The Strange Little Building Next To The Empire State Building

Last week, I was scouting around midtown when I happened to notice the building at 34th Street and Fifth Avenue…

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Er, make that the building next to the building at 34th Street and Fifth Avenue:

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For the longest time, 22 West 34th Street has confused the hell out of me. How did this incredibly strange little structure come to be the neighbor of the most famous skyscraper in the world?

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And yet, though it’s sort of ugly on first glance, there are actually some really interesting design elements at work if you take the time to look. For example, far more than just a boring modern box, the eastern edge extends out in a rather graceful curve…

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…and features an unusual contrast between the rounded edge and the angular window boxes set into it:

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And though it’s impossible to tell now due to too many layers of paint, the left side is actually made of limestone, while the rest is tan-colored brick.

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One final set of window boxes graces the right side:

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OK, maybe my argument is not particularly convincing. But had you been on this spot in the 1930s…

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…it would have looked as cutting-edge modern as you could imagine.

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22 West 34th Street was once the home to Spear & Company, a furniture store based out of Pittsburgh, built in 1938 and described by the AIA as “startling modern work for Midtown when completed during the Great Depression.”

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Designed by DeYoung & Moscowitz, the facade was designed with an inset so that passersby heading east from various train and subway stations would easily see the Spear’s sign. Note the angle below:

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It appears that Spear’s had operated a store at the location prior to this structure. You can see 22 West 34th below left, with a Spear’s ad…

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…and during its demolition in 1937 for the new building:

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From the late-1950s on, the interior was chopped up and gutted for additional stores and offices. For a period, the blank portion of the wall featured a mural of a giant guy wearing jeans for the County Seat clothing store within. Then the 34th Street Partnership filed a complaint due to it violating the maximum size of advertising in the area, and it was painted over.

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Very little remains from the original interior. Here’s a look at the curve’s windows:

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About the only other remnants can be found in the stairwell – love the flowerburst pattern on the steps:

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Also in the stairwell, a stray bit of detail no one would ever be foolish enough to include nowadays:

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Finally, I must say: the rooftop view is quite unique when this is your neighbor:

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These days, I can’t imagine that many people take the time to look at the sad little building next door to the Empire State Building. But if you squint a little, ignore the disrepair and look past the grime…

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…you might find a building worthy of sitting in its shadow.

-SCOUT

For more info: Streetscapes/22 West 34th Street

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20 comments

  1. Great story, Nick! Your discoveries make visits back to my hometown even more fun.

  2. I can’t wait to take a trip back to the city that had my heart and take a closer look!

  3. Just walked by this building over the weekend and had similar thoughts. It really is a little gem, with beauty hidden beneath the grime and stripped-down elements. I wondered what it had been previously, so thanks for your research and post : ).

  4. Did you notice that there is a language school in the 1930’s shot, just as there’s one now? Interesting coincidence, or maybe it’s the perfect place for a language school? 🙂

  5. It appears that the building being demolished is actually next door to Spear’s. The Spear’s Building is the taller, 6-story building to the left. Another photo shows the facade removed from this building. I think the older Spear’s Building was not actually demolished, just severely altered with the new facade and interiors. That would explain the Beaux-Arts era stairway remnants. They were probably left in place while the rest of the building was being renovated around them.

    • Great observation. You are completely right!

    • You are right, just look at the signs on the first floor in the supposed demolition picture- hard to have sales going on there when the building itself is supposedly being demolished…

      So the building next door was demolished to allow for the original store to be expanded, thus the work being done is actually a renovation and the original details that are thought to be from the 30s building are actually from earlier than that.

      If it’s any help, I did find a claim that they opened their store in 1908…it might be possible this is the date of the original part of the store, the one that you featured.

  6. I always was fascinated by that building. I wish we could pass a law that says no more ugly storefronts. 34th st looks like a cheap strip mall. That building could shine with a better paint job or just a clean up. So sick of the neon store signs and crowded windows.

  7. Russell figaredo

    Thanks nick you just added a few minutes to my guided tours of ny
    RF

  8. Sarah Rosenblatt

    Thanks for the post! I work nearby, and have often wondered what the deal was with this little guy. I’m glad to know of it’s fab mod past!

  9. I have always been entranced by this building – well, at least since I first noticed it crouching down there next to the ESB. It had spectacular neon in its day!

  10. Hi Nick,
    I went to New York finally when i was 55 – I adore your work – thank you !

  11. The interior is quite cool, sitting by those windows must get one an interesting view.

  12. Brian G. Andersson

    Good eye, & nice piece of research. Congrats.

  13. Amazing, I must have walked over there at least 5 times so far this year & never noticed that building. Gonna try & pass by it tonight.

    Thank you

  14. In the 1970s, the ground floor retail was a store called LOOK UP, which was on the vertical sign, and it had a giant pair of Op-Art eyes on the front wall at the top of the building pointed up towards the ESB…

  15. I walk past here almost every day and had been hoping for a long time you would cover this! Thanks so much for finally enlightening us on the past of this interesting piece of architecture! Keep up the good work.

  16. Hoosey Whatsis

    Your posts are consistently fascinating but my favorites are those which, like this one, reveal architectural gems hiding in plain sight.

    Just FYI: beyond all the entertainment and education you’ve provided me, you’ve even helped re-mold my outlook on life. No joke — instead of going places focused entirely on the details of getting there, I started first noticing some of the interesting buildings and landmarks I passed, then actively looking for them and now, astonishingly, taking an occasional (gasp!) detour or (worse!) walk simply to find, enjoy and appreciate interesting structures.

    No gush, only gratitude, intended. And you can say “You’re welcome” by covering all my legal costs when I’m detained by police who, after observing my wanderings, suspect either theft, vagrancy or public intoxication, and when I explain what I’m doing they only laugh and then beat me up — since that whole traumatic experience will be entirely your fault.

    Keep up the great work.

  17. Mike from Middle Village

    Thank you for writing about this building and posting great shots. I’ve always wondered about it when walking down 34 street.
    I enjoy the clean 30’s style of this building. Thanks for delving into it.

  18. Nice post, I love the way you give so much loving exposure to places that 99.9% of passers-by probably never give a second glance. Great eye you have – great website too. Thanks!

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