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Manhattan Skyscrapers

by

Eric P. Nash

Photographs by Norman McGrath

Princeton Architectural Press, 1999, pp. 175, $45.

By Carter B. Horsley

Neither definitive nor encyclopedic, this large format book provides good architectural photographs in color of many important New York towers and a text that is informative but rather stitled.

The author, a researcher for The New York Times who is best known previously for a pocket-size books on "New York’s Best 50 Skyscrapers" and "New York’s Best 50 Architectural Secrets," is in love with the words "lithic," "astylar," and "syncretic," adjectives that he uses with great abandon in many of essays on individual buildings.

"Lithic" means "of, or pertaining to, stone."

"Astylar" means "without columns."

"Syncretic" means the combination or fusion of different beliefs or practices.

The cover illustration is slanted as are many inside, apparently in deference to an art director’s warped sensibility, a gimmick that serves only to annoy.

The book purports to present the "75 most significant tall buildings that make up the city’s famous skyline," but the selection process is rather obscure.

The list of buildings neither illustrated nor discussed at length is puzzling as it includes many major edificies such as Cesar Pelli’s Carnegie Hall Tower (see The City Review article), Helmut Jahn’s Cityspire, Park Avenue Tower and International Plaza at 750 Lexington Avenue, Davis & Brody’s One Central Park Place (see The City Review article), Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo & Associates’ 750 Seventh Avenue and 60 Wall Street, Clinton & Russell’s Sherry Netherland Hotel (see The City Review article), Gordon Bunshaft’s 9 West 57th Street (see The City Review article), 26 Broadway, Arquitectonica’s new hotel at 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue, the Crown Building at 57th Street and Fifth Avenue (see The City Review article), Emery Roth & Sons’ Beresford Apartments on Central Park West, 470 Park Avenue and 17 State Street, Fox & Fowle’s 1675 Broadway, River House, Edward Larrabee Barnes’ 599 Lexington Avenue (see The City Review article), Frank William’s Trump Palace, Cass Gilbert’s New York Life Insurance Company Building, and Kohn Pederson Fox’s 135 East 57th Street (see The City Review article), and 666 Fifth Avenue (see The City Review article), among others.

The book includes a chapter on the Riverside Church on Riverside Drive but strangely does not include such other highly visible tall religious structures such as Trinity and Grace (Episcopal) Churches on Broadway or St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Cathedral on Fifth Avenue (see The City Review article). The book begins with R. H. Robertson’s 1896 American Tract Society Building so the book does not limit itself to the 20th Century.

In his introduction, John Kriskiewicz, who is identified in the book’s "acknowledgements" as an architectural historian, notes that "Twenty of the one hundred tallest buildings in the world can be found in Manhattan - a record still unsurpassed." Perhaps more interesting would have been to note how many more of the world’s tallest buildings the city used to have and how it has failed to keep pace architecturally with the rest of the country and the world in recent decades.

Despite the use of "Manhattan" in the book’s title, it includes a chapter on the former Williamsburgh Bank tower in Brooklyn, a fine building but geographically astray.

Despite such quibbles, the individual building profiles are interesting and contain good material. In the commentary on the R. H. Robertson’s 1898 Park Row Building at 15 Park Row overlooking City Hall Park, Nash observed that the building’s lobby "is a period gem, well worthy of landmark designation, although it is not one." "Nearly perfectly preserved, it is lined with marble panels that would become the trademark of New York office buildings until well into the 1960’s, under a gilded, coffered ceiling. Ten remarkable wedge-shaped elevator cabs fan out to forma semicircle," Nash wrote. "Diminutive, copper-covered cupolas that once served as a public observatory are a wonderful romatnic holdover, but also reveal a miscomprehensiion of the impact of classical decoration on a tall building. Seen from street level, the tiny turrets only work to lessen the scale of the building," Nash maintained. The dome-covered, lantern-like cupolas of which he wrote, however, are not small and are very distinctive and precursors of much later twin-towered structures and are also early and important skyline ornaments that are meant to give pleasure not only to the proverbial people on the street but other high-rise denizens. Nash correctly notes the fourth-story caryatids by John Massey Rhind, but argues that the building’s "cluttered classical revival facade works to disguise its height rather than accentuate it," ignored the presence of such other strong vertical elements as the three-story colonnade near the top and numerous balustraded balconies. This 391-foot-tall building is, in fact, very monumental, and not demure. Nash notes with interest that the architect "recanted the skyscraper aesthetic in 1900, and argued for a return to the Beaux-Arts scale, in which new buildings should be no higher than 150 feet on avenues (roughly the traditional cornice level of Park Avenue), and 100 feet on side streets." Of course, when Robertson made his comment Park Avenue was Fourth Avenue and had not yet been developed with 15-story apartment buildings that would arrive with the building of Grand Central Terminal and the covering of the tracks along the avenue.

