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History of the Fifth Avenue Apple Store

by Dewi Safitri

Apple has a reputation for building some of the coolest, most futuristic retail stores in the world. The one located in Dubai features carbon fiber Solar Wings that automatically open and close to cool down the space. Apple store in Milan features a stunning water fountain display that welcomes visitors as they enter. Like the giant tech never out of ideas for the look of their store, Apple built a store that utilizes patented curved glass panels in Shanghai. But no matter how cool they look, nothing compares with the most iconic Apple Store in New York City on Fifth Avenue.

Sitting just a few steps from central park, it’s likely one of the highest traffic stores in the country. And you can get an understanding of the importance of this store to Apple, by considering its history. Which is exactly what we’re going to cover. 

Now let’s start by exploring where the concept of a glass cube-shaped Apple Store came from in the first place. It turns out Jobs always had the idea in the back of his head, but he wasn’t sure where the flagship store should be located. That is until Jobs met with Harry Macklowe, a New York City real estate developer. Macklowe had recently purchased the most expensive office building in North America at the time. The General Motors building in Manhattan cost him 1.4 billion dollars. But there was one problem with the property that discouraged many other developers from investing. And that was the plaza that sat directly in front of the building. There were a couple of issues with this space. 

First, it was considered by most architects to be too large for a simple plaza, but too small to place another skyscraper. Second, it contained a basement that was never even used. That’s because the plaza was sunken when it was first built but subsequently raised after the area failed to attract many pedestrians.

So Macklowe had a problem on his hands. How could this awkward, aging plaza be transformed into a modern shopping area? Well, he had one company in mind that could offer a solution, and that was Apple. Because not only had they made an aggressive and successful entrance into the retail market two years earlier, but Apple’s retail stores served as stylish, modern spaces which housed some of the coolest tech products in the world. So convincing Apple to build their flagship store on the GM plaza became Macklowe’s top priority.

He started by contacting George Blankenship, Apple’s vice-president of real estate, to try and set up a meeting with Jobs. He was successful and quickly flew out to Cupertino to discuss what would become one of the most iconic retail stores in the world. Macklowe brought with him his longtime design partner Dan Shannon and the architects from the firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, who designed the Apple Store in Soho.

This meeting is where Jobs shared his idea for the store’s glass cube design, complete with a model of the GM building, Apple store, and plaza to demonstrate his vision for the space. Macklowe immediately loved the idea, especially since it made perfect use of the challenging space. Not only could a glass cube be perfectly proportioned for the plaza’s size, but Apple’s retail space would be located underground. Finally making use of the location’s awkward basement area which had been empty for almost a decade. Macklowe then recognized an issue with Steve Job’s design. The glass cube was simply too big. Jobs wanted a 40-foot cube. Which would not only obscure the GM building but invite protests from tenants and cause zoning issues with the city. But Macklowe knew he couldn’t break this news to Jobs himself, since it would likely fall on deaf ears. 

So instead, Macklowe helped Jobs discover this issue himself. He did this by constructing a scaffolding mockup of the cube to give Apple an idea of its scale, and once their retail executives saw the mockup in person, they agreed that it should be smaller. Now it’s important to note just how involved Steve Jobs was in every step of the store’s development. 

He helped decided what type of stone would be used for the plaza and ordered workers to replace the metal bolts holding together the glass panels. Jobs was so excited about the store that he built a mockup of his own in the parking lot of Apple’s headquarters. He was so involved in the project that he eventually developed a friendship with Macklowe, who offered Jobs an office in the GM building. But Jobs refused, saying, “When I come to New York, I want to be in Soho. I want to be in Chelsea. I want to be surrounded by young people. So I can listen to what they’re thinking. I want to have new ideas.”

On May 19, 2006, the 32-foot glass cube on the fifth avenue was unveiled to the public. It featured an illuminated white, floating Apple logo and a glass staircase spiraling around a cylindrical glass elevator. Not only did this liberal use of glass make the store look good and feel more spacious, but it served a functional purpose as well, by allowing sunlight to shine down into the store. 

