Fred F. French Building

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Fred F. French Building
Location551 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan, New York City, New York
ArchitectH. Douglas Ives and Sloan & Robertston
Architectural styleArt Deco
NRHP reference #03001514
Added to NRHPJanuary 28, 2004

The Fred F. French Building is a 38-story skyscraper on the northeast corner of 45th Street at 551 Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, New York City.


It was erected in 1927 with a striking art deco facade contributing significantly to the international reputation of Fifth Avenue.[1] The building measures approximately 430,000 rentable square feet and is currently owned by The Feil Organization. It is used primarily as an office building and also houses classrooms of Pace University. The building is one of the better known projects of the real estate developer Frederick Fillmore French. The lead architects were H. Douglas Ives[2] and Sloan & Robertson. The tallest building on Fifth Avenue when completed, by the 1990s underwent a complete restoration, subsequently earning the Building Owners and Managers Association 1994/1995 Historic Building of the Year Award.[3] The National Register of Historic Places listed the building in January 2004.

Past tenants have included The Cattleman restaurant and Raymond Abrahams, an award-winning diamond jeweler.

Design and features[edit]

Fred F. French was a real estate developer, who believed in spending money in the design and decoration of his buildings. And he would use different styles in different buildings. No building is a better example of his aims than the office building he erected on Fifth Avenue, New York, naming it after himself and locating his offices there. The building was constructed in 1925–27.

The decorations and designs French ordered for his building are influenced by art of Mesopotamia, Assyrian, Babylonia, Chaldea—that is Near Eastern (Syria and Iraq) cultures in time period roughly 1700 to 500 B.C. Excavations done in the early 1900s produced illustrations of these cultures available to the Western world and artists. King Tut's tomb was found in 1920 and led to some Egyptian influence in the décor.

The term "Art Deco" is often applied to the decorations of this building. Overall the Landmark Preservation Commission concluded that the French building "remains one of the finest examples of the stylistic compromise between lingering historicism and vanguard modernism."[4]

Building exterior[edit]


The decorations on the four sides of the rectangular tower on top of the building were described by one of its architects, H. Douglas Ives, as symbols used to connote commerce and "character and activities" of the French companies.[5] The material used is faience—glazed ceramic ware.

Facing north and south are rising suns—signifying progress, Ives said. At the sides of the sun are griffins, winged horses features in Mesopotamian art. Ives said that all this symbolized integrity and watchfulness. Further at the sides, beehives with golden bees, symbols of thrift and industry. Facing east and west one sees the heads of Mercury. Ives said that these were "spreading the message of the French plan"—a concept explained below.[6]

Ives discussed the evolution of the architecture for the building.[5] Although Gothic and Romanesque was first considered, they settled on the Eastern design, in large part due to a new zoning requirement for skyscrapers, which called for setbacks, which allowed more light to reach the streets. This suggested to the architects that they follow the Assyrian ziggurat style. If one studies the setbacks, they do appear to be like ziggurats. Ives also stated that colorful terracotta bricks were used, because the designs were more two dimensional than Greek sculpture.

Outside doorway arches[edit]

All of the bronze work in the building—and most especially the elevator doors—was done by Russian-American artist Vincent Glinsky.

Per the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission report of 1986: "On the portal over the entrances both on Fifth Avenue and Forty Fifth Street are two triangular niches. On the left Mercury (denoted by the winged shoes), holding a column in his right hand and a compass and two T-squares in the left—symbolizing architecture and building, one can safely assume. In the right niche is a woman holding a beehive, the symbol of industry, as we have noted. Above the name is a band of griffins. And above them are bronze frieze metopes, with five winged Assyrian beasts. On the frieze and everywhere in the building one finds plants and flowers of the Egyptian era: lotus, papyrus, and anthemion—both stems and the flower."[4]



The aim of French and his architects was to make the lobby, as approached either from the 5th Avenue or 45th Street entrance, a commercial palace. The visitor would be—and still is—overwhelmed by the decorations on the ceilings, walls and flooring. The vaulting is polychromatic and contains fantastic figures, without any real pretence of historical accuracy or architectural veracity.

Elevator doors[edit]

Per the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission report of 1986: "The gilt-bronze (that is, bronze covered with a thin veneer of gold) elevator doors are the major art work of the building. (There are 13 sets of these doors, each the same.) There are 8 panels on each door.

