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Saks Fifth Avenue flagship store
Saks Fifth Avenue Building
Saks Fifth Avenue (48155562261).jpg
The Saks flagship in 2019
Location 611 and 623 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan, New York City
Built 1922-1924; 1990
Architect Starrett & van Vleck;
Lee Harris Pomeroy Associates and Abramovitz Kingsland Schiff (expansion)
Architectural style(s) Neo-Renaissance, Palazzo
Owner Saks Fifth Avenue
New York City Landmark
Designated December 29, 1984
Reference no. 1523

The Saks Fifth Avenue flagship store is a department store in Midtown Manhattan, New York City, within the luxury shopping district on Fifth Avenue between 49th and 60th Streets. The original 10-story structure at 611 Fifth Avenue has served as the flagship store of Saks Fifth Avenue since its completion in 1924. The store also occupies part of 623 Fifth Avenue, a 36-story tower completed in 1990.

The original Saks Fifth Avenue Building was designed by Starrett & van Vleck in the classical style. It contains a facade made of Indiana limestone, brick, and cast-stone, with chamfered corners on Fifth Avenue at 49th and 50th Streets. Saks Fifth Avenue was the first department store on Fifth Avenue to comply with the 1916 Zoning Resolution, with setbacks on its upper floors. The tower addition at 623 Fifth Avenue was designed by Lee Harris Pomeroy Associates and Abramovitz Kingsland Schiff. The tower is partially designed in the style of the original structure.

The building was constructed from 1922 to 1924 as the flagship store of Saks & Company, replacing a previous flagship store at Herald Square. The flagship store subsequently lent its street name to the department store chain, which became known as Saks Fifth Avenue. The original building was designated a New York City Landmark in 1984.


Saks Fifth Avenue and 623 Fifth aerial-crop
Aerial view of 611 and 623 Fifth Avenue

Saks Fifth Avenue spans two structures: 611 Fifth Avenue, built in 1924, and an extension at 623 Fifth Avenue – a 36-story tower built in 1990. Saks co-developed the tower and operates ten of its floors. The building lies adjacent to St. Patrick's Cathedral, a National Historic Landmark, and across Fifth Avenue from the Rockefeller Center complex. The building makes up a part of Fifth Avenue's "streetwalls", rows of mid-rise buildings built in the early- to mid-1900s clad in limestone or beige brick. The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the original structure as a city landmark because it contributed to this design aspect of Fifth Avenue.

The original structure was designed by Starrett & van Vleck and constructed by the Cauldwell-Wingate Company, with numerous other engineers and contractors. Starrett & van Vleck created a classical exterior matching with the character of Fifth Avenue at the time, as prompted by the Fifth Avenue Association. The association granted the store its 1924 gold medal for "best new building of the year". The architects created a modern interior for the department store and followed a new city zoning law requiring setbacks for buildings' upper floors for Saks' administrative offices.

The 36-story 623 Fifth Avenue was designed by a partnership between Lee Harris Pomeroy Associates, hired by Swiss Bank Corporation (the initial building owners), and Abramovitz Kingsland Schiff (staff architects for Saks). The New York City Planning Commission requested a height not much greater than the neighboring Newsweek Building, limiting its floor count and limiting ceiling heights to 8 feet, 8 inches. The tower is often stated to have 36 stories, as the 37th and 38th floors just house mechanical equipment, as does floor 10. The tower also has a basement loading level and sub-basement.


Original building

The 1924 building has ten stories, as well as three facades on 49th Street, Fifth Avenue, and 50th Street. The primary Fifth Avenue elevation is connected to the 49th and 50th Street elevations by chamfered corners. each with about 200 feet (61 m) of street frontage. The exterior utilizes Indiana limestone, brick, and cast stone. The design is a modest version of neoclassical buildings popular in the 1920s, reported at the time as inspired by the architecture of the late English Renaissance and by lesser-known 18th c. London buildings. The three facades are nearly identical except for minor details at ground level.

Saks Fifth Avenue windows
Display windows at 5th Avenue and 49th Street at night
Saks Fifth Avenue entranceway
One of the store's main entrances

At ground level, the facade is clad with rusticated granite blocks and contains tall display windows. This first level is high-ceilinged; its exterior reads as 1.5 stories tall. The display windows are large plate glass sheets in bronze frames, with narrow sections of marble wall between each window. On Fifth Avenue, the display windows span the block and are only interrupted by two entrances. The presence of twin entrances, while relatively rare for department stores, emphasizes the building's size and full-block Fifth Avenue frontage. The entranceways are rectangular, with carved spiral moldings and topped with a plain cornice. Sets of doors span the lower halves of the entrances, while the upper halves have windows set behind ornate metal grilles.