In his essay on the 1909 Metropolitan Life Insurance Company tower at 1 Madison Avenue, Nash maintains that "ornamentation was not meant to be viewed so far from the ground," referring to the tower’s large clocks a bit more than halfway up its once world’s tallest height of 700 feet. Noting that the tower was stripped of its Tuckahoe marble facade that was replaced by limestone in 1964, Nash wrote that "the simple fact of skyscraper design, that details had to be outscaled to be perceived at all, may have contributed as much to the spare, modernist style as much as any structural considerations." Perhaps Mr. Nash is young and does not remember that the original facade was highly detailed and that the present tower significantly altered its appearance, although not its form. He does report, interestingly, however, that a drawing of the building by the architect, Pierre L. LeBrun of Napoleon LeBrun & Sons, is in a "14.5-foot-tall frame" in one of the building’s entrances.

At times, Nash’s enthusiasm for detail can be irritating. In his notes on the 1913 Woolworth Building, designed by Cass Gilbert, at 233 Broadway, he notes that the "lobby is ahistorically designed in a Romanesque style featuring barrel-vaulted ceilings with glass mosaics patterned after the early Christian mausoleum Galla Placidia in Ravenna, Italy." Romanesque perhaps, but to modern eyes much more Byzantine.

"Many heights are given for the building, but its highest point is 793.5 feet on the Barclay Street side." The highest point of the building is its spire which is centered above its Broadway frontage but setback because it tops a pyramidal roof!

While many commentators have noted that one of the corbel "grotesques" in the lobby protrays the architect holding a model of the building and Frank Woolworth counting coins, Nash also relates that Gunwald Aus, the building’s structural engineer, is protrayed measuring a girder, Louis J. Horowitz, then head of the Thompson-Starrett Building Company, "lambastes a contractor over the telephone, and Edward J. Hogan, the rental agent, peruses a lease."

Most chapters consist of a full-page color photograph of the building by Norman McGrath, a well-known architectural photographer, and one page of text by Nash, often with some historical illustration. The Woolworth chapter is one of the few that is longer and has two excellent black-and-white photographs of the building, one that shows its top third still in its steel skeleton and the other a nighttime shot that shows the great Post Office Building in City Hall Park that was eventually demolished and is unidentified in the caption.

Sometimes, Nash gets a bit carried away as in his description of McKim, Mead & White’s 1914 Muncipal Building straddling Chambers Street: "The 24-story wings of the U-shaped court, covered in light-colored Maine granite, reach out to embrace City Hall." The wings reach out to perhaps embrace the great former Surrogate’s Court/Hall of Records building and the former Tweed Court House, both to the west on Chambers Street, but City Hall is a full block south of the building and beyond its embrace.

Nash does include some buildings that other guides often overlook such as the Candler Building at 220 East 42nd Street, which was designed by Willauer, Shape & Bready and erected in 1914. It was built as the New York headquarters for the Coca-Cola Company and named after its founder, Asa Candler. Nash again bemoans architectural detail that is high up on a building: "Much of the terra-cotta detailing of cherub’s heads, architetural masks set in roundels, and well-articulated diapering is almost invisible from the street. A perforated railing of addorsed, overscaled sea horses and winged griffins at the top cornice compensates for the distance. This kind of ornamentation might cause one to speculate that American businessmen were furnished an empryean realm meant only for each other." Well, speculation be damned. It’s a lovely building and its rather lacy crown along the Great White Way of follies is fine.

