New York City is a tough town for buildings—there's just so much competition. You've got your Woolworth, your Empire State, your fancy new Hearst. But you've also got some hidden gems, some beautiful buildings that tourists and locals are both overlooking on their way to the Chrysler. Meet the Fred F. French Building, at 551 Fifth Avenue and 45th Street—well known, but perhaps not so widely known.
I spotted this beauty walking to the dentist recently, crammed in there on 5th Avenue and with a Tommy Bahamas now sitting in its foundation. The top of the building and its many setbacks caught my eye from a block or two away—so vibrant, but clearly old. Like 1920s old. In fact, it's a few years older than the Empire State Building, and boasts a similar art deco facade, with an orange/terracotta hue.
- The building was constructed in 1927, designed by architectural firms of H. Douglas Ives and Sloan & Robertston.
- It was the tallest, at 38 floors, on 5th Avenue when completed.
- It was built for the real estate company of Fred F. French—the real estate tycoon responsible for Knickerbocker Village and Tudor City housing developments. Perhaps not the most beloved landlord, but his ways did directly lead to rent control laws.
- It is one of the first Deco skyscrapers with a flat roof.
- The building was rectangular in a square skyscraper world.
- MetLife purchased the building in 1985 and renovated it in the 1990s. It's now owned by the Feil Group.
- The National Register of Historic Places listed the building in January 2004.
- The interior has marble walls, glass chandeliers, and cast bronze elevator doors.
- According to NYC Architecture, "The narrow, east-west slab of tower rises uninterrupted for 17 floors on the Fifth Avenue side all the way to the triplex penthouse above the last setback."
- The exterior's "colorful rectangular panels depict allegorical themes," and "the panels on the east and west sides contain heads of Mercury, the messenger, spreading the message of the French plan," according to New York 1930.
- In the same book, it's noted that the entrance is "inspired by the Ishtar Gate, the decorative program was a most literal evocation of Manhattan as the New Babylon, of the skyscraper as Nebuchadnezzar's hanging garden in the desert."
When it was getting touched up in the 1990s, the NY Times pointed to early criticism of the building, in particular from George S. Chappell, architectural critic for The New Yorker, who "ignored the color and styling and criticized the 'rows of dreary factory windows." He asked: "Can't the Fifth Avenue Association do something about this?"
The building is mostly filled with office space, and while you can enter the lobby, they don't want you taking photos in there.