The tony Manhattan boulevard of 57th Street, where imposing glassy towers of varying architectural quality have needled their way into the sky in recent years, will soon gain an eye-catching new ornament on a more human scale. Even as other national retailers abandon Manhattan amid pandemic-induced financial struggles, Tiffany & Company is unveiling plans for a shimmering glass jewel box on the roof of its 1940 flagship store at 57th and Fifth.
Designed by OMA, the firm co-founded by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, the three-story addition, its top story distinguished by gently undulating glass walls, will replace an addition of similar height built in 1980 atop the seven-story limestone-and-granite luxury-goods store. Demolition of the earlier addition is underway.
This decidedly unfusty architectural stroke by the venerable jeweler, combined with a renovation of the building’s interior, will be the latest iteration of Tiffany’s New York flagship, which has moved uptown five times since its founding in 1837 at Broadway and Warren Street. The revamped flagship is expected to open in spring 2022, with the company doing business until then out of a temporary space next door.
The decision to overhaul the flagship, which entered the realm of mythology with the help of Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” was made three years ago by Alessandro Bogliolo, the chief executive of Tiffany. But the execution comes at a time of major transition for the company. A $16.2 billion purchase of Tiffany by French luxury-retail behemoth LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton was announced last November and approved by Tiffany’s shareholders in February. The deal has not yet closed, even as Tiffany reported a first-quarter loss of $65 million, resulting from temporary store closures worldwide caused by Covid-19.
Charles Lewis Tiffany, born in 1812 in Killingly, Conn., opened his first stationery and fancy goods store opposite City Hall Park on the strength of a $1,000 loan from his father. By the 1850s, he had parlayed that stake into one of the country’s foremost jewelry stores.
As the carriage trade swept up Broadway, Tiffany did too, spending six years at Chambers Street and 16 near Spring Street, where the company’s now-famous statue of Atlas shouldering a clock was mounted above the building’s white marble entrance. Designed by a carver of ship figureheads, Atlas sailed up Broadway with the Tiffany flagship in 1870, making landfall on 15th Street, opposite Union Square.
Here, as at its subsequent flagship locations, the company sought an architectural expression of dignity worthy of its precious wares. Designed in the Italianate palazzo style by John Kellum, the architect behind A.T. Stewart’s iron-front retail emporium on Broadway and 10th Street, Tiffany’s $500,000 new home had large windows, framed by Corinthian columns and arches, to bring daylight inside. The Times described the “monster iron building” as a “palace of jewels.”
(In the early 1950s, long after Tiffany’s departure, the Amalgamated Bank, which owned the building, stripped its facade of every projecting piece of cast iron and clad the structure in white brick after a piece of the cornice fell and fatally injured a pedestrian. In 2007, when the brick was stripped during the building’s conversion into apartments, the old Tiffany iron resurfaced, and today after sunset you can still make out some of the arches’ ghostly silhouettes behind the structure’s dark-glass walls.)
By the early 1900s, the seat of fashion had moved to Fifth Avenue above 23rd Street, and in 1905, Tiffany (along with Atlas) relocated to 37th and Fifth, where it supplanted a flower shop. The new commercial palace, designed by McKim, Mead & White, was a tour de force modeled on the 16th-century Palazzo Grimani in Venice. Though it read visually as three stories, the building’s white marble facade, with its Corinthian columns and piers, actually masked seven stories. The structure still stands today.
Over the decades, luxe retailers like Cartier, Saks and Bergdorf leapfrogged Tiffany’s Murray Hill section of Fifth Avenue for points north, and in 1940 Tiffany followed, landing at its present location on 57th Street, next to Bonwit Teller’s Art Deco building.
For that strategic spot, the architects Cross & Cross designed an elegantly restrained modern building of seven stories, with a granite base and vertical bands of windows set in a limestone upper facade. Atlas, time still weighing heavily on his shoulders, took up his customary spot above the entrance.
“I think it’s one of the great retail buildings in the history of New York and a really critical piece of transitional classicism-modernism,” said Paul Goldberger, an architectural historian, who directed Tiffany’s architect selection process for the current rooftop addition. The 1940 flagship, he said, “represented the attempt by one of the great New York retail companies to both maintain its tradition and upgrade and update it at the same time.”
