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George B. Post, Architect

Picturesque Designer and Determined Realist

by Sarah Bradford Landau

The Monacelli Press, 1998, pp. 192, 106 illustrations, $40

Book cover

Book cover with illustration of George Post's 1901-03 design for the New York Stock Exchange Building

By Carter B. Horsley

George B. Post (1837-1913) was the architect of many of the most important landmarks in New York City including, unfortunately, many that have been demolished.

Of those still standing, the New York Stock Exchange Building on Broad Street is probably the most famous and a rendering of it is the book's front cover illustration.

Floor of New York Stock Exchange

Main "floor" of The New York Stock Exchange (crease is from two-page reproduction in book)

"George B. Post, Architect, Picturesque Designer and Determined Realist," by Sarah Bradford Landau, is a superb book that provides an excellent documentation of the Post's eclectic oeuvre that included commissions for many of the city's most important financial institutions and publishers as well as some of the most splendid private residences, a practice that put him on a par with McKim, Meade & White as the city's most important and prestigious architectural firm around the turn of the 20th Century. This book was published in 1998 and the following year Ms. Landau published another important work, "The Rise of the New York Skyscraper, 1865-1913."

In his introduction to the book, Robert A. M. Stern observes that Post "may not have been an iconoclastic innovator like Louis Sullivan or Frank Lloyd Wright, but he was an innovator, nonetheless, notably so in the invention and design of the skyscraper," adding that "This book will readers a long overdue opportunity to reexamine post's mistakenly overlooked oeuvre and to appreciate anew the work of an architect whose contributions - as designer, engineer, and businessman - were nothing short of seminal."

Post's grandfather, Joel Post, had been a successful drug importer in New York City. George Browne Post graduated from the School of Civil engineering and Architecture at the University of the City of New York as New York University was then known in 1858 and studied architecture with richard Morris Hunt who would become his mentor. In 1860, Post formed a partnership with Charles D. Gambrill and during the Civil War he was captain of the 22nd regiment of New York volunteers. The author notes that in 1887 Post's design for an armory building for that regiment was accepted "but not executed because it was considered too costly," adding that "this was an unusual situation for Post, who was normally very good at keeping costs down." In 1867, Post began his own practice and Henry Hobson Richardson became Gambrill's new partner. Post's practice was expanded in 1904 when two of his sons were made partners. In 1867, Post entered a competion for the Equitable Life Assurance Society Building but did not win. He was, however, appointed consulting architect in charge of ironwork, elevators and vaults and Landau noes that "The ironwork included inner court walls supported on cast-iron columns; if the engineer and architect William Harvey Birkmire was correct in his assessment, those walls anticipated skeleton construction," adding that "Because it was the first office building to utilize elevators the Equitable Building...is today recognized as having inititated the skyscraper type." It was eight stories tall. Post ocupied the top floor office suite and when the company decided to expand the building in the 1880s he was given the commission.

In 1869 and 1870, Post designed three buildings for the College of New Jersey in Princeton, which is known now as Princeton University and Landau observed that "Unfortunately, not one of them is still standing, an all-too-common fate for Post's buildings." In 1875, Post's designed the Williamsburgh Savings Bank building in Brooklyn. Landau writes that "the bank's style was precocious," adding that "Although the temple front and domed banking room had been styulish for banks early in the century, the palazzo mode and subsequent Second Empire styule had since displaced those forms. The Williamsburgh Savings Bank set precedents not only for Post's future bank buildings but also for the monumental Beaux-Arts bank buldings to come."

Western Union Building

Western Union Building

Another 1875 important project was the Western Union Building in New York. A nine-story structure with a mansard roof surmounted by a tower, the building was distinguished for its rich modulation and banded facade. "The real triumphs of the Western Union building," according to Ms. Landau, "were its plan and technology. Many of the functional aspects were of necessity dictated by the telegraph wires essential to the company's operations. even the iorn-railed balcony above the seventh floor served a practical purpose: initially, the telegraph wires enter the buildig at this point. The iron-framed mansard roof....housed lunchroom facilities for the workers on the ninth floor and beroom for the engineer and steward on the tenth, as well as space for storage and mechniacla euqiment. the entire twenty-three-foot-high eighth floor, where the telegraph operators worked, was unobstructed by walls or coloumns except for the four iron pillars supporting the iron clock tower....In case the water supply in lower Manhattan should prove inadequate in the event of a fire, the building was equipped with its own emergency water-pumping system, and one of its three elevators was an early hydraulic-gravity passenger elevator."

