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Emery Roth, master of 20th Century New York elegance

Emery Roth elegance

Edith Roth had wanted the intersection of Park Avenue and 57th Street renamed “Roth Corner” to honor the three generations of architects in her family whose designs, memorialized on this street corner, shaped so much of upper-class urbanism in New York. But other than a small plaque on the landmarked Ritz Tower, there is no civic tribute at 57th and Park to the architectural firm of Emery Roth and Sons, founded in 1902 by the then 32-year-old Hungarian Jewish immigrant.

(Photo at top is of 480 Park Avenue’s grand-hotel lobby.)

Emery Roth designed the Ritz Tower at 465 Park in 1926. It was New York City’s first skyscraper apartment building. And in the coming decades, his daughter-in-law Edith Roth and her family would make their own imprints on the city.


Emery Roth was master of 20th Century elegance

Ritz Tower, Park Avenue at 57th Street.

In 1954, Edith’s husband, Richard Sr., worked on the office building at 460 Park that was part of the development wave turning that stretch of Park Avenue into a commercial hub. Today, the building houses the South Korean Consulate and a Citibank. Edith’s son, Richard Jr, carried the torch in 1972 with his black granite office tower at 450 Park. The building has recently sold for more than $500 million as one of Manhattan’s most expensive office spaces.

A new New Yorker

As his memoirs recount, Emery Roth arrived in Chicago in 1884 as a 13-year old boy. But in nine years, he made his way to New York City to create a new architecture for the upper class. His autobiographical notes, never published, tell a rags-to-riches tale. Roth had been shining shoes for soldiers before landing an architecture apprenticeship. And after a chance encounter with famed architect Richard Hunt, he landed a job at Hunt’s New York office. By the early 1900s, Emery Roth was a young New Yorker with his own firm.

His earliest commissions were restaurants in lower Manhattan and houses in the suburbs of the city. But in 1899, Emery designed the first structure in the architectural form he would become best known for at the Saxony at 250 West 82nd Street: luxury apartment buildings.

The apartments he built are spacious, with large kitchens and several bedrooms.

Aside from Roth, few architects dared enter the luxury apartment business. At the turn of the 20th century, these buildings were known as “tenements,” a loaded term with little appeal for New York’s wealthy. But, developers saw a business opportunity in the type of building, one that Emery seized on as an architect and occasional stakeholder.

Emery Roth, New York’s busiest architect

Strong ties to wealthy developers like the Bing brothers and the Uris family gave him plenty of work. (Roth’s office was once located next to theirs.) He designed the elegant towers of the San Remo and the Beresford along Central Park West. On the East Side, he designed some of Park Avenue’s iconic luxury apartment buildings. The grand hotel lobby of 480 Park at 58th Street and the classical flourishes at the Ritz Tower at 57th Street encapsulate the grandeur of old New York. And at 55th Street., 417 Park invites visitors into a gilded oasis in the desert of office towers.

Emery Roth

The San Remo on Central Park West

“So after many years, and with many ups and downs I had established myself, and during the boom years of 1920 to 1930, I was perhaps the busiest architect in New York City,” Roth wrote.

The apartments he built are spacious, with large kitchens and several bedrooms. A few of his signature designs were introducing a centrally-located foyer and adding a private service elevator for deliveries. Roth was also able to convince developers to spend money and put fewer but better-designed apartments in a building.

This was “a skill not all architects have,” architectural historian Andrew Alpern said in a phone interview. Today, the work that Roth put into making high-quality living spaces makes the apartments more valuable now than similar ones by his contemporaries.

From apartments to offices

Emery’s two sons, Julian and Richard, Sr., eventually became partners at Emery Roth and Sons in 1938 and soon took the firm in a new direction to match the times. Park Avenue just north of Grand Central Terminal was becoming the center of new commercial architecture. The 1951 Lever House by Gordon Bunshaft for Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, and the 1958 Seagram Building by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson both caught the public’s attention for design innovations and for disrupting the side-by-side limestone apartments that lined this part of the avenue.

The Roth sons worked with the same developer families their father had to now create office towers. Famous projects included the Look Building at 448 Madison Avenue, the Colgate-Palmolive Building at 300 Park Avenue, and the MetLife Building above Grand Central Terminal.

Etching in a legacy

Emery Roth and Sons continued to grow, with Emery’s grandson Richard Roth, Jr., becoming president of the firm in 1978. Richard Roth Jr. was responsible for the office tower next to St. Bartholomew’s Church at 345 Park Avenue and the Crystal Pavilion at 805 Third Avenue.

“We had some great times,” Roth Jr. said. “We even had offices in other countries.” The branches of Emery Roth and Sons spread from Houston to London, Budapest and Singapore. The firm had also worked on the China World Trade Centre in Beijing. But the momentum did not last. In 1993, Richard Roth Jr. retired and sold his part of the firm to his cousin, and Emery Roth and Sons eventually faded from the architectural landscape.

But the Roth-family signature remains etched into New York City’s streets and skylines. You just need to look around to see the giant Emery Roth had been.


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Evelyn Cheng

Evelyn Cheng covers financial markets for
Evelyn Cheng