The Galleria

One of the city's most daring and innovative buildings, the 57-story Galleria was the city's first very complex mixed-use building.

It includes a public galleria, 8 floors of offices, a health club and 47 floors of condominium apartments in a package that is as dramatic and elegant at its base as it is awkward and strange at its top.

Many of the apartments were distinguished by the city's first major use of "wintergarden" rooms that basically were living rooms that expanded onto normal balcony areas that were glass-enclosed with curved roofs.

The unusual top of the tower was especially designed as a 16,000-square-foot quadruplex penthouse for Stewart Mott, a General Motors heir with an interest in philanthropy and gardens.

The building's pre-Deconstructivist top is strange, if not ugly. If it had smokestacks, it might look like debris from a scuttled battleship with its flying bridges and turrets. The look resulted from the complexity of Mott's layout.

Mott, whose landscaping demands required added structural strengthening for the tower, subsequently did not move into his spectacular dream penthouse. That added a bit of intrigue to the midtown skyline, albeit with little deference to its noble neighbor to the immediate west, the Ritz Tower, which occupies the northeast corner at 57th Street and Park Avenue, or its elegant neighbor to the immediate east, the office building with the concave front on the northwest corner of 57th Street and Lexington Avenue, which was also built, a few years later, by the Galleria's developers.

The apartment was eventually occupied, only to be put back on the market without much success for quite a long time. In late 1997, David Copperfield, the magician, bought it.

The top of this building, at the base of the penthouse, has a very large tenants' rooftop recreation area complete with working fireplace for penthouse parties even if the tenant owned an apartment on the lowest residential floor, a wonderful feature. The upper portion of the tower also has some recessed balconies, adding more sculptural detail. The wintergarden apartments are only on the south facade.

Because the tower portion of the building is recessed deeply from 57th Street and because the site is wedged between two other skyscrapers, the tall tower is not highly visible from the street.

But if the busy top is awkward, the building's base is one of the most spectacular and imaginative in the city's history.

The building's 57th Street frontage is scooped inward within a handsome granite frame ribbed with boldly colored steel ribs at a sharp angle that mirrors the large, angled skylight that covers the building's cantilevered atrium that separates the 57th Street entrances and offices from the residential tower and health club that overlooks the atrium.

The 57th Street entrance is divided by a handsome greenhouse. To the left of the separator is the entrance, down a few stairs, to the through-block public galleria/atrium. To the right is a small flight of stairs leading up to the very attractive residential lobby, which is notable for its colorful wall hangings and its balcony overlooking the building's centerpiece, the 8-story atrium with its north and south cantilevered sides and two side-bay atria.

This space, which was designed to contain a restaurant and some boutiques has never been very successful despite the stunning entrance that does not hint stylistically of the interior. The asymmetrical interior is intriguing and original and just misses being awkward. Deep ridges in the columns and on the walls vigorously accentuate the scale although their purple color is rather off-putting, but in keeping with this project's adventurousness, which at the time was extraordinary.

My suggestion that the hanging lights in the center atrium be motorized and move up and down randomly to create more interesting and changing lighting was never tried.

A health club that straddles both the south and north wings of the atrium overlooks the atrium as do the offices.

While this through-block building was infinitely more interesting and innovative than its main competition at the time of opening, the Olympic Tower on Fifth Avenue and 50th Street, it was not as successful in large part because the other project spent more on marketing and also focused most of its promotion efforts at the international market which was correct as the city was entering one of its worst fiscal crises at a time while many foreign capitols were suffering from flight capital.

The developers originally planned an office tower for this site but that market softened dramatically and, according to Robert A. M. Stern, Thomas Mellins and David Fishman in their fine book, "New York 1960, Architecture and Urbanism Between the Second World War and the Bicentennial and the Millennium" (The Monacelli Press, 1995), the developers "entered into negotiations with the city to develop a mixed-use facility."

"The city," the authors continued, "was represented by Jaquelin Robertson, the architect and urban designer who was head of the city's Office of Midtown Planning and Development, and Walter McQuade, the architectural journalist who was then serving as a member of the City Planning Commission. The fifty-five-story Galleria, which usurped the Excelsior's status as the city's tallest concrete-framed building, comprised a forty-seven tower on an eight-story base....The tower, barely visible from Fifty-Seventh Street, formed an important addition to the area's skyline, particularly when viewed from uptown....In contrast to Olympic Tower..., the city's other major legislated mixed-use tower, the Galleria made all the right urbanistic moves. Not only was it built out to the street line, it was also articulated into functionally expressive components culminating in a dramatic skyline feature."

The authors noted that the 90-foot-high atrium was 60 feet higher than required by the city.

In retrospect, this was a heroic failure that deserves great praise for its bold experimentation and incredible complexity by New York standards, and ambition. In time, the residential market improved and the building's worth was more appreciated and its splendid location and unusual layouts and amenities have made it popular.

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