The 49th and 50th Street entrances have original metal canopies hung above the doorways. The canopies read "Saks & Company" between squares with quatrefoil designs; the canopy tops are decorated with a bronze frieze of urns and floral motifs. The eastern end of the 49th Street facade has a loading bay topped with an ornamental bronze cornice. The 49th Street loading bay was for receiving merchandise. A corresponding loading bay on 50th Street was used for shipping and contained an adjacent employee entrance.

The main element of the facade is on its second and third floors – a 14-bay-wide order of fluted pilasters supporting an architrave, all constructed of Indiana limestone. The design is flat and restrained, though the pilasters' capitals and the architrave's frieze are ornate and inventive. Another architrave divides the second and third floors, featuring a decorative balustrade.

The fourth through sixth stories are less ornate, with a brick exterior and rectangular windows. The fourth-story windows have decorative cast stone surrounds topped by plain panels. Above this story is a sill molding, and the seventh story, also brick-faced but with ornamental stone roundels placed between each of the windows. The story is topped with a cornice and balustrade above. These first through seventh stories feature a chamfered bays between the Fifth Avenue and side street facades.

The eighth, ninth, and tenth stories are progressively set back from the street fronts. The eighth story is relatively bare, while the ninth has narrow windows surrounded alternatively by slender colonnettes and cast stone rectangular panels. The story is topped with a heavy stone cornice and plain brick parapet. The tenth story has simple windows and a brick exterior, also topped with a cornice and final stone balustrade.

623 Fifth Avenue

Saks and 623 Fifth 02
Facade details of 623 Fifth; seven floors mirror the original store

All 38 stories of the 623 Fifth Avenue tower addition are clad in Indiana limestone. The tower and original Saks building are easily viewable from across the street at 30 Rockefeller Plaza and its Top of the Rock observation deck. From there, 623 Fifth Avenue rises symmetrically above Saks, and with a carved-out center, reciprocating the jutting-out 30 Rockefeller Plaza. This section features ribbons of windows only separated by thin limestone spandrels; the rest of the building has standalone or punched windows.

The first seven floors of the building, constructed in 1990, feature an exterior mirroring the 1924 Saks building. The bank had favored a modern facade, though the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission desired an extension of the 1924 facade. Both Saks and the offices share street frontage on its 49th and 50th Street facades. The 50th Street facade is a near-identical replication, with only subtle changes in form and detail, and with hand-carved ornamentation. Saks gained two new display windows and an entranceway replicating the original single 50th Street entrance, while Swiss Bank Corporation gained a two-bay-wide and three-story-tall grand entrance. The 49th Street facade at ground-level is more modern, though with a Saks entrance and show windows replicating originals. The facade is pulled back from the street, giving this side a small paved forecourt. On either side of the new Saks entrance are its relocated loading dock and a secondary office tower entrance.


Saks and 623 Fifth 01
Layout of 623 Fifth Avenue beside the original Saks store

The original structure had over 400,000 square feet (37,000 m2) of floor area, while the tower has 370,000 sq ft (34,000 m2). The tower's first through ninth floors are operated by Saks, with a 100,000 sq ft (9,300 m2) expansion. The 10th story of the tower has mechanical equipment, while the 11th through 36th floors are separately-operated office space.

Department store

When the original department store opened, the first through seventh stories were dedicated to sales. There were also four stories of offices and storerooms. The basement was used for shipping and receiving, the eighth story was used for offices, and the ninth and tenth stories for stockrooms and workrooms.

The first story has a ceiling height of 18.75 feet (5.72 m), while the other stories have ceiling heights of 14 feet (4.3 m). The building's superstructure is formed by eight sets of columns. Twelve elevators were placed at the eastern end of the building, in the rear. Two enclosed stairways were installed near the Fifth Avenue entrances, and there were service stairs at each of the rear corners. The furnishings were designed in hardwood, while the wall surfaces and columns above contained white finishing. The flat-paneled ceilings had suspended light fixtures and concealed sprinkler pipes.

Office space

Each of the office stories has a ceiling of 8 feet 8 inches (2.64 m). The office tower's two-story lobby is on the 11th and 12th floors, a sky lobby atop the Saks expansion, with four shuttle elevators taking passengers up to this lobby. The lobby originally had a waterfall and 1989 Richard Serra work, Fin, made of curved oxidized iron and weighing 18 tons. The lobby level also has a conference center and cafeteria.

As late as 2002, the building had a five-story corporate penthouse for executive offices, with a total of 65,000 square feet. The offices, on floors 32 to 36, had Swiss pearwood-lined walls, while its elevator lobbies and reception areas had cut limestone walls. The space also featured meeting rooms, a kitchen, and a dining room.


Origin: A. Saks & Co.

