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A Whole Lot In One Shot

The companion piece to Berenice Abbott’s Changing New York photo “40th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, From Salmon Tower 11 West 42nd Street”, the shot above is titled “40th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.” It was probably taken from the same vantage point as the other photo, and is immediately to the left (we’re looking south) of the other photo. Instead of looking out over Bryant Park, we’re looking out the park (on the right) and the New York Public Library (visible at the lower left).

The elephant not quite in the room is the Empire State Building, sticking up out of the frame in the background. To its left, off in the distance (in reality, about a mile away) is the Met Life tower, a previous record-holder for height. My favorite building in this view, by far, is Raymond Hood’s 1924 American Radiator Building, the not-quite gothic tower on the right. The facade is almost-black glazed brick with gold terra cotta highlights, which sounds gaudy but is quite reserved when seen in person. The dark brick solves the problem of windows appearing like holes in the facade during the day; the overall design is somewhere between Hood’s straight-up gothic at the Tribune Building in Chicago and his later vertically-striped buildings like Daily News. It’s a good example of Louis Sullivan’s “every inch of it tall”: it’s only 23 stories but it feels bigger. The low wing to the right is a showroom annex, just completed when this photo was taken, where plumbing and radiator fixtures could be displayed in splendor.

Just to the right of American Radiator, we’re looking at the back of a loft building that shows the maximum zoning envelope made solid in it’s multi-setback shape. The tall gothicky building in front of the Empire State is the Scientific American Building; the tower between SciAm and AmRad is the Engineers’ Club. The club is, unfortunately, long defunct, and the building is now apartments. The entire block front of 40th Street used to be rowhouses which, when first built, faced the south wall of the old distributing reservoir. Several were demolished shortly before this picture was taken for the AmRad annex; two are visible separating the three small towers from one another.

In this one photo we’ve got the tallest building in the world twice (ESB and Met Life), two New York icons (ESB and the NYPL), small pre-zoning towers (Met Life, SciAm and and the Club), illustrations of the 1916 zoning law (ESB, AmRad, and the nameless loft), and some nice late-1800s rowhouses. “Changing New York” indeed.