Grabbing Electricity at the Old G.E. Building

You probably know 570 Lexington as the skyscraper behind St. Bart’s Church: a towering 50-story behemoth of salmon brick, clearly affirming the Art Deco maxim of signifying power through simplicity. Originally built for RCA-Victor, it later became the G.E. building, and was ultimately donated to Columbia University during tough economic times.

GE01

I’ve walked past the north-east entrance at 51st and Lex countless times, but honestly have never taken the time to pay much attention. Wish I had…

GE02

…as it easily has one of the most interesting bits of ornamentation in Manhattan.

GE03

Perched above the G.E. clock are a pair of human hands, which are literally grabbing and overpowering an electrical current. There is something so raw and definite in the piece, made all the more harsh by its rendering in steel.

GE04

I also love these stainless-steel hands on either side, which seem to be releasing electricity into the air. Or, perhaps the hands are drawing current from the sky.

GE05

Move around to the east side of the building…

GE06

…and you find this very interesting mystical looking fellow – is he standing over some sort of square flower? Is that a headdress he’s wearing?

GE07

A closer look – I love the angularity in his design. That square flower is pretty cool:

GE08

Update! Happened to pass by the building again in my travels today, and noticed a few more great details – this building is just dripping with ornamentation. First, above the 51st Street subway entrance, a gorgeous deco-style bird:

Lex 01

Much higher up, this guy sits at a corner of the building, complete with a huge headdress and a bolt of lightening emanating down:

Lex 03

Two more characters on the eastern side:

Lex 04

I especially like this googly-eyed one:

Lex 05

Finally, another lightening bolt decoration. Note the interesting diagonal brickwork on the right:

Lex 02

Of course, 570 Lex is best known for its incredible rooftop, which I really really hope to see up close one of these days. Until then, a picture courtesy of Flickr user mpirrocco:

RCA Victor 570 Lexington Avenue

Finally, completely disregard that bit about the Lunchtime Atop A Skyscraper photograph being shot here! In my research, I was mixing up the various “old G.E. buildings” in the city – it was 30 Rock after all.

Oops!

-SCOUT

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14 comments

  1. The soaring optimism of the great Deco buildings — the determined hopefulness of that era — never fails to move me.

    The design, the sumptuous building materials, the craftsmanship….incredible. Hope you get access to the roof some day. What a thrill that would be.

    I’d love to know what’s become of the Chrysler Building’s Cloud Club. That’s something I’d give my eye-teeth to see.

  2. Oh my god, I LOVE this building! I remember when I first saw the decoration upclose, when I was working at the Hyatt back in the ’80s. Unbelievable! And the roof is INCREDIBLE. I will definitely keep my fingers crossed for you to get closeups there one day.

    How did you find out it was the actual site for that famous photo, though?

  3. Love the detail. Such energy and belief in the future. Let’s all put that energy into our work.

  4. I just the other day noticed those fists in the detail of that building, and wondered what the deal was!

    I’ve just discovered that the building most prominent in the foreground of that famous picture is the Warwick Hotel on 6th Ave. at 54th St… so it doesn’t really seem possible that the photo could have been taken from four avenues away. That, and Central Park being cut off. My guess is it was one of the Rock Center buildings — maybe Radio City?

    http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=en&geocode=&q=warwick+hotel+ny&sll=52.277296,-1.571217&sspn=0.049049,0.154324&ie=UTF8&hq=warwick+hotel&hnear=New+York,+NY&ll=40.762428,-73.978606&spn=0,359.998794&t=h&z=20&layer=c&cbll=40.762351,-73.978667&panoid=igeVeOyt5Qr8c1zDGSllZw&cbp=12,64.17,,0,-31.44

  5. Great post!
    But this is the actual site of the Lunch Atop a Skyscraper photo?
    I read that Ebbets took it at 30 Rock because he was hired to photograph the construction there. here’s one of him taking the photos:

    http://www.ebbetsphoto-graphics.com/#/gallery/charles-c-ebbets-the-photographer/charles-c-ebbets-3-031lr-on-beam-at-rockefeller-center-1932-low-res-for-web/

    The way the Empire State Building is aligned head-on in the photograph makes me think it was 30 Rock…

    and some more interesting info for anyone interested regarding how dangerous the photo was:

    http://depletedcranium.com/were-steel-workers-really-this-reckless/

  6. What gorgeous ornamentation! I love art deco design. I am always amazed at the degree of ornament at the top of these buildings – seen by so few!

  7. That’s just gorgeous. I feel like sometimes this city is an embarrassment of riches and some of our gorgeous buildings go overlooked or are eclipsed by some of their taller friends. I think the Citys Services Building in the Financial District is another one. It’s one of my all time favorites and is very prominent on the skyline, but no one seems to have ever heard of it.

  8. That is absolutely stunning! Thanks for sharing it with us out of towners, I now definitely have to see it for myself!

  9. It occurs to me that the stone they used for the entrance is also pretty inspired, as the paler streaks in it look almost like forks of lightning themselves.

    SUCH a beautiful building!

  10. A great post! I was fortunate enough to work in this art deco masterpiece from 1975-1983 as a young “Power Engineer” for General Electric.

    On the 50th (top) floor, there was a nice dining room, where anyone from a janitor to then-CEO Reg Jones could have lunch (you did have to dress appropriately.) The men’s room on that floor had a small window looking west with probably the best free view of Midtown West, the Hudson, and New Jersey. Unfortunately, the view was totally blocked by the ’80 when Leona Helmsley built the execrable Helmsley Hotel.

  11. That has always been my favorite building in NY. My family lives just around the corner and I have seen it a million times but I always marvel at how beautiful it is. Fortunately it has landmark status and can never be torn down, they would never be able to build anything even remotely like it again. One of the true gems of the city.

  12. Great post and blog. What a cool building. The building c1931 was originally built for the Radio Victor Corporation of America, a subsidiary of GE. Much of the deco is abstract radio waves. GE did remake some of the art when it took over the building. See article at: http://www.nytimes.com/1995/01/15/realestate/streetscapes-570-lexington-avenue-columbia-s-restoring-an-art-deco-masterpiece.html

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