Chickering Hall

Chickering Hall

Also completed in 1875 was Chickering Hall, a store for a piano manufacturer that also housed a concert hall. "One of Post's finest designs," Ms. Landau wrote, "the building was constructed on the corner of Fifth Avenue and West 18th Street in the entertainment district around Union Square." The year before, in 1874, Post had won the commission for a new building for New York Hospital and Ms. Landau noted that "The fact that his great-uncle, the eminent Dr. Wright Post, had been the hospital's attending surgeon may also have predisposed the building committee in his favor. Because of the limations of the site on West 15th Street beween Fifth and Sixth avenues, the new hospital was not desined according to the pavilion plan then favored for hospitals. Instead, it was built as a seven-story block, with a taller center portion and rear wing, and of course, there were elevators. At the time, this deviation from the pavilion scheme was widely criticized, but in the twentieth century, the vertical plan became the standard, and Post's building is credited with setting a precedent for future hospitals. A skylighted solarium on the top floor, used as a recreation hall, was one of the building's special features."

In 1880, he designed a townhouse for Henry M. Braem that was one of the earliest buildings in New York to feature terra cotta, which he also used the same year for the Long Island Historical Society Building in Brooklyn.

Cornelius Vanderbilt residence

Cornelius Vanderbilt mansion, 1882

In 1882, he completed a mansion on Fifth Avenue at 57th Street for Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Ms. Landau provides the following commentary about this important commission:

"Why Cornelius Vanderbilt selected Post, and not Richard Morris Hunt, as architect for his Fifth Avenue mansion is open to speculation. Certainly there were direct connections between Post and the Vanderbilts. Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt's brother, David E. Gwynne, had served with Post in the Twenty-Second Regiment during the Civil Wr, and Cornelius Vanderbilt was already a major stockholder in the Western Union Telegraph Company and a member of he building committee when Post won that commission. Post and Vanderbilt wree fellow members of the Century Association. On the other hand, Hunt was already working for Cornelius's brother, William K. Vanderbilt. Hunt had designed the latter's Long Island country house, and at at the same time that post's Cornelius Vanderbilt mansion....was under construction, Hunt's city mansion for William I. Banderbilt was rising nearby. Both mansions were part of what has often been called 'Vanderbilt Row' on the west side of Fifth Avenue: Cornelius's at the corner of West 57th Street and his brother's at West 52nd Street just to the north of the contemporary twin mansions of their father, W. H. Vanderbilt, and their sisters between West 51st and 52nd Streets. The Vanderbilts had recently inherited considerable sums of money from W. H. Vanderbilt's father, railroad magnate Commodore Vanderbilt, and their grand mansions were conspicuous expressions of those legacies. the son's residences were styled to resemble French chateaux, Hunt's in gray limestone with intricate Gothic details, and Post's in brick, trimmed with light stone, and more Renaissance in style....Cornelius Vanderbilt soon became dissatisfied with his mansion. A few years after it was finished, he consulted Ernest Flagg, his cousin by marriage who drew plans for altering and enlarging the mansion. Flagg recalled that Vanderbilt was 'very much dissatisifed with the plan of his house....what he really wanted was more and larger rooms.' Vanderbilt later asked Hunt to design an addition, but Hunt refused, saying that the architect who built the house should do the alterations. He did, however, recommend that a tower be included to relieve the 'monotony of the Fifth Avenue facade.' Hunt did not charge Vanderbilt for this advice, and in a note to him explained that 'it was only act of comradeship for my old friend Post.' In the end, Post got the commission, but Hunt was chosen to design Vanderbilt's Newport, Rhode Island, mansion known as the Breakers (1892-95)."