To his credit, Nash observed that the architects made the midblock tower appear to be free-standing by using low-rise wings with slanted rooflines on either side "that give it the appearance of a finned 1950s rocket ship," adding that "the lines of the shaft are remarkably clean cut, without the stringcourses, colonettes, and geegaws of its predecessors." What are addorsed, overscaled sea horses but geegaws, for which we are thankful!

Nash is similarly ambivalent about the Shelter Towers Hotel, (see The City Review article), now the Marriott East Side Hotel, at 525 Lexington Avenue that was designed by Arthur Loomis Harmon and erected in 1924. "Except for its delightful limestone gargoyles, the Shelton is relatively free of ornamentation." Let us please be thankful for delightful limestone gargoyles, especially here where there are at both the bottom and top of the building and in more evidence than most other buildings in the city!

Throughout the book, Nash often confuses the reader by referring to the height in stories of the towers when he is only speaking of the "shafts," and not the total building height. In his essay on the former Equitable Building at 120 Broadway, a 42-story building designed by Ernest R. Graham and erected in 1915, Nash, for example, writes that "its unornamented 23-story shaft rises through sheer numbing repetition of layers of square-headed windows separated by piers of shallow pilasters." His essay neglects to mention that for several decades the building’s three top floors were occupied by the very luxurious and ornate Bankers Club.

He describes the Ritz Tower, designed by Emery Roth and Carrere & Hastings and built in 1925 on the northeast corner of Park Avenue and 57th Street, as "lost in a shuffle of midsize buildings," that it seems that Roth did "everything in his power to disguise the building’s height." Huh? As an early black-and-white photo in the essay indicates, the Ritz Tower (see The City Review article) was clearly a very major skyscraper that was greatly isolated when it was built and still looms over the structures at the three other corners of this insection. The Galleria, which was built adjacent to it many years later, even setback its huge tower significantly to not ruin its famed silhouette.

Speaking of silhouettes, Nash maintained that "The Chanin’s astylar silhouette was influenced by Eliel Saarinen, but its decorated motifs are straight out of Ayn Rand," the author of "The Fountainhead," a book written many years after the Chanin Building, which was designed by Sloan & Robertson, was erected in 1928. Is this a cart before the horse, or just plain old Post-Modern malarkey! "The 56-story tower’s blunt-buttressed crown became a symbol of New York’s crushing modernist drive," Nash continued, giving scant credit to the building’s incredible Art Deco flourishes that far outstrip those of virtually all other such structures in the city.

Nash can sometimes stretch a point. Of Harvey Wiley Corbett’s 1929 residential skyscraper at One Fifth Avenue, Nash maintained that the design was "remarkably contextual": "The octagonal chimney around which the wings are massed forms a campanilelike image against the open sky of Washington Square Park, and even the silhouette of a sloped roof split by a chimney can be seen as a reference to the older Federal style houses of Greenwich Village. The stripped-down Doric lobby is a neat overlay for the Greek Revival mansion that formerly occupied the site." This tower has no "wings" and it is completely out of context with the park and Greenwich Village, which is not to say that it is a horrible building, only that Nash perhaps needs glasses.

Indeed, Nash writes of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, designed by Schultze & Weaver and built in 1931, (see The City Review article), that "its stark, 17-story limestone wings with crenellated parapets and verdrigris copper turrets reflect Expressionism’s Gothic roots." Perhaps but the vedrigris copper turrets do their reflecting a few hundred feet higher at the top of the towers not on the wings. Nash apparently is quite taken with Expressionism and adds that "the extraordinary windowless, block-through lobby, with its dark panels of Oregon maple and black granite pilasters, creates a hidden Expressionist grotto." Huh? The pilasters are marble and the great lobby is luminously Art Deco, huge, and awesome and by no stretch of the imagination a "hidden Expressionist grotto."

