General Electric Building
National Register of Historic Places: Listed January 28, 2004
New York City Landmark: Designated July 9, 1985
The General Electric Building was originally designed and built for the RCA-Victor Corporation in order to create a highly visible image for the company, which, by the late 1920’s was in the forefront of the radio and communications industry. Architects Cross and Cross designed the building in the Gothic mode of the Art Deco style that is both representative of the building’s original intended tenant, RCA, and symbolic of the power and modern development of radio. Waves, bolts of lightning, and faces of “electric spirits” that project out from the facades are incorporated into the exterior ornament, directly convey this symbolism. This symbolic representation of the client through architectural ornament became a signature of Cross and Cross that they perfected through a variety of stylistic idioms, however nowhere was this more expertly executed than the General Electric Building.
The General Electric building is an Art Deco style skyscraper. The General Electric Building is a fifty-story office building located in mid-town Manhattan at the southwest corner of Lexington Avenue and East 51st Street. The main facades face east on to Lexington Avenue, where the main entrance is located, and north onto East 51st Street. The building sits immediately adjacent to St. Bartholomew’s Church to the west and a 25-story office building to the south. The General Electric Building’s slender tower rises from the twenty-sixth floor of the building, setting the building apart from the adjacent buildings. The unique spire characterizes the building as one of midtown’s most distinctive office high-rises.
May 1930- December 1931
When RCA acquired the property, the block was dominated by period-revival buildings, including Byzantine-Romanesque style St. Bartholomew’s Church to the west and the Academic Gothic style Cathedral High School (no longer extant) to the south. A conscious effort was made by Cross and Cross for the new building to be compatible with the existing adjacent buildings aesthetically. While the General Electric Building rises dramatically above the existing St. Bartholomew’s church, the use of Gothic inspired ornament and compatible materials and colors, prevents the building from visually dominating the church, and rather it is viewed as a contextual contribution to the block. On the other hand, the General Electric Building is not merely backdrop for St. Bartholomew's Church; it's a work of art in its own right.
The RCA building is rather conventional from a technical point of view. It is a steel frame skyscraper with a brick and terracotta envelope.
By the late 1920's, the RCA-Victor Corporation was a leader in the radio and communications industry and was in need of a headquarters building. The corporation had only come into existence at the end of the previous decade as a result of the rapid acceptance of radio technology that began at the turn of the century. A group of companies were merged to form RCA as a subsidiary of General Electric. By 1929, RCA had experienced tremendous growth, with subsidiaries that included the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO, a leading producer, distributor, and exhibitor of motion pictures) and had also acquired the Victor Talking Machine Corporation, officially becoming RCA-Victor Corporation. In order to best solidify their burgeoning corporate identity, RCA-Victor wanted a building that physically expressed their new independent image and the power of the radio industry.
Also at this time, American architects who were classically-trained, often at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, began to work with a new stylistic expression. The Art Deco style in particular allowed for the exploration of new creative avenues, seemingly without reference to the past, but without a dramatic technological change to the structure of buildings. Additionally, the 1920's saw a development boom in mid-town Manhattan that led to the proliferation of Art Deco skyscrapers in this area. In this climate of an emergent radio industry, a new architectural expression, and rampant high-rise development, the unique design General Electric Building was born.
