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Toyland Revisited in the Flatiron District

The Toy Center

The Toy Center with Connecting Bridge, 1960s

Known for decades as The International Toy Building, 200 Fifth Avenue occupied a special place in my life. Fronting Madison Square Park on a full block between 23rd and 24th Streets, it was, for me, a wonderland filled with marvels worthy of Santa’s workshop. My great uncles owned Gund, the plush toy manufacturer and my father, who was their nephew, functioned as the firm’s General Sales Manager.

Dad and Pluto, 1950

Samuel Kay with Pluto and Mickey in 1950

His office in Suite 226, faced the park, which was a rundown version of the Madison Square Park we know today. However, the view was splendid, with the Met Life Tower illuminating the skyline and the Flatiron Building jutting on to 23rd Street.

One of the impressive features of The Toy Building was the sleek Chase Manhattan Bank that could be entered from the lobby.

The 200 Fifth Ave. Club Matchbook Cover

1960s Matchbook Cover

I opened savings and checking accounts under the supervision of my father’s banker. My first deposit was a paycheck I received for working in the showroom during a spring break. All I recall of that experience was making certain that Mickey, Minnie the rest of the toys were arranged to look alluring on the thick glass shelves.

Though Madison Square Park was off limits, I did spend lots of time at The 200 Fifth Ave. Club, the executive dining room located in the building’s lobby. It had paneled walls, dark carpet and white linen cloths on tables set with china bearing the Club logo. I remember eating my first Western omelet there. It arrived under a heavy metal dome to keep it hot.

1909 ad for 200 Fifth Ave with old Fifth Avenue Hotel

Vintage ad for 200 Fifth Avenue with Fifth Avenue Hotel

Designed by Robert Maynicke and Julius Franke in 1909, the prestigious Fifth Avenue Building was built on the site of The Fifth Avenue Hotel, which dated back to 1856. With a staff of 400, an elevator, private baths, and fireplaces in every room, it was a meeting place for Gilded Age movers and shakers. Jay Gould and Commodore Vanderbilt were among the robber barons who held court there. Other denizens included Boss Tweed and a group of New York’s Republican leaders, who managed city business and cut deals from a nook known as the “amen corner.” Edith Wharton was born across the street from the hotel and mentioned it in her novella New Year’s Day. In 1909 the future Toy Building was home to one lonely vendor. It wasn’t until World War I curbed the flow of imports to the United States, that the American toy industry began to boom. Nobody who worked at 200 Fifth Avenue called it The International Toy Building. It was simply The Fifth Avenue Building—that’s what my father and uncle’s called it, and the name appeared on Gund’s announcement that it had leased office space there in the 1938 edition of the trade magazine, Playthings. The Fifth Avenue Building name is on the Landmarked clock outside the front entrance, and the interlocked initials “F.A.B.” were still in the building’s elevators as of 2003.

Gund page, 1938 Playthings

Big Move in July 1938

In 1952, the firm took over an adjacent suite and modernized the showroom in time for the Toy Fair, which, in my family, rivaled a political convention in importance. The 1950s and 1960s were the heyday of the toy business. Many companies, including my father’s, built factories in Brooklyn and Queens. 200 Fifth Avenue was filled to capacity and had a waiting list. The building was joined to the one north of it with a ninth-floor walkway, creating a complex called the International Toy Center.

Gund 1952 Expansion

The New Showroom in 1952

Today, 200 Fifth Avenue is a 15–story premier class A office building in the Madison Square-Flatiron district. L&L Holding Company, which purchased the property in 2007, hired Studios Architecture to revive the 1909 showpiece at a cost of $135 million. The building was designed with large “U” shaped floors, which now surround an expansive bamboo-filled interior courtyard that will, in time, visually connect 200 Fifth Avenue with the greenery of Madison Square Park. This modern vertical garden, created by Landworks Studio, re-establishes what was once a signature feature of this property that provided tenants with maximum daylight. The building has sustainable assets, earning it LEED Gold certification for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. 200 Fifth Avenue is attracting high-profile tenants. In April, Tiffany & Co. leased four-and-a-half floors for corporate headquarters. Grey Group, who took 360,000 square feet of space for its worldwide head office, worked closely with the architect and developer and provided for energy efficient lighting, cooling and electrical power. Students of architecture and anyone who is interested in the transformation of 200 Fifth Avenue into a 21st century building should read Metropolis magazine’s April 2010 cover story, “Mix It Up” .

Eataly Salumeria

Salumeria at Eataly

What makes the building really come alive is the street level food hall, Eataly. Billing itself as the world’s largest Italian food and wine marketplace, it is the creation of Mario Batali and Lidia and Joe Bastianich. On the 24th Street side of the building, where Madame Alexander dolls were once displayed in couture splendor, the windows showcase Italian gourmet groceries. Comprising approximately 50,000 square feet, Eataly contains individual retail departments offering all things Italian: pastry, bread, a butcher, a fishmonger, pasta, cured meats, cheese, hand-made mozzarella, vegetables, wine and coffee, some of which are directly connected to cafes and sit-down restaurants with waiter service. You can stop by Caffe Lavazza for an espresso or buy a terrific take-out lunch. I sat at the La Pizza & Pasta counter and ate a delicious bowl of spaghetti cacio e pepe. Manzo, a white-tablecloth Italian steakhouse with 80 seats, is the only restaurant that takes reservations.

Spaghetti cacio e pepe

Spaghetti cacio e pepe

The revival of 200 Fifth Avenue is a prime example of an iconic building that has been re-adapted as a leading commercial destination for the 21st century. Situated across from one of New York’s most inviting parks, it offers prestigious tenants the tranquil views that Wharton and Vanderbilt enjoyed and my uncles envisioned when they moved into The Fifth Avenue Building 73 years ago.

5 Comments

  1. barryblogs wrote:

    So interesting to read about the history of the Madison Park area–and NY’s toy industry. Another great, informed piece from a true insider!

    Thursday, February 17, 2011 at 11:37 am | Permalink
  2. DLM wrote:

    WOW! This piece on 200 Fifth is spectacular! Reading about the history was so cool…I have my own memories about the Toy Building, but never knew the history from the early 1900′s. I love that you write about “icons” near and dear to you! Looking forward to your next story!

    Friday, February 18, 2011 at 10:56 pm | Permalink
  3. Denise Piperni wrote:

    This is great! I love reading about the history of NYC buildings.

    Wednesday, February 23, 2011 at 8:59 pm | Permalink
  4. Big Gloria wrote:

    Thank you Andy! This was so interesting for me to read…it brought me back to the times of my era…so reminiscent! I would have loved to have met your family and am so proud of you for writing this blog! It is clearly your passion. Your “bio” was lovely to read and I will look forward to reading your other stories. I will dream tonight of the wonderful 50′s!

    Saturday, February 26, 2011 at 9:35 pm | Permalink
  5. LML wrote:

    This was so interesting to read. In all of my years growing up in NY, I never knew the history of 200 Fifth. My dad always referred to it as the TOY BLDG! I look forward to my next trip to NY to eat at Eately. You’re my new connection to NYC buildings!

    Tuesday, March 8, 2011 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

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