Of Ralph Walker’s 1932 One Wall Street, Nash said it is "one of the most delicate, even feminine, skyscrapers ever built," adding that "Fluted walls, faceted windows, and chamfered corners give the tower a mineral grace, like folds of cloth sculpted in stone." While the prounced piers of the tower might conjure the pleats of a dress, this limestone-clad monolith is about as masculine and robust, as opposed to dainty, a design as imaginable.

At one point, Nash suggests that the United Nations complex looks like an aircraft carrier and at another he states that "The delicate, glass-walled Lever House stands on Park Avenue like an outpost of a rarefied, more suburban civilization." The book’s jacket does not indicate how old Nash is or where he grew up, unfortunately, so it is hard to parse this statement in good Post-Modern jibberish.

Designed by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and built in 1972, Lever House (see The City Review article) certainly was meant to convey a sense of cleanliness that was appropriate for its corporate developer, a soap manufacturer. "Bunshaft came up with a suburban idyll. With a 63-car underground garage, the Lever was designed so that an executive could drive from the suburbs, park, have lunch in the third-floor company cafeteria, even play a round of shuffleboard on the landscaped second-floor terrace, and go home - all without ever setting foot in the dirty, chaotic city. Lever House was the first sealed, fully climate-controlled building, with fixed windows held in place by aluminum mullions, so that Lever employees did not even breathe the same air as city dwellers."

Nash’s critique of the World Trade Center’s narrow windows is excellent. He notes that Minoru Yamasaki, the architect of the 1972 twin towers, was "morbidly affraid of heights" and that windows cover only 30 percent of the building’s surface, adding that "apparently, the architect did not feel comfortable unless the floor-to-ceiling windows were narrower than his own shoulder span."

Some of his comments are likely to surprise some neck-cranning lovers of architecture, such as his description of Hugh Stubbins’ 1978 Citicorp Center (see The City Review article) as "the city’s first postmodern skyscraper, an honor usually given to Philip Johnson’s A. T. & T. Building (see The City Review article) of 1984. He states that the tower’s "distinctive triangular top was the first purely decorative crown on a skyscraper since the Art Deco era" and that "there was a ripple efect in the architecture world, like the discovery of the emperor’s new clothes: flat tops were not an absolute verity after all, but simply another style among many to choose from." One wonders why Nash didn’t say this about Der Scutt’s One Astor Plaza roof of 1972, which is far more rakish and angled!

Most naive people like this writer generally associate Post-Modernism in architecture with a renaissance of interest in historical styles and a pastiche and collagist approach to facade treatments and Citicorp Center generally strikes some people as the city’s first high-tech tower whose sleekness is the antithesis of the Post-Modern kitsch designs that would ensue in the next decade.

Of course, using conventional definitions of words is not always necessary for some Post-Modern writers. Nash writes of Edward Larrabee Barnes’ 1983 IBM Building at 590 Madison Avenue (see The City Review article) that "the heavy cornice looks like solid stone...." The building has no cornice, at least in the normally accepted definition of a protuding element at the top of a building."

He does use one nice word, "bizarrerie," in his essay on the AT&T (now Sony) Building at 570 Madison Avenue, designed by Philip Johnson/John Burgee, but it is not used to describe the radical transformation of the building’s open public spaces at its base into a showroom for Sony that Nash describes only as a "livelier, glassed-in, commodity-filled mall."

One of the great virtues of the book is that it provides a cross-section of John Portman’s 1985 Marriott Marquis Hotel in Times Square that well demonstrates that building’s hidden treasures. Of course, on the other hand, there is no illustration of the interior of Cesar Pelli’s great Wintergarden at the World Financial Center. "This organiform, Art Nouveau-esque atrium is 125 feet high...," Nash writes inexplicably.

Despite the mean-spiritedness, or nit-picking, of this review, this book is heartily recommended to all lovers of New York who are capable of awe, which is manifest here.

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