The latest news on New York architecture.

  • Remembering the former New York Club

    Christopher Gray reports for The New York Times: Demolished Club Casts a Long Shadow

    The former New York Club at 20 West 40th in 1945.

    The developer HFZ Capital is proposing a new building for the empty lot at 20 West 40th Street, and the Historic Districts Council is not happy, protesting that the flat-topped 32-story tower is out of place on a street that has long had “a picturesque skyline.”

    It is unstated, but the council is channeling the enduring bitterness of one of the most profound losses of the 1980s, the peaked-roof 1907 New York Club, on the very site of the proposed tower. Its demolition caught preservationists napping, and highlights a problem that, three decades later, remains: that an owner can eliminate the prospect of landmark designation for a property by simply damaging the façade.

    Has anyone today even heard of the New York Club? At the turn of the century it was among the powerhouse social clubs in the city, founded in the 1840s and abbreviated by the New York Social Register simply as N, whereas other clubs were assigned more explicit abbreviations, such as Ny for the New York Yacht Club.

    The New York Club was riding high in 1905, when it began acquiring land on the south side of 40th Street, opposite Bryant Park and the New York Public Library, which was then going up. The new library and the park created a civic prospect that was rewarded with the construction of half a dozen buildings of semipublic character.

    The first appears to have been York & Sawyer’s super-Classical 1902 Republican Club at 58 West 40th Street, with an 11-story facade of light brick and terra cotta. Another was the becolumned Engineers Club at 32 West 40th, designed in 1905. That was the year when the New York Club arrived, buying and razing three rowhouses and retaining Henry Hardenbergh, soon to design the Plaza Hotel, for its 9-story clubhouse.

    The club’s project cost nearly $1 million, and Hardenbergh gave it a façade of deep red brick spiced with bursts of terra cotta, like a red velvet cake decorated by an expert pastry chef; the stepped gables provided a definite old New York flavor. The interior was less distinctive, save for a Dutch-style tap room, but a great “morning room” ran across the entire front on the second floor. The New York Club had three floors of bedrooms, evolving into a near-hotel for its members, as opposed to the older model of purely social enterprise. It opened in 1907 with a substantial waiting list, and in 1914 there were 675 members.

    The clubs of New York were hard-hit in the Depression, many folding or consolidating, and in 1933 the club had to take $220,000 for its house, which had cost around five times that in 1907. The buyer was Schenley Distributors, which bought the building in advance of the repeal of Prohibition, planning to use the grand interiors for sales and tasting rooms.

    In 1945 Schenley sold to Freedom House, founded in 1941 as a consortium of organizations working for racial equality and human rights and against totalitarianism. Freedom House named its new headquarters the Willkie Memorial Building, after Wendell Willkie, the Republican who ran against Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 but then worked in F.D.R.’s administration. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was a tenant, and it was from the Willkie Building in 1946 that Thurgood Marshall, the N.A.A.C.P.’s special counsel, compared the brutal suppression of Negro protests in Tennessee to the actions of “German storm troopers.” Marshall later served on the Supreme Court.

    At the 1945 dedication of the building to Wendell Willkie, were, from left, Charles Evans Hughes Jr., Ethel Barrymore, Herbert Bayard Swope and George Field.

    In 1985, while the Republic National Bank, at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, was in the process of acquiring the old New York Club for expansion, workmen started ripping off the decorative ornament, working day and night. Caroline K. Simon, the general counsel of Freedom House, said the bank was doing the work, and that it was necessitated by safety concerns. But Charles M. Smith Jr., the city’s building commissioner, said the work was unwarranted. After the bank took title, the building was demolished.

    In 1986 the preservationist Roberta Gratz decried the demolition in an article in Newsday, saying the Landmarks Preservation Commission had identified the building “as having high priority for designation.” But in a 1984 survey, the commission had listed the building as only “of interest”; higher categories were “of significance” and “of outstanding significance.”

    In any event, the bank had cause to believe the club might be designated. Pre-emptive demolition is still considered a major threat by preservationist groups, who say that owners should approach the commission before tearing down a historic building. That is quite a distance from the realities of New York real estate, where developers often keep their plans as quiet as they can, having paid millions for a building counting on a free hand.

    The site today, for which a 32-story tower is planned.

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  • In honor of its 50th anniversary New York State Pavilion opens on April 22nd