New York Produce Exchange interior

Interior of New York Produce Exchange

"Without question," Landau wrote, "Post's New York Produce Exchange (1881-84), sited at 2 Broadway opposite Bowling Green, was his commercial masterpiece and one of the great buildings of the Victorian era....The specifications called for a large, skylighted exchange room with a spacious interior light court above it. Given his experience designed large interior spaces, Post was well-suited to take on this challenge. His Renaissance arcading emphasizing 'the value of repeated openings' impressed the building committee. As constructed, the exterior featured a four-story-high arcade defining a huge, sixty-four-foot-high exchange room inside....A two-story arcade representing two office floors over the aisles of the exchange room doubled the rhythm, and the composition was terminated by a band of rectagular openings that again doubled the rhythm and a cornice-like, arcaded attic story. This extraordinary rhythmic treatment would influence both Richardson's Marshall Field Wholesale store (1885-87) and Adler & Sullivan's Auditorium Building (1887-90) in Chicago. Visible from miles away, the Produce Exchange's campanilelike clock tower contained elevators and a staircase. ....The exchange building's red brick and matched red-terra-cotta-trimmed walls were relieved only by the light-toned granite at the base and framing the entrances. ...The Produce Exchange's interior iron framing was at the cutting-edge technologically...The most important innovation was Post's early use of skeleton, or skyscraper, construction for the inner court walls. Bearing walls, like the outer walls of the exchange, would become obsolete within the next decade. Once again, Post was a pioneer. With the demolition of this building in 1957, the nation lost a truly magnificent work."

The New York Cotton Exchange Building

The New York Cotton Exchange Building

For the New York Cotton Exchange, Post designed in 1883-85 "an asymmetrical nine-story building with a shallow, U-shaped light court and founded entrance front topped by a high, conical roofm" Ms. Landau wrote. The building was located at Hanover Square and William and Beaver Streets. The eclectic but interesting building has not survived. In fact, his only surviving office building in New York City is the former New York Times Building on Park Row facing City Hall Park.

Pulitzer Building

Pulitzer Building

One of the most prominent skyscrapers Post designed was the World, or Pulitzer Building, opposite City Hall. "The opportunity for Post to design the World, or Pulitzer, Building (1889-90) must have been irresistible....Hunt was the professional adviser for the competition, a circumstance that may have increased Post's chances of winning the commission. Post, however, was said to have won because he boldly visited the newpaper's owner Joseph Pulitzer just after submitting his plans; he daringly 'annexed' the approach to the Brooklyn Bridge by 'throwing his building out over it'; and instead of guaranteeing that he could stay within the one-million-dollar budget, he made a bet with Pulitzer - twenty thousand dollars against Pulitzer's ten thousand dollars - that he could do it. That was a bet he lost. Rising about 309 feet above the sidewalk, the twenty-story World Building was at that time the tallest skyscraper ever built in New York City. ...The design concept was that of a multilevel Renaissance palazzo topped by a domed temple. Reportedly, the conspicuous gilded dome was Pulitzer's idea; from his private office on its second floor he could overlook the quarters of his rivals. Classicizing figural sculpture adored the red sandstone and buff-colored brick and terra-cotta walls. Karl Bitter's bronze torchbearers mounted above the entrance were intended to symbolize the arts, and four black copper atlantes beneath the pediment represented the human races. ....Not surprisingly, the critics were scathing in their assessment of the building...."

Ungainly but very impressive, the Pulitzer Building was without question the "king" of "Newspaper Row" and it is too bad that the publishers abandoned their perches overlooking and dominating City Hall....

St. Paul Building St. Paul Building entrance

St. Paul Building, left, and its entrance, right

A far more interesting tower was Post's 1895-98 design for the St. Paul Building, whose height of 315 took the title of the city's tallest away from the Pulitzer Building. It was commissioned by Henry Osborne Havemeyer, the president of the American Sugar Refining Company and a major art collector. While it was still in design, Post supporting legislation to limit the heights of buildings, noting that "Our narrow streets, when lined with tall structures, will become unhealthy alleys with an inadqueate capacity for the passage of the crowds which will flow from these tall buildings if occupied, for the capacity of the streets is aldready severely taxed at certain times of day." Further, he maintained that even if it were well designed, the sides and rear of tall building "will always form a hideous mass."

