Vornado Realty and LeFrak have announced their plans to demolish Rizzoli Bookstore, along with the two adjacent buildings, in order to build a luxury high rise.
This is not the first time Rizzoli Bookstore faced the grim prospect of destruction. In 1985, the Fifth Avenue store was slated for demolition for a new skyscraper designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox. Developers then, as now, argued the building had no architectural significance. A protracted landmark battle ensued, and preservationists eventually prevailed: 712 Fifth Avenue, as well as the Coty building, were approved by the Landmark Preservation Commission. The Rizzoli Building was noted for being “a distinguished example of the elegant neo-French Classic style, [recalling] 18th-century Parisian town houses.” KPF’s designs for the new tower were changed to preserve the facades of both landmarked buildings.
The Coty building was only saved at the last minute because the LPC discovered the windows were designed by René Lalique. The floral glasswork failed to attract their admiration until a celebrated name suddenly materialized.
Alas, Randolph Almiroty is virtually unknown to architectural history. Almiroty was the founding partner of Browne & Almiroty, the team that designed the French Gothic building at 150-154 West 22nd Street, as well as the richly ornamented Croisic building. The Rizzoli Building currently under threat of demolition was one of his earliest independent projects, and, quite possibly, his finest.
His name may be forgotten by history, but then so is the architect of Chartes cathedral. The measure of a building is not the celebrity of its architect. The architectural significance of Rizzoli Bookstore is apparent to everyone who visits the store.
In contrast to the French architectural style of 712 Fifth Avenue, the Almiroty building draws its inspiration from a wealth of Italianate sources. The weighty entrance arch recalls the grandeur of Roman triumphal arches, while the large Diocletian window owes its inspiration to Palladian villas, as well as the Main Waiting Room in Old Penn Station. Above the large keystone, the crest of Sohmer & Co anchors the building firmly to its past. The strict symmetry and perfect geometric ratios of the exterior conform to the principles of architectural practice laid down by Alberti in his De re aedificatoria.
While the exterior facade conveys a sober classicism, a hint of the interior’s opulence can be seen in the vertical parts of the metal window frame where grotesques, amphorae, and rosettes provide a pleasing contrast to the limestone facade and refer to numerous ancient Roman and Renaissance monuments, in particular, the House of Nero and Raphael’s frescoes in the Vatican Loggia. The undulating strigils that appear in the horizontal frieze typically appeared on funerary monuments, an example can be seen in a Roman sarcophagus depicting a Greek physician dating to the 4th century in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (48.76.1). It is likely Almiroty studied ancient sarcophagi with intense scrutiny. In 1919, the same year he completed the Rizzoli building and the Spanish flu epidemic was decimating millions, he patented a design for sealing burial caskets.
The grotesques of the window frame reappear in unabashed glory in the spectacular vaulted ceiling inside. An explosion of birds, flowers, shells, chimeras, putti riding hippocamps, and maidens dancing to the accompaniment of lyres and harps greet the visitor. From its ceiling, a large bronze chandelier featuring Hercules fighting the Nemean lion suspends in the air, a remnant of the Fifth Avenue store.
For years, this location served as the piano showroom for Sohmer & Co, and along with Steinway and Chickering Hall, it served as one of the grand fixtures along Piano Row. When Rizzoli Bookstore moved to West 57th Street in 1985, the interior was skillfully renovated by H3 Hardy Collaboration and many of its original features were preserved. The store is a superlative example of adaptive reuse in architecture. The elements from the previous Fifth Avenue store have been harmoniously integrated into the old piano showroom. The result is an experience that the AIA has described as “feeling like a library in a baronial mansion.”
With the closure of Scribner’s bookstore twenty-six years ago, Rizzoli is the last grand bookstore remaining in the United States. The loss of any bookstore is a tragedy, but the loss of such an outstanding building is a crime. The Landmarks Preservation Commission must landmark 31 W 57th Street or risk losing another vital piece of New York City’s cultural and architectural heritage.
Healthy cities need a balance of preservation and growth. New buildings are welcome in our city but should not come at the expense of tearing down beautiful historic ones. Ada Louise Huxtable once said that history will judge us not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed. Unless we act swiftly to preserve the Rizzoli building, future generations will forever begrudge us for the monuments we have denied them.