and was the location for many years of Rizzoli Books; the one to the right of that that’s mostly glass was the Coty Building, the old 712 Fifth. Both were designated as landmarks while the tower was in its early planning stages. The buildings were demolished except for their front facades and a new low-rise extension was built behind them, creating (maybe) the illusion that the old buildings were intact and the tower was behind them and unrelated to them. The small facade on the right, at 714 Fifth, is new, built where an unlandmarked small building was demolished. After my work on the tower design was over, I got involved in the final design for the steel-framed low-rise wing. Then when a retail tenant, Henri Bendel, took the low-rise wing, I got involved in designing some large oval-plan helical stairs.

Designing the temporary supports for the two landmarked facades and their connection to the low-rise wing was my introduction to field investigation and design of alterations to old buildings. I found it – shockingly, I know – much more interesting than I had found the tower design work.

A few years later, I designed the open skeletal north spire of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian. There was a similar spire there when the church was built in the 1880s, made of cast iron. It worked itself apart from wind pressure and was demolished before 1920. The open design was because the church’s boiler flue exited there. The flue was abandoned long ago, but when the church decided to rebuild the north spire, they tried to match the original appearance. It doesn’t look like it from the ground, but that spire is 40 feet high and 7 feet across at the base, making it rather slender. It also has no internal bracing. The final design had a stainless-steel skeleton inside a copper skin.

It’s nice having two projects that I enjoyed and were so influential on my career next to one another.