In the early 1960s, Macy’s New York, a subsidiary of R.H. Macy & Co, commissioned Skidmore, Owings and Merrill to design an outpost in Queens oriented to car traffic. Macy’s already owned a branch in the Jamaica section of Queens, but the store could not be expanded due to parking and traffic concerns. The newly selected location in Elmhurst was situated in what the New York Times called “the heart of one of the fastest-growing sections of Queens, surrounded by new high-rise apartment developments” including the then in-progress Lefrak City, which was slated to open with 6,000 dwelling units. (Fowler) In 1963 Macy’s acquired an irregularly-shaped lot valued on its proximity to Queens Boulevard and the Long Island Expressway, the two major traffic arteries serving the area.
Permits were secured on the condition that Macy’s provide sufficient parking and access in the increasingly congested area. Parking was therefore key to the design of the new store. SOM presented a set of design options, each addressing the parking issue. Alongside the more conventional layouts proposed was an innovative circular design combining sales area and parking facilities in a single cylindrical building, 426’ in diameter. In this design, three selling floors were circled by five levels of 56'-wide parking rings, accessed and exited by two double-helical ramps adjoining the structure. From each parking level patrons would walk no more than 75' to the nearest entrance. A half flight up or down stairs would take patrons to the department of their choice, allowing for an approximation of the “curb-side” parking experience. The client did not immediately take to the idea. However, it was determined that to provide via a more traditional plan the same amount of parking space as the circular design, Macy’s would have to purchase an additional twelve acres of land. (Fowler) Macy’s was convinced, and the "store in the round” design was selected. ("Macy's Customers to Park In Elmhurst Store Building") Construction began in 1964 and the department store opened for business on October 11, 1965.
The store as realized in 1965 was uncompromised from the original design save for the issue of the corner lot on Queens Boulevard and 55th Avenue. The owners refused to sell, forcing SOM to cut a notch into the side of their otherwise perfectly cylindrical building.
88-01 Queens Boulevard is set on a five-acre irregular-shaped site bordered by Queens Boulevard to the south, 55th Avenue to the west and 56th Avenue to the east. To the north, the site is bordered by Justice Avenue and a small section of 90th Street, rendering it almost pentagonal.
The cylindrical building is 426’ in diameter, situated on the southern portion of the site. The perforated façade is formed by poured-in-place concrete which has been sandblasted to expose a coarse white aggregate. The perforations permit the natural ventilation of the garage areas which surround the inner core sales floors. The second floor parking area overhangs the ground floor entrances, creating a pedestrian arcade supported by concrete piers. Sections of the arcade were walled off during the 2001 renovation to create additional ground-level storefronts. The sales floors are windowless and there is no exterior glazing to the façade. To the rear of the building are two double-helical ramps which provide access to the parking levels. (Drexler and Menges 42) A 2001 renovation saw the addition of a sixth parking level and fourth sales floor. The additional levels are concealed behind a maroon fascia built above the original parapet.
The most significant change to the original façade comes in the form of extensive colorful signage hanging above the main entrance on Queens Boulevard. A walk around the building to the unadorned east and west façades gives the observer a better sense of the original design of the building.
The site is located slightly west of the heavily trafficked intersection of Queens Boulevard and the Long Island Expressway, in the Elmhurst section of Queens, a borough of New York City. Elmhurst is approximately bordered to the north by Roosevelt Avenue, to the east by Junction Boulevard, to the southeast by the Long Island Expressway, and to the southwest by the Long Island Railroad. The neighborhood is bisected by Queens Boulevard, a large commercial strip. Elmhurst developed rapidly in the early 20th century due to the expansion of the subway system into western Queens. The area is known for its large apartment complexes, most notably the Lefrak City development. To accommodate the growing population, Queens Boulevard became a retail corridor and the location of several department stores, including this Macy's location.
The site’s high water table prevented building an underground garage, requiring parking to be accommodated above ground. (Stern 1073) Innovative use of a circular building shape maximized usage of an irregular-shaped lot. The garage "rings" constructed around the perimeter of the central core solved the parking issue as well as created a "curb-side" shopping experience.
The vertical design and layered parking take into consideration both the high-cost, densely populated land upon which it is built and the two types of customers it hoped to serve: those in cars and those on foot. Popularity of the automobile and the desire of people to go shopping with their cars lead to this aesthetic choice, as well as the client's desire to attract those same customers away from suburban shopping centers. The design, “in both size and emphasis on the automobile was clearly intended to compete with nearby suburban shopping centers” (Stern 1069).
The innovative design and successful execution of a practical yet elegant solution for meeting shoppers’ needs was praised in both the local press and architectural journals. The New York Times wrote that the store was built with the “car-borne shopper first in mind” while at ground level display windows and decorative mosaic tile walls welcomed “the occasional shopper who comes on foot” (Fowler). Progressive Architecture noted, “The store will function as a civic monument, with light shining through the slits of the façade – a Queens Coliseum of sorts.” The reinforced concrete curtain wall reflects a technique typical of the Modern Movement. Criticism was minimal, and centered on the notch cut out of the façade near the southwest corner, which altered the approach and limited development of a planned outdoor plaza.
The building represents architectural innovation not only in technical design but also in social design, where form follows function, and the needs of the end user are taken into consideration during the design process.
Drexler, Arthur and Axel Menges. Architecture of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, 1963-1973. New York: Architectural Book Pub., 1974. Print.
Fowler, Glenn. "Macy's To Build Circular Store." The New York Times 13 Feb. 1964. Print.
"Macy's Customers to Park In Elmhurst Store Building." The New York Times 23 Feb. 1964. Print.
Montgomery, Paul L. "Macy's Opens Big Drive-In Store In Elmhurst." The New York Times 12 Oct. 1965. Print.
"The New Macy's Store Gets Good Marks in Traffic Flow ... but Fails Geometry." Progressive Architecture 44 (1965): 45. Print.
Shaman, Diana. "Commercial Property/Queens; Circular Building Adding 2 Floors and Big Retailers." The New York Times 14 Jan. 2001. Print.
Shaman, Diana. "Plans for Site Near Macy's." The New York Times 19 July 1981. Print.
"Shopping Centers and Stores." Architectural Record 139.April (1966): 149-70. Print.
Stern, Robert A. M., Thomas Mellins, and David Fishman. New York 1960: Architecture and Urbanism between the Second World War and the Bicentennial. New York, NY: Monacelli, 1995. Print.