Part of our blog series Why Isn’t This Landmarked?, where we look at buildings in our area we’re fighting to protect that are worthy of landmark designation, but somehow aren’t landmarked.
The impressive 18-story neo-Renaissance style office building at 55 Fifth Avenue was built in 1912 by Maynicke & Franke. According to the New York Times, the architecture firm was “a pioneer in the building of modern loft buildings,” designing a number of other landmarked sites including the Germania Bank Building at 190 Bowery, the International Toy Center at 200 Fifth Avenue, and the Sohmer Piano Building at 170 Fifth Avenue.
What makes 55 Fifth Avenue even more significant than its architecture, however, is its history as a home to a recording studio that launched the careers of enormously important jazz and blues musicians. It was also at this address that the first integrated musical recordings took place. Much like other buildings in Village Preservation’s proposed historic district south of Union Square, 55 Fifth Avenue played a pivotal role in the development of twentieth century American arts and culture. And so we have to ask: why isn’t this landmarked?
Beginning in 1926, the Columbia Phonograph recording studios were located at 55 Fifth Avenue, and sometime not long after the OKeh Phonograph recording studios occupied the building as well. Some of the most consequential recordings of twentieth century American music were made in these studios, which remained at this address until mid-1934.
The Columbia Phonograph Company was founded in 1887. Now known as Columbia Records, it is the oldest surviving brand name in the recorded sound business, and only the second major company to produce records. OKeh Records was founded in 1916 by Otto K.E. Heinemann. Before merging with Columbia, OKeh had already established a strong reputation for producing “race records” — recordings by and for African Americans, including some of the early greats of jazz and blues, such as Louis Armstrong.
The renowned record-producer, civil rights activist, and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-inductee John Hammond made his very first recordings here. Hammond would go on to play a significant role in launching the careers of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Harry James, Count Basie, Big Joe Turner, Pete Seeger, Babatunde Olatunji, Aretha Franklin, Leonard Cohen, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. He also played a major role in reviving the music of delta blues artist Robert Johnson.
At 55 Fifth Avenue, Hammond accomplished several historic firsts. His first recordings at this address were with jazz pianist Garland Wilson, and big band and swing pianist, arranger, and composer Fletcher “Smack” Henderson. Henderson is considered, along with Duke Ellington, one of the most influential arrangers and bandleaders in jazz history, and one of the progenitors of what would come to be called “swing.” Henderson also recorded his “New King Porter Stomp” at 55 Fifth Avenue.
Hammond discovered Billie Holiday singing at a Harlem speakeasy, and brought her down to the Columbia studios to cut her very first records in 1933. He also established a close relationship with a young Benny Goodman, who recorded his first top ten hits, including “Ain’t Cha Glad?,” with Hammond at 55 Fifth Avenue in 1934.
While Goodman is often credited with integrating American music by working with African American musicians and vocalists, Goodman himself would credit Hammond, who made it his personal mission to advance the integration of the music industry. Hammond suggested and indeed pushed Goodman to record music with African American musicians, and arranged his first integrated recording sessions. After initial resistance from Goodman, Hammond managed to gather him, Holiday, and the great African American swing pianist Teddy Wilson to record together in what was the very first integrated musical recording session. While black and white musicians might at times play together at clubs, recording together was a taboo which Hammond was the first to shatter. At 55 Fifth Avenue Hammond also recorded with legendary jazz saxophonist Benny Carter, blues singer Bessie Smith, and jazz vocalist Ethel Waters.
It should also be noted that 55 Fifth Avenue was built upon the site of James Lenox’s mansion, known for turning Fifth Avenue into the premiere residential address in New York. Lenox’s mansion also eventually came to house his extraordinary library, the Lenox Library, which became one of the foundations of the New York Public Library. After Lenox’s death, the mansion was transformed into the first home of the Institute of Musical Art, now the Juilliard School. Of the Juilliard School, Frank Rich said: “born when a young country was first discovering that it might have a serious appetite for the arts, Juilliard grew up with both the country and its burgeoning cultural capital of New York to become an internationally recognized synonym for the pinnacle of artistic achievement.”
55 Fifth Avenue has also been home to an array of prominent publishers over the years, like many of the buildings in Village Preservation’s proposed historic district south of Union Square. Among the more notable is W.W. Norton & Company, the oldest and largest employee-owned publishing house. Norton is responsible for publishing The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan; A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess; Thirteen Days, Robert F. Kennedy’s firsthand account of the Cuban Missile Crisis; Present at the Creation, by Dean Acheson; and The 9/11 Commission Report, among other works.
Given the increased pressure on the area exacerbated by the beginning of construction on the 14th Street Tech Hub, the demolition of the St. Denis Hotel (80 E. 10th Street – to be replaced by this), and the completion of the woefully out-of-scale tech office tower at 808 Broadway, the time is now for the city to act to protect this incredibly historically rich but endangered area.
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