    Michelle Miller reports for Archdaily: New York State Pavillion / Phillip Johnson It is rare to find an architectural project whose history makes such strange bedfellows as the New York State Pavilion: a master architect and millions of exhibition patrons, roller skaters and rock stars, stray cats and Iron Man [1]. For three hours on April 22, in honor of the fifty year anniversary of the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, the city of Queens will open the long shuttered gates to Phillip Johnson’s most futuristic work. The Pavilion is architecture as spectacle, and a relic of a past vision for the future.  Designed as an amphitheater and exhibition space, the New York State Pavilion was the largest and tallest at the fair, and is one of only two structures still standing.  After decades of neglect and deterioration, the future of this modern ruin is tenuous as officials and the public consider options for demolition or reuse. With the theme of “Man’s Achievement on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe,”  the 1964-65 World’s Fair occupied a site of almost a square mile.  The grounds in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens had been the site of the 1939-40 World’s Fair.  While all pavilions were new, the infrastructure and overall plan were retained.  The New York State Pavilion inhabited a site in a thematic zone designated for Federal and State pavilions. Governor Nelson Rockefeller commissioned Philip Johnson to design New York State’s pavilion on the fairgrounds. Johnson had recently designed the New York State Center at Lincoln Center, home to the New York City Ballet. Prolific and ever evolving, Phillip Johnson was one of the foremost architectural practitioners and critics of the twentieth century.  Educated at Harvard in both the classics and architecture, he is perhaps best known for his role as director of the Department of Architecture at the Museum of Modern Art and his residence The Glass House.  While Johnson’s earlier projects aligned closely with Modern tenets, during the 1960s he began to explore a more individual and sometimes referential style.  The futuristic aesthetic of his design for the World’s Fair reflects the trend of “Googie” architecture, which embraced space-age imagery such as the flying saucer. Johnson’s intent for the World’s Fair was to create “an unengaged free space as an example of the greatness of New York, rather than as a warehouse full of exhibit material.” [2]  To this end, Johnson designed three main components:  an open-air “Tent of Tomorrow,” a cluster of three “Astro-View” observation towers, and a cylindrical “Theaterama.” The “Tent of Tomorrow”, an ironic circus tent, encloses a  350’ by 250’ elliptical area, a form influenced by his appreciation for the Italian Baroque [3]. During the fair, this grand ovoid amphitheater hosted fashion shows, children’s rides, art shows, and informal entertainers. Upon entering the Tent, visitors traversed an enormous terrazzo road map showing New York’s cities, topography, parks and natural features, along with a marker for each location of corporate sponsor Texaco’s gas stations. Painted red and white stripes along the lower walls whimsically reinforce the circus allusion. Rising 100 feet, sixteen slip-formed hollow concrete columns, 12’8” in diameter, support a “bicycle wheel” roof with outer steel compression ring and inner tension ring. A double-diaphragm of steel cables slope gently down to a smaller central ring, giving the roof a convex shape. At the time of the fair, the cables supported colorful plastic Kalwall sheeting.  The roof was assembled on the ground and then hoisted into place.  Both the use of slip-form concrete and the roof construction were novel innovations at the time of construction. Three disk shaped observation towers reach a height of 226 feet.  A twenty second ride in a glass “Sky Streak” elevators provided an ever expanding panorama and brought visitors to the uppermost observation deck.  The next lower platform served the same function, and the lowest held a snackbar.  To Johnon, who regarded elevators as necessary evils that destroyed one’s experience of procession,  this was their only pleasant application [4]. The Theatreama, the only enclosed building onsite, featured a slide show panorama of images projects in 360 degrees.  Contemporary pop art by famous artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and James Rosenquist adorned the exterior walls. Overall, critics reacted negatively to the fair’s heavy-handed corporate influence and lack of unifying architectural scheme.  Johnson’s pavilion was an exception, receiving positive reviews from critics of the day who noted the architect’s successful marriage of lighthearted spectacle with gravitas. New York Times writer Ada Louis Huxtable called the Pavilion “a runaway success, day or night…. a sophisticated frivolity… seriously and beautifully constructed. This is ‘carnival’ with class.” [5] For several years after the fair, the Tent of Tomorrow housed art shows and music concerts.  In 1970 is was converted to a roller skating rink, but only a few years later was closed when Kalwall panels were found to be falling from the structure.  The building department ordered all panels be removed, and the structure has been abandoned every since. Johnson/Burgee architects were engaged for an interior renovation of the Pavilion in 1982.  The Theaterama was renovated in the 1980s and thrives as the Queens Theater in the Park.  A spiraling glass addition by Caples Jefferson Architects completed in 2010 provides a reception area and an additional cabaret at the foot of the observation towers. The uncertain future of the New York State Pavilion is a topic of hot debate as its fiftieth anniversary looms.  The parks department in Queens has commissioned engineering studies, held public workshops, and worked with architecture firms to image and plan for possible scenarios.  Costs range from $14 million for demolition, $43 million to stabilize the structures without allowing access, $52 million to restore it to it’s 1964 program, and $72 million to realize the reuse plan envisioned (pro-bono) by Perkins + Will.  [6] It was listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places as of June 2010. A group of volunteers has dedicated time each year since 2009 to repaint the exterior and interior to the original red and white stripes with yellow trim.  Another group called People for the Pavilion raises awareness through programs, events and online efforts.  The group was founded by Salmaan Khan, who works with Friends of the High Line, and Matthew Silva, who is working on a documentary on Johnson’s project. For more information on the New York State Pavilion, see the website of the People for the Pavilion or find them on Facebook. For more on Phillip Johnson, check out his other works featured on ArchDaily here.  

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