Commercial Real Estate — 50s Tower to Be Fitted for 90s Retail -

Commercial Real Estate; 50’s Tower to Be Fitted for 90’s Retail

Published: October 15, 1997

The building with the sixes is shedding the 50’s.

Few mid-Manhattan towers better epitomize Eisenhower-era styling than the Tishman Building at 666 Fifth Avenue, between 52d and 53d Streets — from the »666» sign at the summit of its embossed aluminum facade (which looks like the grille of a 1958 Pontiac) to the contoured waterfall and lobby ceiling by Isamu Noguchi, one of the foremost sculptors of the 20th century.

About the only way in which the 41-story building is restrained is where it counts most on Fifth Avenue: the retail facade. It is one story high and recessed behind a line of heavy columns.

»It’s not a place that draws you in,» said Arthur L. Bocchi, senior managing director of the Sumitomo Realty and Development Group, a subsidiary of the Sumitomo Realty and Development Company of Tokyo, which bought the building in 1987 for $500 million.

»We happen to love this building,» Mr. Bocchi said. »It’s our flagship in the United States. But we thought it was lacking in certain areas. It was not as retailer-friendly, as inviting and appealing as it could be.»

Under a $15 million renovation that is to begin in a few weeks and run through 1998, the storefronts will get 25-foot-high walls of almost seamless glass. Parts of the floor slab between the first and second stories will be removed to increase the openness. The renovation has been designed by Nobutaka Ashihara Associates of New York.

The south storefront has been vacant since May, when the B. Dalton bookstore closed. It has been widely reported within the real estate industry that the National Basketball Association will open a store there, but neither Mr. Bocchi nor basketball officials would discuss the matter. The north storefront is for rent, Mr. Bocchi said.

An open-air pedestrian arcade through the base of the building will be enclosed by revolving doors and turned into an extension of the lobby. A subway entrance within the arcade will be moved so that it can be reached directly from 53d Street.

It is not clear whether the Tishman name will stay on the building. The Tishman Realty and Construction Company built 666 Fifth Avenue in 1957 and has had its headquarters there ever since, even after selling the tower in 1976.

John L. Tishman, the company’s 72-year-old chairman and chief executive, said he hoped Sumitomo would not remove the Tishman name. »But it’s their call,» he added.

Some changes have already occurred. The Top of the Sixes, a rooftop restaurant renowned more for its views than its cuisine, closed last year and was replaced by the Grand Havana Room, a private cigar club.

An Alitalia ticket office in the arcade, with second-century Ionic columns and Murano glass globes, closed in July and moved upstairs. (An airline spokeswoman said the columns were put in storage and the globes were salvaged by employees, possibly for use as Christmas tree decorations.)

Upstairs, the office space is 99 percent leased. Most recently, Citibank signed for an additional 70,000 square feet of space, bringing its total to 180,000 square feet, said Bruce Mosler, executive director of Cushman & Wakefield, which represented the bank.

The new lobby will feature Noguchi’s waterfall as a centerpiece, Nobutaka Ashihara said. Forty feet wide, it is composed of amorphous ranks of vertical stainless steel fins and a corrugated wall over which water cascades.

Noguchi’s ceiling, which the artist called a »landscape of the clouds,» has posed a more serious challenge to the owners. Mr. Ashihara said it cost about $175,000 a year to keep the ceiling illuminated and clean.

Commercial Real Estate - 50s Tower to Be Fitted for 90s Retail -

Nonetheless, he said yesterday that he was »99 percent» sure it could be preserved and incorporated into the new design. »I will try my best to keep it,» Mr. Ashihara said.

Made of undulating enameled louvers, the ceiling is a 6,000-square-foot expanse of peaks and inclines, waves and mounds, bumps and humps. Its overhanging forms look as much like soft-edged stalactites as clouds. Alternating with the louvers are fluorescent lights behind translucent panels.

Noguchi, who died in 1988, had a studio in Long Island City, Queens. He is perhaps best known to New Yorkers for »Red Cube,» a 28-foot rhombohedron tipped on end at Broadway and Liberty Street, and »News,» a stainless-steel relief at the Associated Press Building, 50 Rockefeller Plaza.

Bruce Altshuler, the director of the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum in Long Island City, wrote in 1994 that the »lack of visual fanfare» at 666 Fifth Avenue made the artwork »especially effective, knitting it into the fabric of the city as are few other pieces of public art.»

Last week, when it appeared less certain that the ceiling could be saved, Mr. Altshuler said, »It would be a terrible loss to the city’s cultural and architectural heritage if Noguchi’s last work of this kind was destroyed.»

Mr. Tishman said it had been a thrill to work with Noguchi. »We were trying to create art in place,» he recalled. »In its time, it was very, very unique.»

Mr. Tishman, who is to be honored next month as a »living landmark» by the New York Landmarks Conservancy, said the Noguchi works, too, merited official recognition.

»For God’s sake, I’m being landmarked,» he said. »They ought to landmark something more important than me. It’ll last longer.»

Photo: The ceiling in the lobby of 666 Fifth Avenue, designed by Isamu Noguchi, is very likely to be preserved during a $15 million renovation. (Jack Manning/The New York Times)

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