Gold gilt door of the lobby elevator in the Fred F. French building in New York City on 5th Avenue, 45th street corner

Some are more directly influenced by Mesopotamian style than others; some are more directly gods that we know about from Greece and Rome, than others; and some seem just to stand for business and commerce. A collective term for these is "genii"—supernatural creatures or tutelary gods."[7]

While the artist had some directions as to what to portray, and must have studied drawing in some form, research so far has failed to turn up written statements of what is portrayed. However, the following is a description based upon observation. Describing each panel, identifying them by left and right, and numbering down 1 from the top:

On the left: L1: BUILDING. Man with buildings in background. Apparently not a god. Could be an idealized Fred F. French. L2: THE SEA. Man holding a boat, symbolizing the sea. Poseidon/Neptune. Note the beard, reminiscent of those depicted in the bas-reliefs of the ancient near east; that is, Mesopotamia and Sumeria. L3: LEARNING. Man holding a book, again with the beard evoking Assyrian bas-reliefs. An image associated with learning; possibly a depiction of Apollo. L4: INDUSTRY. Woman holding a beehive, a symbol of industry, or work.

On the right: R1: ARCHITECTURE. Woman with compass and plans (blueprints). R2: COMMERCE. Woman holding a Caduceus, symbolizing trades or commerce (not the one snake caduceus, for medicine). Also a cornucopia, horn of plenty. Possibly goddess Iris. R3: CONSTRUCTION. Woman holding a building in her right hand; in her left, a wheel. R4: AGRICULTURE. Woman with sickle. Possibly the Greek goddess Demeter or her Roman analogue, Ceres, symbolizing fertility.

A detail from the gold gilt doors of the Fred F. French building in New York City on 5th Avenue, 45th street corner

Between these panels horizontally are rows of griffins and antelopes, as well as angels.

Mailbox and wall bronze decorations[edit]

The bronze mailbox is one of the city's most renowned. At the top is the bald eagle, the symbol of the United States and the Post Office, holding the usual arrows. Below are two griffins, in proud winged glory. Also there are the usual Egyptian plants stylized, including the lotus. On close inspection one can spot tiny honeybees.

Gilt Mailbox in lobby of Fred F French Library

There are many bronze decorations in the building, inside and out, often repeated in long strings. In addition to the griffins, there are antelopes, a depiction of what may also be a Mesopotamian person, and in addition heads of oxen (on columns near the revolving doors on the inside), and aurochs (a now-extinct species of bull).

In many places there are rows of plants, with the lotus and papyrus flower predominating. Papyrus appears like a broom, sticking up. Also one may note the anthemion (a palmette design) and many rosettes.

Other decorations and designs[edit]

The vestibule flooring is constructed of Italian travertine marble; inlaid diamonds are beige Kato stone. The border is black Belgian and white Dover marble triangles. The walls are made of St. Genevieve marble with golden veins. This marble came from the Ozora Marble Quarry in St. Genevieve county, Missouri.[7] On the columns are bronze spears.

At present the designer of the ceilings and high wall art is not known. It does not appear to be the work of Glinsky. The scenes seem to be taken loosely from the Ishtar Gate, once an entrance to the city of Babylon, which today resides in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. The ceiling has been described as "a polychromatic menagerie of winged Mesopotamian beasts."[7] One can see lions and a bird of prey, like a vulture or turkey; also long-necked dragons and other mythical beasts. The vibrant blue coloration also is seen on the gates. At the intersection of the two passageways on the ceiling are two men, whose clothing evokes the ancient Assyrians, with drawn bow and arrow. Similar figures are seen elsewhere on the ceiling.

The visitor should not overlook the eight chandeliers, or as they were referred to originally, lanterns. They obviously were designed by an artist. These are described as having "bronze foliate shell from which a dozen etched-crystal finds project."[7] They are designed to create dramatic shadows. Those standing in the vicinity of the elevators will find small signs indicating which storeys the elevators serve. They are perhaps best appreciated by standing right beneath them and looking up.


  1. ^ "The Fred F. French Building", The City Review.
  2. ^ AIA Guide to New York City, 4th edition, pg. 290.
  3. ^ "Emporis database The Fred F. French Building",
  4. ^ a b Landmarks Preservation Commission. "Fred F. French Building" (PDF). New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. Retrieved October 30, 2017.
  5. ^ a b Ives, H. Douglas (February 1, 1927). "The Architecture of the French Building". The Voice: 4.
  6. ^ Ives, H. Douglas (February 1, 1927). "The Architecture of the French Building". The Voice: 4.
  7. ^ a b c d Landmarks Preservation Commission. "The Fred F. French Building" (PDF). NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission. Retrieved October 30, 2017.
  • Streetscapes: The Fred R. French Building; Refurbishing 'Mesopatamia'. Christopher Gray for the New York Times, 1992.
  • New York 1930: Architecture and Urbanism Between the Two World Wars, by Gregory Gilmartin, Robert A. M. Stern, and Thomas Mellins, 1987.
  • The Fred F. French Building: Mesopotamia in Manhattan, by Carol Herselle Krinsky in Antiques (January 1982), pg. 284.

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 40°45′20″N 73°58′45″W / 40.755456°N 73.979222°W / 40.755456; -73.979222