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Olympic Tower, 641 Fifth Avenue

Between 51st Street & 52nd Street

90
Carter Horsley
Review by Carter Horsley
Carter Horsley Carter B. Horsley, a former journalist for The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune and The New York Post. Mr. Horsley is also the editorial director of CityRealty.com.
 

Olympic Tower was the city’s first major mixed-use tower in midtown when it was built in 1976 at 641 Fifth Avenue on the northeast corner at 51st Street.

The 52-story building was the first building erected under the city's Special Fifth Avenue Zoning District regulations that were enacted in 1971.

It has 226 condominium apartments on its top 29 floors, more than 250,000 square feet of office space on floors 2 through 21, retail space and a through-block public arcade.

The Arlen Realty & Development Company and Aristotle Socrates Onassis were the developers and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill was the architect.

Bottom Line

Located in the heart of midtown, this slick glass tower has spectacular views and is steps away from Rockefeller Center, Saks Fifth Avenue and St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Description

The bronze-colored-glass Olympic Tower rises without setbacks on its south façade directly across 51st Street from St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Cathedral.

It has one setback on its north side where it is adjacent to two very handsome former townhouses.

The residential entrance is on the side-street with a large marquee and the entrance to the building’s office space is inside the through-block arcade, which has a large, skylit, south-facing, multi-tiered waterfall, 30-foot-high ceiling and a cafe.

The nicely proportioned slab building has attractive very retail space on the avenue.

Until the completion of Trump Tower several blocks to the north, Olympic tower had the highest profile of any mixed-use building on the avenue.

The building has a low wing with its own separate elevator bank accessed from the arcade near 52nd Street.

Amenities

The building arguably has the finest residential location in midtown and it also has elevator attendants, 24-hour concierge services, a gym, a barber, a hair-dressing salon, a bicycle room, a fitness center, a concierge, emergency electric power and some duplex apartments.

There is very good public bus service and the building is not far from the Museum of Modern Art on West 53rd Street.

The building does not allow pets.

Apartments

Most of the apartments have enclosed kitchens and apartments range from small one-bedrooms to large duplexes.

The apartments were designed with 9-foot-ceilings, which was slightly higher than the norm at the time of its construction, and floor-to-ceiling windows.  (Arthur Erickson, the great Canadian architect, actually raised the floor in his living room on a platform to improve his views from his apartment in the tower.)

A two-bedroom apartment has a large entrance foyer that leads into a 28-foot-long living room.

Another two-bedroom unit has a very large entrance gallery that leads to a 32-foot-long living/dining area adjacent to a 19-foot-long kitchen with breakfast area.

One duplex has a 36-foot-long entrance foyer that opens onto a 43-foot-long living room and a 22-foot-long gallery that opens onto a large formal dining room adjacent to a large family room next to the large kitchen.  There are two bedrooms on the lower level and three on the upper level.

A five-bedroom duplex has a very large entrance gallery that opens onto a 45-foot-long living room that is adjacent to a very large library on one end and a very large dining room and enclosed kitchen on the other.  On the lower level, the master bedroom has a circular walk-in closet and an oval bathtub and a “landing” with one curved end.

A corner duplex has a 25-foot-long entrance gallery, a private elevator and the lower level, on the 50th floor, has three bedrooms, a wet bar, a sauna and one of the dressing room/baths is 20-feet-long.

History

In the 19th Century, the site of Olympic Tower had been used as an orphanage by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese and was across the avenue from important Vanderbilt mansions.  Subsequently, it was the site of the Union Club that is now located on the northeast corner of Park Avenue and 69th Street.

In 1970, Best & Company decided to close its store in a 12-story building with a marble façade on the site and to replace it with a 45-story office building that would be developed by Aristotle Socrates Onassis, the Greek ship-owner and owner of Olympic Airways, and Arlen Properties.

Onassis owned the adjacent, 5-story building at 647 Fifth Avenue that had originally been a house for George W. Vanderbilt that had been designed by Hunt & Hunt in 1905.  Onassis and Arlen then acquired the air rights to the former Morton F. Plant residence at 651 Fifth Avenue on the southeast corner at 52nd Street that was designed by C. P. H. Gilbert in 1905 and remodeled by William Welles Bosworth in 1917 for Cartier's.

Onassis and the Rapid American Corporation, which controlled the McCrory Corporation that owned Best & Co., hired Arlen to develop the property and Arlen commissioned Morris Lapidus to design the project.

Lapidus planned a mid-block plaza on Fifth Avenue and a tower with a 20-story black granite base topped by 20 reflective-glass-clad floors with a full-floor art gallery.

Lapidus was replaced by Kahn & Jacobs and then by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

At one point, SOM planned to extend the tower’s façade over the ornate limestone front of Hunt & Hunt’s original building that housed Onassis’s Olympic Airways building on the avenue.

The building had an unusual structure that consisted of a 30-story cast-in-place reinforced-concrete frame apartment building over a 21-story steel-framed office building.

The Special Fifth Avenue Zoning District had been created in response to an erosion of the avenue's famous retail base as prestige stores were replaced by banks, airline ticket offices, travel agencies and corporate showrooms. The district limited such uses to 15 percent of a building's total ground floor area, although it did allow existing uses to continue.

The district gave bonuses for arcades parallel to the avenue and because Olympic Tower used all available bonuses, not only for the arcade, but also for including housing and retail uses, it achieved a floor-to-area (FAR) ratio of 21.6, 20 percent greater than was typically permitted at the time of its construction in the city's highest density commercial areas.

The project came to market about the same time as The Galleria at 115 East 57th Street, another large, major mixed-use tower. Although the Galleria was more interesting architecturally, Olympic Tower was more successful initially because its sales campaign targeted foreign buyers - not surprising, of course, because of the involvement of Mr. Onassis, a famous ship owner and jet-setter.

The tower has 38,770 square feet of retail space as compared to about a quarter of a million square feet that were contained in the Best & Co. building that had been on the site.

An underground connection beneath Fifth Avenue to Rockefeller Center was reportedly considered, but rejected as too costly.

At its topping-out ceremony, city planners were invited to hear some short speeches and gobble boiled red potatoes stuffed with creme fraiche and the finest caviar and drink some very good champagne. It was an impressive start for a tower that is still impressive by any standard close to the epicenter of the world. 

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