Broadway and 33rd
The Herald Square Saks & Co. store in 1903, behind the 33rd Street station

Andrew Saks was born to a German Jewish family, in Baltimore. He worked as a peddler and paper boy before moving to Washington, D.C. where at the age of only 20, and in the still-chaotic and tough economic times of 1867, only two years after the United States prevailed in the American Civil War, he established a men's clothing store with his brother Isadore. A. Saks & Co. occupied a storefront in the Avenue House Hotel building at 517 (300-308) 7th Street, N.W., in what is still Washington's downtown shopping district. Saks annexed the store next door, and in 1887 started building a large new store on the site of the old Avenue Hotel Building at 7th and Market Space (now United States Navy Memorial Plaza). By the 1880s, Saks had expanded his business to Indianapolis and Richmond, Virginia.

Saks opened a large department store in 1902 in New York City's Herald Square on 34th Street and Broadway (at 1293-1311 Broadway). Andrew Saks ran the New York store as a family affair with his brother Isadore, and his sons Horace and William. Andrew Saks died in 1912 and his son Horace took over the company's management. Horace Saks wanted to move to the Fifth Avenue shopping district, which had been first developed in 1905 with the opening of the B. Altman and Company Building at 34th Street, and which was gradually expanding northward. However, he deferred a relocation of the store during World War I.


Building site and proposal for a U-shaped building for Saks, 1922

Saks & Company leased the Buckingham Hotel and Belgravia Apartments, on Fifth Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets, in April 1920 for $35 million. At the time, the site was described in the Real Estate Record as a "new northern outpost for large retail trade". In June 1921, Starrett & Van Vleck filed plans for a nine-story building on the Fifth Avenue site. Demolition of the two structures began later that year.

Further underlining the need for a new store was the fact that, in 1922, the landlord of the Herald Square building doubled the rent. The National Democratic Club occupied the middle of the Saks site, at 617 Fifth Avenue, but the club originally refused a $1 million offer for its site, which measured 100 by 42 feet (30 by 13 m). As a result, Saks & Company initially sought to construct a U-shaped building wrapping around the clubhouse. Saks merged in April 1923 with Gimbel Brothers, Inc., which was owned by a cousin of Horace Saks, Bernard Gimbel. Gimbel took over the Herald Square lease, paid off Saks' debt, and bought $8 million of the company's stock. Saks bought the Democratic Club the following month.

On September 15, 1924, Saks opened the Saks Fifth Avenue Building at 611 Fifth Avenue, with a full-block avenue frontage south of St. Patrick's Cathedral, facing what would become Rockefeller Center. At the time, The Evening World wrote that it did not consider Saks a department store, contrary to popular belief. The newspaper stated that Saks sold no dry goods or furniture, only dealing in clothing and accessories. The new store did not add any of these departments, only doubling the floor space of the existing departments. The Wall Street Journal projected the new store would ultimately have an annual profit of $17 million.


20th century

In 1926, the Saks brothers withdrew from the operation of Saks & Company, stating that the Fifth Avenue flagship had become "satisfactorily" established. From 1929 to 1969, Sophie Gimbel led the store's custom department. Gimbel, wife of the company president, designed elegant clothes and introduced women's culottes to the American public. On the land underlying the Saks flagship, the Saks Realty Company initially owned the former Democratic Club plot, but the remaining site was owned by the George Kemp Company. In 1935, the Kemp Company bought the Democratic Club plot, thereby obtaining ownership of the entire site.

Saks was designated a New York City Landmark in 1984 in an effort to build a skyscraper next to it beginning in the early 1980s. The store and midblock parcel were in separate zoning districts, and air rights could not be transferred unless the store was granted landmark status, thus allowing the project.

In 1990, the 36-story tower was built next door to Saks Fifth Avenue, a joint project of Saks and the Swiss Bank Corporation (for their North American headquarters). The skyscraper has been known as Swiss Bank Tower and 10 E 50th St., and has been known as 623 Fifth Avenue since 2002. The prestigious Fifth Avenue address was granted as the skyscraper is on the same zoning lot as the 1924 store, and was built using its air rights. The building has a single owner, initially Swiss Bank Corporation, which had leased the ground from Saks for 100 years with an agreement to give Saks the building's lower floors for an expansion of their store.

21st century

In August 2007, the United States Postal Service began an experimental program selling the plus zip code extension to businesses. The first company to do so was Saks Fifth Avenue, which received the zip code of 10022-7463 ("SHOE") for the eighth-floor shoe department in the flagship store.

In 2015 Saks began a $250 million, three-year restoration of the flagship store. The company president desired reinventing the flagship, opening up its floors and closing its Cafe SFA to create a new eatery, the Parisian-style L'Avenue. Saks planned a spiral staircase around a glass elevator, linking its first and second floors. It would move around departments, and transform back-room space into retail space.

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