Apple’s retail executive Ron Johnson explained the concept well, saying, “the glass cube was designed to let in light and ambiance throughout the day. When I’m under here canopied by the cube I feel like I’m in a public space.” And that concept is important to remember since it helped inform all of the store’s subsequent updates. It’s also important to point out that when Apple opened this fifth avenue location, they’d only been in retail for five years and hadn’t yet opened a flagship store. So neither Apple nor Macklowe had an accurate frame of reference to predict how the store would perform. They simply had to measure the earnings of surrounding stores while drawing up a business deal. Part of that deal was deciding what percentage of their sales Apple would pay to Macklowe, the property owner. And as it would turn out, Apple made out like bandits since their fifth avenue store performance was unprecedented.

Although Apple and Macklowe had high hopes, all of their expectations were shattered when the numbers came in for the store’s first year. It ended up attracting 50,000 visitors a day, which totaled 18.2 million people. Making the store Apple’s most popular in the world at the time. But what about revenue? Because making money is what retail’s about after all. Well, the fifth avenue Apple store alone ended up upbringing in an average of one million dollars each day. And that’s after Apple paid rent and a percentage of the stores’ profits to Macklowe. But it’s also important to consider the store’s social impacts. Not only did this transformation of the GM building make the property look more appealing and drive higher foot traffic, but it also attracted more high-end luxury stores looking to replicate the kind of success Apple had.

So the fifth avenue Apple store wasn’t only a wild success for Apple, but also for the property owner and the neighborhood that surrounded it. But the truth is, this was only the beginning. Since Apple would revamp its fifth avenue store multiple times in the following years. The first update came in 2011 when Apple spent 6.6 million dollars to rebuild the glass cube using just 15 panes of glass instead of 90. But that was seemingly insignificant compared to the major renovations Apple began making to the store six years later in 2017.

This time they opened a temporary location for the fifth avenue store just steps away from the original. And that was in large part due to great timing. The FAO Schwarz toy store located in the GM building behind the Apple Store vacated the property due to high rent just in time for Apple’s renovation project. So Apple was able to simply buy the location and continue offering their products and services without much disruption to customers. And this was important since the 2017 fifth avenue project was much more involved and complex than in 2011.

No one knew at the time what Apple had in store for the location. They didn’t even reveal how long the project would last. But it turned out that the fifth avenue renovation would take over two years to finally complete. And it was time well spent because the improvements made to the store were stunning. People from across the world stopped by to see the store in person. Now let’s talk about what makes this remodeled store so special. As mentioned earlier in the video, Apple’s always wanted this store to feel open, spacious, and bright.

This is especially important since the store is underground. And they were able to achieve this in a few ways. First, there are portholes in the ceiling to catch the natural light. It also features with integrated LED lights that automatically shift their color temperature to match the natural light. That way cooler natural light won’t clash with warmer artificial light. But what’s even cooler is what the portholes look like outside the store. 

They carpet the plaza and give it a futuristic glow, while also doubling as chrome benches for people to sit and perhaps even peek inside. And instead of stairs and an elevator made of glass, Apple instead opted for chrome. Which I was told help reflect the greenery, which there’s quite a bit of. Not only are there trees in the middle of the store, but there are also these walls of greenery around the perimeter where visitors can sit and charge their devices.

But something you would found very interesting was the addition of this HomePod room, which gave visitors a chance to experience the stereo sound feature, which I admit was quite impressive. Another cool touch was the photos that lined the hallway to the backroom and bathrooms.

They featured the old store, the construction process, and the new store. It’s also worth noting that the remodeled fifth avenue store is twice as big and has higher ceilings which are important since the number of visitors to this location has only been growing. So the fifth avenue Apple Store continues to be one of the company’s most impressive locations.

Source:  https://youtu.be/iI2oTT2wRYA

Dewi Safitri

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