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Friday, March 1, 2013

Charles Scribner's Sons at 597 Fifth Avenue

photo by epicharmus on flickr
A century ago, the architect Ernest Flagg was at the top of his game. Just five years earlier, in 1908, he'd completed the tallest building in the world, the lavish (and, sadly, now demolished) Singer Building in Lower Manhattan. Today, Flagg's name isn't remembered as well as some of his contemporaries like Stanford White and Cass Gilbert, but many of his buildings remain. In 1913, he completed what is one of his finest achievements, the Charles Scribner's Sons bookstore and offices at 597 Fifth Avenue.

The publishing company started life in 1846 as Baker & Scribner. When founder Charles Scribner took over the firm, he renamed it the Charles Scribner Company; later, when management moved to his sons, they changed the name again to reflect their new ownership. Though they published books from the start, the company was best known early on for its magazines, including St. Nicholas Magazine, The Century Magazine, and Scribner's.

photo courtesy of Princeton University library
In 1893, the firm hired the then-unknown Flagg to design a corporate headquarters for them on lower Fifth Avenue at 21st Street. (This squat Beaux-Arts building from the beginning of Flagg's career, still stands.) Less than two decades later, the publishers rehired Flagg--now an architectural star--to create a soaring space in midtown to house not only the company's headquarters but also their corporate-owned bookstore on the retail level. This move reflected not only Scribner's growing fortunes, but also the rapid development of Fifth Avenue above 42nd Street as a prime shopping district.

Flagg's soaring Beaux-Arts exterior was matched by the retail space's opulent interior, including a Carrara-marble staircase, gorgeous iron railings and balustrades,and--of course--row upon row of books.

In 1984, what was then known as the Scribner Book Companies was purchased by Macmillan, which in turn was folded into Simon & Schuster in 1994. The bookstore closed in 1988; the retail space currently houses a Sephora. Because the interior has been landmarked, much of the original fixtures remain inside and it is well worth checking out, if only to imagine what shopping for books must have been like a century ago.

photo by bjmccray on flickr


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