The RCA building exemplifies the characteristic of the Art Deco's innovative adaptation of traditional motifs to modern forms. The General Electric Building main goal was to express the power of radio and importance of the RCA-Victor company as a corporate entity through its architecture. One architectural convention remains common to most designs by Cross and Cross, and that is the high quality of a building's ornamental program, regardless of style or scale. Often a personification is applied or emerges in the ornament, like a signature of their work. With the development of the high rise office building, Cross and Cross's use of symbolism in ornament becomes more distinct and dually significant as a form of advertisement. This is clearly, and best, articulated in the General Electric Building, where the brick and terracotta ornament inspired by electricity and radio waves is artfully expressed throughout the design. The ornament is a metaphor for not only the building's vertical dynamism, but also the building's initial clients and the power of radio. John Walter Cross explained his efforts to make the building symbolic of radio: "Romantic though radio may be, it is at the same time intangible and elusive--a thing which can be captured visually only through symbolism. It is energy in almost the pure state, which challenges us to depict in design the very fundamentals of our universe." He further dramatized the wonder of his symbolism by describing: "at night an aura of colored light will shoot out from the crown of forked lightning which each figure will wear as a symbol of the speed of radio" (Real Estate Record and Guide, May 30, 1931). By using its architectural features to express a heavily symbolic design aesthetic, the General Electric Building embodies the modern ideal of ornament derived from the structure and theme of the building.
Although specifically designed for RCA, the building’s deliberate ornamental program was equally suited for the company that later occupied the building for over sixty years, General Electric. In 1929, RCA-Victor, a subsidiary of General Electric, had experienced tremendous growth, and plans were begun for a new headquarters building designed by Cross and Cross at East 51st and Lexington Avenue. RCA put together a corporate entity called the Bartholomew Building Corporation to acquire property and construct a building. By the end of 1929, the property had been acquired and a building permit was issued, and construction began on the following May. Meanwhile, General Electric began negotiating a move of RCA to Rockefeller Center, which was still in the planning stages. In order to be released from GE’s constraints on manufacturing, RCA negotiated a deal that included trading large blocks of RCA stock and the office building under construction at 570 Lexington Avenue for exclusive manufacturing rights and royalties. In January 1931, the RCA-Victor Building officially became the General Electric Building.
Upon completion in December 1931, the General Electric Building won unanimous acclaim from both critics and the general public for the design's contextual juxtaposition of two buildings of different scale, type and age. J. Clydesdale Cushman, whose firm managed the new building, praised the sensitivity of the architects in the face of the all too prevalent disregard for adjoining properties in Real Estate Record and Guide in April 1931: “In the instance of the RCA Building, however, an advanced step has been taken in that consideration was given by its architects to the previously established styles and color schemes of the existing abutting buildings with the happy result that a new note of harmonious treatment of the ensemble has been struck which I am convinced is a great step in the right direction towards the setting of a new style in New York.” (Excerpt from the New York Landmarks Commission’s General Electric Building Designation Report, 1985).
The design of the General Electric Building melds the soaring verticality and decorative intricacy of the Art Deco style. Its inventive ornamental symbolism was part of a broader search for a new modernist architectural symbolic language for the Jazz Age. The building is a sophisticated piece of urban infill that responds to the adjacent building context while also evoking the dynamic energy of radio transmission and electrical currents. From its chrome and marble lobby to its radio waves crown, the General Electric Building articulates symbolism and metaphor for both advertising and design through its architecture. The building is the best example of Cross and Cross’s iconographic design and one of New York City’s finest expressions of the Art Deco style.
New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, General Electric Building Designation Report (LP-1412). Report prepared by Charles C. Savage. New York, July 9, 1985.
National Register of Historic Places, General Electric Building Nomination. Prepared by Kathy Howe, Waterford, New York, August 25, 2003.
Breeze, Carla. New York Deco. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1993.
Bletter, Rosemarie Haag, and Cervin Robinson. Skyscraper Style: Art Deco New York. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.
Gray, Christopher. “Cross and Cross.” Macmillan Encyclopedia of Architects. New York: Macmillan and Free Press, 1982, 477-78.
New York City. Department of Buildings, Manhattan. New Building Docket Books.
New York County. Office of the Register. Abstracts of Conveyances.
“RCA Building Considers Its Neighbors.” Real Estate Record and Guide, April 4, 1931, p.7.
“Sketch of the New RCA Victor Building.” American Architect, 137 (May 1930), 59.
T-Square. “The Skyline.” New Yorker, 7 (June 13, 1931), 45-47.