THEY go up, they go down — and that’s pretty much it for any New York building, maybe with one or two alterations.
But the French-style Harry Winston store of 1960, at Fifth Avenue and 56th Street, now shrouded in netting, is a ramble through a century of architectural history. The building has been through one-two-three-four-five major episodes, and a sixth was never realized.
After the Civil War, Fifth Avenue north of St. Patrick’s Cathedral began to fill up with high-stoop row houses, some quite grand. One builder, Charles Duggin, was active on virtually every block; working with a partner, James Crossman, he put up rows like the one including the “21” Club at 21 West 52nd Street, of 1872.
In the same year, Duggin built a row of five capacious houses at the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 56th, each one varied in appearance. The corner house, at 718 Fifth Avenue, had elements rarely seen on garden-variety brownstones, like chunky, baroque-style window frames, and alternating rough-and-smooth quoins, the blocky forms emphasizing the building’s edge. Every other quoin was vermiculated, with squiggly furrows running across the surface like the trail of a worm.
In 1877 The Real Estate Record and Guide obliquely referred to the aspirations of the two men, calling them “the great leaders of fashion in house building, Messrs. Duggin & Crossman, architects, as they prefer to be styled — really artist builders.” In that year the furniture manufacturer Charles Baudouine bought the corner house, and during his time the area was nearing its apogee as a residential address.
But fashion is fickle, and in 1896 The New York World reported that this part of Fifth was “sacred no longer.” The ground floor of the Baudouine house was being made over for a clothing store.
By the 1910s the gentry had fled their mansions. Charles Duveen, a member of the London family of antiques dealers, took over 718 Fifth, in 1913 hiring the architect Henry Otis Chapman to give it a new front in the neo-Classical style, with rusticated blocks of stone or terra cotta.
Corning Glass, founded in 1851, bought the old Baudouine house in 1936. Corning had developed everything from Pyrex (1915), to the glass for the 200-inch mirror for the telescope at Mount Palomar (1935), and now it wanted a showcase for its art-glass division, Steuben.
The company retained William and Geoffrey Platt, sons of the gentry architect Charles Platt, to work with its designer, John Gates. Completed in 1937, the rebuilt house was fresh with novelty, giant panels of 3,800 ridged glass blocks set within sheer walls of sculptured limestone. It wasn’t modernism so much as moderne-ism, the term applied to the streamlined period of late Art Deco.
The usually cranky Lewis Mumford, writing in his New Yorker column, called it “simple and excellent,” although he took a swipe at the practice of “piously attaching lumps of sculpture.”
The all-glass wall posed a problem during air-raid drills in the days following the Pearl Harbor attack of 1941. Corning officials decided it would be easier to cut power to the building than to fashion blackout curtains.
In 1959 the jeweler Harry Winston bought the old Corning Building and made it over again. Published accounts give the architect as Jacques Régnault, who stripped the limestone and glass block and replaced it with travertine and picture windows, forming an 18th-century French-style facade, as spare and haunting as a de Chirico painting.
Charles A. Platt, the son of William Platt and also an architect, says that his father and uncle were chagrined by the transformation of their building.
In 1960 Winston moved in with $35 million in jewels, and the Fifth Avenue Association gave him an award for the best altered building of the year. Another winner was the modernist tower across the street — the new Corning Glass Building, at the southeast corner of 56th.
In a 1964 article Ada Louise Huxtable, the architecture critic for The New York Times, disapproved of Régnault’s Louis XVI style, calling it a “curiosity” and “Architecture as Play Acting.” But it was good enough to fool a surveyor for the Landmarks Preservation Commission, who in 1985 dated it as “circa 1910.”
Now the stained travertine of the Harry Winston Building is being cleaned by the engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti. Jan J. Kalas, a senior vice president, says the dingy porous stone will be returned to the original creamy color of 1960, in the fifth iteration of what began in 1871.
As it happens, there was to have been a sixth. In the mid-1980s Harry Winston hired the architects Pasanella + Klein to design a three-story addition, which they envisioned as a literal upward extension of the Régnault facade. That was never built, nor was an even more radical proposal for the site, a new 18-floor structure with a facade of horizontally striped masonry and an arch-topped glazed tower, which would have been another distinctive episode in the history of this unusual corner.