532 Madison Avenue
532 Madison Avenue
Horace Ginsbern & Associates, 1957-58
532 Madison Avenue is a seven-story office building designed by Horace Ginsbern Associates in 1957. The building is significant for the high quality of its design by an important New York City architectural firm and for its relationship to “high style” modern architecture giving us, in Midtown, a broad understanding of the depth of American modern architecture. The building is also significant for its association with the Chock Full O’Nuts lunch counter chain.
Construction started in 1958 and the building opened in early 1959: the ground floor housed a Chock Full O’Nuts lunch counter. Filing at the Department of Buildings by Horace Ginsbern & Associates listed “54th Madison Avenue Corp., Wm. Black, president” as the Owner. William Black (1898-1983) was the founder of Chock Full O’Nuts: it appears that he bought this prominent corner lot, in the middle of Midtown, to secure a good location for a lunch counter, at the North-West corner of 54th street and Madison Avenue: the upper floors were rented. Horace Ginsbern was the company’s architect and William Black continued to work with Horace Ginssbern & Associates as he had done before.
The building has a sure-handed design: clean massing, and a tight, flush exterior wall defined by the simple repetition of large square window openings punched into a wall of blue glazed bricks: the design of the windows bares a striking resemblance to the curtain wall of the Equitable Building in Portland, Oregon (Pietro Belluschi, 1945-48) and the curtain wall of the Air Force Academy’s Cadet Quarters (Skidmore Owings & Merrill, 1954-57). Ginsbern achieves a modern expression, within the confines of traditional construction: this is not a glass curtain wall but at a masonry wall with punched window openings. The design uses color, flatness and large scale (the large windows) to create a neutral abstract grid appealing to a modern sensibility. This is everyday modernity, a modernity that has been accepted and is being comfortably worked into modest buildings; the architect is in full command of this mode and produces a building that is self-assured and eschews rhetoric.
The architect, Horace Ginsbern, is well known for his Art Deco and Moderne style apartment buildings mostly built in Manhattan and in the Bronx: several of his buildings of that period are New York City Landmarks. He and his collaborators are as talented working in this new architectural sensibility as they had been previously: they shown themselves to be acutely aware of the latest architectural developments and able to develop the current ideas through their own designs.
New York Times columnist Christopher Gray noted that by the 1950s Ginsbern “had replaced surface ornament with pure form and color — he was for a long time the architect for the Chock Full O’Nuts chain, designing buildings like the crisp office and store at the northeast corner of 54th street and Madison Avenue of 1959 [date of opening], with a taut surface of brick, large picture windows and metal panels.” (NYT Sept 2, 2001). Ginsbern adopted a different manner from that of his apartment buildings for the design of this commercial building whose owner, Chock Full O’Nuts, was the source for his commission. The building design simply had to be an advertisement for the chain. The potential of a façade to advertise for the business was well established, having been pioneered by Morris Lapidus and at the mid-century façades and signs were blending into a new and effective form of advertising. Most earlier Chock Full O’Nuts stores located in older buildings were clad in blue Carrara glass but at 532 Madison Horace Ginsbern Associates was able to turn the whole building into a sign with the bold use of blue for the entire façade.
Although recently installed red awnings (all reversible) interfere with a full appreciation of the design, the building retains its original window pattern and materials, original façade materials, original entrance on 54th street and original stainless steel framed storefront on 54th street.
NB 125 of 1957.
New York Times NYT September 20, 1958.
Treu, Martin, Signs, Streets And Storefronts: A History Of Architecture And Graphics (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2012).