The British Empire Building, also known by its address 620 Fifth Avenue, is a 6-story retail building on the west side of Fifth Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets in Midtown Manhattan, New York City. Completed in 1934, the structure is part of Rockefeller Center, and was built in the Art Deco style.
The building was part of the original construction of the Rockefeller Center, with an oval-shaped retail building originally planned for the block. The oval building was scrapped in early 1931, and an updated plan proposed a tall 41-story tower and two smaller 6-story retail buildings on the site of the oval building. Because the canceled oval building had contained rooftop gardens, Raymond Hood suggested the idea for rooftop gardens across the complex, including on all of the retail buildings. These gardens would be curated by Ralph Hancock.
As American tenants were reluctant to rent in these retail buildings, Rockefeller Center's manager Hugh Robertson, formerly of Todd, Robertson and Todd, suggested foreign tenants for the buildings. The first themed building that was agreed on was the British Empire Building, the more northerly of the two buildings, which would host the governmental and commercial ventures of the United Kingdom. The cornerstone of the British Empire Building was laid on July 2, 1932, when Francis Hopwood, 1st Baron Southborough, placed the symbolic first stone in a ceremony. The British Building's structural steel started construction in October of that year. The British Empire Building opened by early May 1934.
The British Empire Building is located north of its architectural twin, La Maison Francaise.:326 It is a six-story standalone building with a limestone facade with a sixth-story setback, as well as a partial 1+1⁄2-story penthouse on the west half of the seventh story and a garden on the east side of the seventh-story roof. The Channel, a 60-foot-wide (18 m), 200-foot-long (61 m) planted pedestrian esplanade, separates the British Empire Building and La Maison Francaise. The British Empire Building contains ground-level storefronts on all four sides and a cornerstone inscribed with the building's name.
The British Empire Building commissioned artists who were both British and non-British. As Britain did not have a good economy at the time due to the reduction of its empire in previous years, most of the artwork in the building focused on the empire itself rather than its artistic contribution. Carl Paul Jennewein, an American of German descent, created nine gold-leaf figures on three distinct panels above the entrance signifying different parts of the empire; these panels visually underscored the divisions in the triple-paneled doorway below. They represent the major industries and the products traded within the empire: salt, coal, tobacco, wheat, fish, wool, cotton, and sugar. The radial sun symbolizes the global empire on which "the sun never sets".
Jennewein also created a cartouche that depicts authentic British motifs combined in a single fictional coat of arms. It contains the gilded motto of the British chivalric Order of the Garter: "Honi soit qui mal y pense" (Shame on him who thinks evil about it). The bottom of the bas relief is inscribed with the motto of the British Royalty: "Dieu et mon droit" (God and my right).
Rene Chambellan designed the bas-reliefs on the sixth floor of this building, consisting of motifs modeled on the coats of arms of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. On the secondary entrances, Lee Lawrie placed decorations signifying symbols of the empire's power, such as Tudor roses, gilded passant guardant lions, and the wing-footed god of commerce, Mercury.
The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission added landmark status to the exteriors of all the original Rockefeller Center's buildings in 1985. In its approval of the complex's status, the commission wrote, "Rockefeller Center ranks among the grandest architectural projects ever undertaken in the United States". The roof gardens of the wings were restored in 1986 for $48,000 each.
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