"In spite of these misgivings," Ms. Landau noted, "the impact of the St. Paul building on surrounding buildings was relatively slight, owing to its irregularly shaped site at Broadway, Park Row and Ann Steet, opposite its namesake, the historic St. Pual's Chapel. Also, Post designed it so that the rear portion was four stories lower than the Broadway side and set back at the nineteenth floor by about twenty feet on the Ann Street side.....The skeleton frame was designed so as to prevent possible corrosion of the steel members and fire damage, and Post also utilized a special system of wind bracing that had been developed in Chicago. The St. Paul Building's horizontal design scheme was mercilessly criticised, especially by [Montgomery] Schuyler, who thought that it denied the natural similarity of the stories. Post, however, was attempting to unify three very different elevations by adopting a modular system linking the stories in pairs. The building's repeated classical order and limestone cladding may have been intended to relate to the porch of St. Paul's Chapel across Broadway and also to the pilastered and columned facades of the older adjacent buildings, including the Post Office Building and City Hall. By the standards of the late twentieth century, the St. Paul Building might be considered contextual, but no one would call it a 'background' building.....Its sculptural program included three kneeling atlantes, representing the principal human races, over the main entrance on Broadway....Again, Karl Bitter was the sculptor.....In 1958, the St. Paul Building was razed and immediately replaced by a non-descript skyscraper."

The Post Office Building occupied the lower end of City Hall Park and was a monumental pile of columns not too dissimilar to the Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C., next to the White House. Both structures were widely criticized as unattractive behemoths, but were, in fact, exceeding handsome and elegant structures. The loss of the Post Office Building and the St. Paul Building are among the greatest in the city's history as they substantially contributed to the nobility of City Hall and the coming glory of the Woolworth Building. A similar case could be argued for the Pulitzer Building, but its blocking of vistas of the Brooklyn Bridge from City Hall was pretty outrageous and indefensible.

Post did not get the commission in 1909 to design the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company tower, modelled after the campanile in Piazza San Marco in Venice, but that same year he designed a somewhat similar albeit less graceful clocktower headquarters for the Prudential Insurance Company in Newark. The tower was never built but it was next to his imposing main building for the insurance company that had been completed in 1892.

Grill from the Mills Building

Grill from the Mills Building

In 1880 to 1882, Post completed an office building for his father and uncle, Joel Browne Post and John Alexander Post at the intersection of Exchange Place, Beaver Street and Hanover Street and Ms. Landau credits its design with introduced U-shaped office buildings. "Because of the way it was formed, with wings above the bae, the inner offices received more light and air than the typical interior court would have allowed. Other distinguishing features were the tripartite facade organization, a development in New York commerical work of the 1870s and 1880s that is especially notable in Post's designs; the arcaded facade treatment; the rounded corners, and ther remarkably open, towo-story base. The Post Building was also unusual for its time in being uniformly light in color above its bluestone base."

In 1883, Post completed the Mills building for Darius Ogden Mills on Broad Street at the corner of Exchange Place. It was also U-shaped and was the first office building in the city to have its own electricity generating plant. It had a restaurant on its top floor and "a magnificent wrought-iron grille at themain entrance could lowered by hydraulic power toclose off the skylighted lobby....The handsome Aesthetic Movement design was calculated so that when the grille was in the raised position, its arch met the stone arch over the entrance," according to Ms. Landau.

City College

City College of the City of New York

In 1897, Post won the commission to design a new campus for the City College of the City of New York and he offered the institution a choice of either a Beaux-Arts or a Collegiate Gothic design. It chose the latter, perhaps, Ms. Landau suggested, because it would "contrast conspicuously with the domed Beaux-Arts buildings of Columbia University and the Fordham Heights campus of New York University." "Post had first planned a campus consisting of a single, large, fan-shaped building enclosing three courts separated by passages designated as 'cloisters' on the plan, and with its curved side conforming to the contour of St. Nicholas Terrace. However, more money was allocated for the project, and in 1902 the plans were modified to include more buildings. Main Building (Shepard Hall) was redesigned in an anchor shape with a Great Hall extending westward from its center.....As the grandest space on the campus, with seating for 2,400 people, the Great Hall was expected to accommodate civic as well as academic functions., Heavy buttresses, large-traceried windows, twin towers containing organ lofts, dand a Gothic, beamed ceiling simulate English great halls of the late Tudor era....In the stage area, a large mural by Blashfield depicts 'The Graduate' with allegorical and distinguished historical figures.

Warwick Hotel

Warwick Hotel

Mr. Post's firm would design many hotels for the Statler chain and in 1922-4 it designed theRoosevelt Hotel on Madison Avenue and in 1925-7 it designed, for William Randolph Hearst, the Warwick Hotel on Sixth Avenue.

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