The stretch along Lexington Avenue between 58th and 59th streets is one of those clamorous New York City blocks that many locals avoid like the plague.
But if you have any recollection of how it looked in the 1980s, up to even five years ago, you’ll be astonished at its complete transformation, with the recent arrival of new flagship stores for Victoria’s Secret and Steve Madden.
Only a few years ago, the entire area was blighted by Alexander’s, a now-defunct department store that was decidedly down-scale relative to Bloomingdale’s, which continues to stand immediately to the north. If Alexander’s huge, drab, white-box of a building, which took up an entire block from 58th to 59th and from Lexington to Third avenues, was not the dreariest structure in Manhattan, that was only because the New York Coliseum still stood at Columbus Circle. To walk by Alexander’s, let alone to enter it, was to become ugly by association. As might be expected, the establishments around it, discount shoe stores, a pizza parlor, and the odd headshop, fully partook of the block’s sleaziness.
With the opening of Victoria’s Secret, however, all four corners of the intersection have now been wondrously transformed.
The first sign of change was the Bloomberg building at 731 Lexington Avenue, developed by Vornado Realty Trust and designed by Rafael Pelli in 2004. Occupying the entire block where Alexander’s once stood (the store closed in 1992 and the building was razed seven years later), this building is a success, albeit an uneven one, given that its generally modernist vocabulary has elements of unresolved contextualism. The tower attracted large national chains that had not previously ventured into the area, including Home Depot, clothing store H&M and the spiffy organization products store the Container Store.
Any quibbles about design that we might have fall away when we consider how far it surpasses what used to be there. Soon after its completion, across the street on the southeast corner, a sparkling and surprisingly lively three-story curtain wall of a building, whose main tenant is cosmetics firm Phyto, was erected. Phyto had the brilliant idea of wrapping around the entire third floor facade, a wall made up entirely of living plants, the first such endeavor in New York. It was designed by Patrick Blanc, the dean of botanical architecture, who achieved memorable results with his similar vertical garden at the new Musee des Arts Premiers Quai Branly in Paris.
Only a few months ago, the Steve Madden shoe flagship store opened on the southwest corner of the intersection. Four stories tall, the modernist, Mondrian-inspired building is distinguished by a brilliantly colored facade whose upper half is covered in moody pastels created by gently shifting light displays. The curtainwall that covers its lower half reveals an interior of pale yellows and limes.
More dramatic still is Victoria’s Secret, on the northwest corner. The lingerie giant has spared no effort or expense in designing its new flagship store. Both inside and out, the dominant motif is pure, one-might-almost-say, virginal-whiteness, from the glass-paneled facade that rises three stories to the long draperies along the walls of the interior, the cream colored floors, and the operatic chandeliers. The dominant style is art deco and the general whiteness is enlivened by the most tasteful accents in black, which curl around door frames and display cases and spread across the floors. And the classically rectilinear shape of the rooms is relieved, as in the perfume department, by the occasional oval.
On the outside, however, the enchanting illusion dissipates after the fourth floor or so. The rest of the building, a drab pre-war affair of brownish brick, reminds us of what the entire area looked like only a few years back.
James Gardner, formerly the architecture critic of the New York Sun, writes on the visual arts for several publications.