The Times noted that the building’s “conservative modern” facade reflected the “traditional dignity of former Tiffany buildings, with the interior treatment taking advantage of every progressive advance in the layout and equipment of modern store structures.”
The airy 8,400-square-foot main salesroom was a feat of engineering, its column-free expanse and coffered 24-foot ceiling secured by three 106-ton trusses spanning the building parallel to Fifth Avenue. It was also one of the first major retail buildings in the city with central air-conditioning as part of its original design.
Joseph Hudnut, the first dean of Harvard’s design school, was enamored of the building’s interiors but derided its exterior’s “orthodox” and “timid” monumentality. Writing in The Architectural Forum, he envisioned a future architect of a future Tiffany building who, “trained in a different school, sustained by a deeper faith, will find a way to translate into the outward aspect of his building … that genuine and romantic dignity which even now is an attribute of the interiors.”
The planned three-story addition on Tiffany’s roof might well have pleased him, as it amounts to a contemporary reimagining of Tiffany’s physical identity rather than a dutifully reverential add-on that seeks to resemble an original part of the 80-year-old building.
“One of the most difficult things to do is to move a historic brand forward, like Tiffany’s, that has an extraordinary past, and not be too deferential to the past, but at the same time, keep the essence of the spirit of what that store was when it was built in the ’40s,” said Reed Krakoff, Tiffany’s chief artistic officer. “It was quite a radical store when it was built.”
The new rooftop structure seeks to balance the gravitas of the original building with an airy lightness. Two setback stories with flat glass walls provide separation between the weighty old masonry structure and the 29-foot-tall box with rippling glass walls above it, which appears almost to be floating in air. In architectural renderings, this floating jewel box is illuminated from below with a pale, bluish light that recalls Tiffany’s signature gift boxes, creating an aspirational beacon for the super-wealthy and those who would like to be.
The building’s setback, double-height eighth story will be surrounded by a terrace overlooking Central Park, and that level and the ninth story will be exhibition spaces. The top story will house private showrooms and other facilities.
Mr. Krakoff and Shohei Shigematsu, a partner at OMA, who designed the rooftop addition, took inspiration for the new structure from the innovative 1940 main selling floor — in particular, the way its lofty ceiling and sense of expansiveness, unimpeded by columns, were made possible by what was then new technology.
“We thought, we don’t want this part of the building to be a new version of an old building,” Mr. Krakoff said. “We don’t want to build a new extension that doesn’t feel authentic to the space. The interpretation was really, ‘How do we create a structure that is as bold and innovative as the original structure — the first floor — was?’”
The undulating glass facades of the addition’s top floor are made of high-tech Italian slumped glass, which has structural properties that reduce the need for vertical mullions. The designers chose it to give a softness to the geometric box, while separating it visually from the flat-glass towers around it, notably Trump Tower to the south and the IBM Building to the east.
Mr. Shigematsu, the architect, said that the sensuous curves of the slumped-glass facade were an echo of the original building’s cavetto cornice, which has a gentle, concave curve.
“We thought this slight softness was very, very charming,” he said of the cornice detail. “And also it represents Tiffany’s kind of artisanal craft work.”
The choice of a curvy glass facade on the addition, he added, was therefore “quite appropriate in a way that it respects the curves” of the old building’s cornice, yet “also has some contrast to the solidity and the boxiness of the existing building.”
The flagship’s interiors are also being re-envisioned to create a less regimented shopping experience, where visitors might happen upon visual vignettes elucidating Tiffany’s craftsmanship or stroll around stand-alone cases to discover new collections.
Mr. Krakoff said that most important to him in the redesign was that it “feels like a believable next chapter” of the Tiffany story.
“Tiffany has had so many extraordinary periods in its long history that this makes sense intuitively, the new structure, how it relates to the existing structure, the way one travels through the store,” he said. “I want people to walk in and feel that magic, and feel the best of the way that the Tiffany flagship on the first floor feels, but throughout the entire space, that it’s extended through the entire structure, 10 floors.”