(revised) It began in 1891 with the opening of Carnegie Hall, the symbol of music world success that Andrew Carnegie paid people to construct on 7th Avenue between West 57th and West 56th Streets. A year later, the Art Students League moved into the new American Fine Arts Building, an elegant French Renaissance building at 215 West 57th Street.
In 1916-17, Cass Gilbert designed the Rodin Studios at 200 W. 57th Street, a building with elaborate apartments. Developing by small increments, by the late 1920s the blocks of West 57th Street between 8th Avenue and 5th Avenue had become a major center for cultural life in the United States.
Steinway Hall was constructed in 1924-1925, a pitch perfect Neo-classical companion to the Renaissance Revival of Carnegie Hall down the street. Art galleries, piano dealers, studios, arts-minded restaurants, hotels, and apartments for writers, artists, and renowned musicians joined them. The building at 130 West 57th, designed as a cooperative for artists, was once home to writer William Dean Howells and painter Childe Hassam. American novelist Theodore Dreiser, during one of his cranky phases, lived at the Rodin Studios. Statesman and classical pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski stayed at the Buckingham Hotel.
This section of Midtown Manhattan continues to flourish as a center for music, the arts, and publishing, with businesses and restaurants serving the major institutions. High-rise residential buildings soar over landmarks such as Carnegie Hall, the Art Students League, the Russian Tea Room, and Steinway Hall, with residents peering down on the cultured masses from their 70th+ floor apartment perches above.
The architectural history of W. 57th Street is substantial, with a range of architectural styles including Chicago School (Osborne Apartments), Austrian Secession (Joseph Urban’s original Hearst building), Post-Modern (Hotel Parker Meridien's arcade entrance on W. 57th.), Neo-Gothic (Cass Gilbert’s Rodin Studios) and Green High Tech Modern (Norman Foster's Hearst Tower). Any one of these arts-institutions is worthy of their own post, but this brief guide suggests the importance of taking in the whole stretch as a cultural neighborhood.
Even if you don't have tickets for a performance at Carnegie Hall, a class at the Art Students League, a 74th floor condo at Metropolitan Tower, or a table at the Russian Tea Room, there are several opportunities for enjoying life on W. 57th Street. Visit one of the contemporary galleries along the way (i.e. Marian Goodman, Marlborough, Laurence Miller), or peer into the lobby of the Osborne Apartments, one of the city's earliest luxury apartment buildings.
Drink a beer at PJ Carney's, dine on breakfast at La Parisienne Coffee House, shop for gifts and art supplies at Lee's Art Shop, enjoy a delicious and worthy hamburger at Burger Joint, or stop in Petrossian's Bakery for delicious light fare. At any rate, the street makes a good quick escape from the crush of Fifth Avenue crowds during the holidays.
View A Cultural Guide to West 57th Street in a larger map
Begin the self-guided walk at Hearst Tower, 300 W. 57th St., at the intersection with 8th Avenue. and walk east. The street is a powerhouse in the media world. The Hearst Tower, designed by Norman Foster, sits on top of the 1928 design by Joseph Urban. The building represents just one of many media headquarters along W. 57th St. Others include Newsweek, Comedy Central and The Economist. Or from the east, browse the south windows of Bergdorf Goodman at Fifth Avenue and walk west. For easy access to West 57th St. take the N, Q, R, W to the 57th St. Station. After all, that's one answer to "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?"
Images by Walking Off the Big Apple from November 18, 2009: top to bottom- Carnegie Hall at night; Russian Tea Room (l), Steinway Hall (r), Hammer Galleries and Rizzoli (r), and Petrossian Bakery (r, entrance on 7th Ave., north of 57th St.). See a slideshow of additional images on Flickr WOTBA.