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Columbia University Digital Knowledge Ventures The Architecture and Development of New York City with Andrew S. Dolkart
image The Birth of the Skyscraper The First U.S. Zoning Law
The Pyramid Look
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The First U.S. Zoning Law
The Pyramid Look
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Another building that uses the zoning law in a dramatic way—at about the same time as when the Barclay-Vesey Building was being built—is the Fred French Building, which was built also in the mid-1920s on Fifth Avenue north of Forty-second Street. The 1920s were a period when Midtown was rivaling Lower Manhattan as the commercial center of New York. Once Grand Central Terminal was completed in 1913, many offices began gravitating to the Grand Central area and to Fifth Avenue just north of Forty-second Street. And you get a whole series of spectacular new office buildings erected in the Grand Central area in the 1920s.

The Fred French Building was built by the Fred French Company, which was a building firm. They built many of the great skyscrapers of New York. Fred French was responsible for the construction of Tudor City, one of the great apartment house complexes of New York. This building held his offices but was mostly a speculative venture. He wanted a building that would be very visible. This building takes the zoning law and uses it in an expressive manner. It does not follow the letter of the law like the Heckscher Building does, but instead it puts all the setbacks at approximately the same area on the façade. So you have this series of setbacks that almost makes it look like an ancient Near Eastern ziggurat, or pyramid. It has these very dramatic setbacks and then a tower that rises up above them. The notion of using the zoning laws to create something that looked like an ancient Assyrian structure was something that people talked about in the 1920s, people realized that you could get this stepped pyramid look with the new zoning law.

Fred French took this a step further. Rather than using traditional ornament like Gothic or Renaissance or classical, he actually used ancient Near Eastern ornament on this building to match the ziggurat form. Above the door there are winged figures, some are half human and half lion and there are a lot of stylized ancient Near Eastern forms. This was during the period when there were a lot of archeological excavations in the Near East and this appealed to people. So it is an old kind of ornament, but it is a little bit more exotic than the ornament that had been used in the early twentieth century on skyscrapers.

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