Midtown: Chickering Hall And 9 West 57th

Midtown: Chickering Hall And 9 West 57th

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Like E. 42nd, 57th Street is a good place to wander if you’re looking for nice architecture. I’d been meaning for some time to go there to photograph the Gordon Bunshaft ski-slope skyscraper at 9 West (aka the Solow Building,) and I finally made it one Saturday a few years ago before the first of my photo workshops for that weekend. 

What I had in mind set on was some images with the giant red “9″ in the foreground, but what I found instead is this fun-house-mirror view of the former Chickering Hall, a Sullivenesque building at 29 W. 57th, reflected in 9 West. 

Chickering Hall was built in 1924 for American Piano Company, which also held controlling interests three other piano builders, Knabe, Chickering, and Mason & Hamlin. The architects, Cross & Cross, designed the facade with gilded spandrels and placed gilded caryatids, female musicians playing lyre and pipes, around the crown. Best of all, there are large representations of the “Cross of the Legion of Honor” on all four sides of the mechanical penthouse. Besides being decorative, the penthouse hides elevator machinery and the water tower. The medal was awarded to Chickering at the 1867 Exposition universelle d’Art et d’industrie in Paris. 

9 W. 57th, the “reflector” in this photo, is a 50-story building of 1974 vintage. A design by Gordon Bunschaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, it’s most distinguishing feature is the concave vertical slope of its north and south facades. Bunshaft used the concavity to comply with zoning regulations instead of using the more typical approaches of “wedding cake” setbacks, or of International-style slabs that only take up a fraction of the ground plan. Bunshaft’s original facade treatment for 9 West, with piers and spandrels of white travertine, was rejected by uber-developer Sheldon Solow; Bunshaft then sold the developers of the W.R. Grace Building that exact design, and later came back to Solow with the nearly all-glass facade you see today. Under the skin, these two buildings are structurally near-twins. 

One sad note: By 2016, the elegant 1920's detail of the Chickering Building had been removed for some sort of renovation. Alas, you can no longer see this view. 

Cross & Cross went on to design several other significant buildings in Manhattan, including 20 Exchange Place and the former General Electric Building at 570 Lexington Avenue. That last one is my second-favorite building in the world, but that story is for another time.

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