25 January 2012

The French Building

One of my favorite buildings in the City stands largely unnoticed on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 45th Street, the Fred F. French Building. With its unique and slightly bizarre combination of Art Deco and Eastern architectural motifs, you'd think it would stop people in their tracks on a regular basis. But folks just pass by, not bothering to peek inside the vestibules and lobbies, or crane their neck a small degree to survey the ornate metal work just about the two doorways.

It was built during a flush time in New York's history, between 1926 and 1927, by the firm of Sloan and Robertson and H. Douglas Ives. To my knowledge, there's no building quite like it in all of New York. The aesthetic is kinda crazy-quilt, but also firmly disciplined.

Frederick F. French, forgotten today, was a major real estate developer of his day, a self-made man who was born in Manhattan into poverty. He worked all the time, slept little, never drank or went to the theatre. By such methods, he rose quickly in the world, and was very productive. He also created the housing developments Tudor City and Knickerbocker Village.

He had a reputation as an innovative developer, and a tough landlord, one who hired a bodyguard for his four children, because he was afraid they might be kidnapped. French is the man responsible for New York's rent-contol laws, and not in a good way either. When tenants moved into the Knickerbocker, they found the place unlivable. They withheld rent until their voices were heard. The conflict led to the City's rent control regulations.

Despite his clean living, French died at 54 in 1936.

With this flagship building, French seemed to want to express what he was all about. The brightly colored masonry images on the upper floors feature such positive imagery as rising suns, two griffins symbolizing integrity and watchfulness, beehives representing industry, and Mercury, the messenger.

Imagine a day, now long gone, when developers cares about projected an image of virtue! Sure, given his history with tenants, French certainly wasn't the man of integrity he boasted he was. But at least he cared what people thought, and recognized thrift, honesty and optimism as good qualities one ought to have.

The French building was built as an office building and remains one, with AMB Industries and Pace University among its tenants. The building is landmarked, but so are the lobby and vestibules. As well they should be. They're magnificent, and kept in perfect condition.

The French is the kind of building that won't let you take pictures of the interior, so I can't show you the lobby, which is painted grandly in blue and gold. But here's one of the vestibules, which are modeled after the Ishtar Gate.


upstate Johnny G said...

Nice catch, Brooks! I know people think I'm an idiot for looking at the buildings, but darn it there is so much beauty in some of those facades and lobbies. Sure beats staring at the backs of the people in front of me. I'll check this one out next time I'm in mid-town.

Ed said...

I'll naysay a little bit. Wasn't this guy a little vulgar? He seems like an older, urbanized counterpart to a teetotaling Baptist sunbelt developer who likes to use Middle Eastern motifs on his shopping malls and hotels surrounded by golf courses.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

I don't know, Ed. I think French stopped just before he hit vulgar. And consider the context. In 1927, this must have seemed a welcome jazzy jolt from the stodgy stuff that surrounded it.