In 2020, the American Historical Association returns to New York City for its annual meeting, for the first time in five years. The diligent scholar of history (or Wikipedia) might already know that the meeting’s headquarters hotels—the Sheraton New York Times Square and the New York Hilton—were both built to house tourists coming to the 1964 World’s Fair. The Sheraton straddles the block between 52nd and 53rd Streets on Seventh Avenue, while the Hilton sits on Sixth Avenue between 53rd and 54th Streets, the very pavement that witnessed the first-ever handheld cellular phone call, in 1972. (Since 1945, Sixth Avenue has officially been Avenue of the Americas, though New Yorkers rarely use that name.) Fresh off their Ed Sullivan appearance in 1964, the Beatles slept at the Hilton, as has every sitting US president since John F. Kennedy. President Trump celebrated his election victory in the Hilton’s Grand Ballroom.
The AIA Guide to New York—a building-by-building compendium of city architecture—is unimpressed. “The architecture is forgettable,” laments the indispensable volume, though it adds that the lobby’s “carnival atmosphere” is worth a gander. Standing outside, a quick glimpse up and down Sixth Avenue yields a banal landscape of glass and steel, punctuated by the occasional architectural gem. But should you now have a sinking feeling that you’re about to spend several days sequestered in the dullest quarter-mile of the world’s most exciting metropolis, fear not. “There are eight million stories in the Naked City,” the film noir declares, and the story of 52nd Street is an epic one.
Two miles long and bookended by the East and the Hudson Rivers, 52nd Street was once a study in stratification. “Block by block, the street changes, like a fancy layer cake,” suggested Life magazine in 1937, “from luxury [apartments] to tenements to smart shops to night clubs and back to tenements.” When one walks from east to west, the street begins at a spot memorialized in the 1935 play and film Dead End, which features a gang of street children who would go on to Hollywood under various monikers, including the Bowery Boys. On either side of the street stand Art Deco–era luxury apartments, including River House, at number 435, one of the finest residential buildings in the city. Heading west, office towers cluster where tenements once stood. In 1955, Marilyn Monroe cooled herself over a subway grate at the southwest corner of Lexington Avenue, her white halter dress billowing, in The Seven Year Itch. At Park Avenue, two landmark buildings face each other in mano-a-mano fashion: Mies van der Rohe’s masterpiece Seagram Building (1958) and McKim, Mead & White’s Racquet and Tennis Club (1918).