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The New York Society for Ethical Culture Hall

2 West 64th Street

Southwest corner at Central Park West

 

The Ethical Culture Society School

33 Central Park West

Northwest corner at 63rd Street

Ethical Culture Society School, left, and hall, right

The school is at the left and the hall is at the right

By Carter B. Horsley

The New York Society for Ethical Culture opened its hall on the southwest corner of Central Park West and 64th Street in 1911, nine years after it had opened its school building on the northwest corner of Central Park West and 63rd Street. The former was designed by Robert D. Kohn and the latter by Robert D. Kohn and Carrère & Hastings.

The hall is an imposing but stark, limestone-clad low-rise building in dramatic contrast with the red-brick structure of the school. The two buildings occupy the entire Central Park West blockfront between 63rd and 64th Streets.

In their fine book, "The A.I.A. Guide to New York City Architecture, Fourth Edition," (Three Rivers Press, 2000), Elliot Wilensky and Norval White provide the following commentary about the hall building: "A clear departure from the Beaux Arts, the hall was cited in the architectural press of its time as the best Art Nouveau building designed in this century. It has since lost prestige."

In their monumental book, "New York 1900, Metropolitan Architecture and Urbanism 1890-1915," (Rizzoli International Publications, 1983), Robert A. M. Stern, Gregory Gilmartin and John Massengale provide the following commentary about both buildings"

"Carrère & Hastings Century Theater opened on the southern end of Central Park West in 1909, its setting enhanced by the neighboring Ethical Culture Society buildings on Central Park West between Sixty-third and Sixty-fourth streets. The society's school on the north orner of West Sixty-third Street was intended as a model of educational reform. Designed by Robert D. Kohn and Carrère & Hastings in 1902, its facades were marked by a sophisticated expression of a nonstructural skin. The subtle panelling of the brickwork abstracted the forms of pilasters and rustication, while the steel and glass infill of windows and the openwork metal cornice exploited the potential of new technology without sacrifice of traditional composition. Kohn was solely responsible for the adjacent Ethical Culture Society Hall, which carried across the base mouldings and cornice line of the school building but substituted an appropriately monumental scale. Built in 1911, it was praised by the Architectural Record for 'the austerity of the treatment in general, the leaving of square arrises in so many cases where one would expect a moulding of transition, the point at which the development of the corbels has been arrested, insomuch that one may also be inclined to say that the fronts are 'en bloc' instead of being finished.' The simplification of traditional forms was held to be appropriate for a religion which 'not only deprives itself of spiritual sanction, but denies itself those ritual observances which constitute the data and the material of the ecclesiastical architect.'"

In his excellent book, "New York Streetscapes, Tales of Significant Buildings and Landmarks," (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2003), Christopher Gray devotes a chapter to the hall building and provides the following commentary:

"The founder of the Ethical Culture movement, Felix Adler, was born in Germany in 1851, but came to New York as a child when his father, Samuel L. Adler, took over as the rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, where he became oneof the most influential figures in Reform Judaism. Felix Adler graduated from Columbia College in 1870 and then went to the Univeristy of Heidelberg, where he studied the ethical philosophy of Immanuel Kant. After returning to the United States in 1873, he made what was to be his only address to his father's congregation, "The Judaism of the Future" - which advocated eliminating what he described as superstitious traditions from Judaism to concentrate on the study of ethics. Three years later, he put these ideas into practice and founded the New York Society for Ethical Culture, which mixed the spiritual with the practical. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, Dr. Adler frequently spoke on social issues....But the Society of Ethical Culture never had its own house, instead renting auditoriums like Carnegie Hall. In 1899, the society bought an entire blockfront on Central Park West, from 63rd to 64th Streets....In 1909, Ethical Culture began work on a meeting hall on the 64th Street corner. The building was designed by Robert D. Kohn, who had been a member of the society since childhood and who had become a principal practitioner of the Art Nouveau style in New York. Like Christian Science, the Ethical Culture movement was searching for its own form - it had no historic precedents from which to draw. Kohn's exterior, all Bedford limestone, took its cornice and base course lines from the adjacent school, but nothing else. Instead of the school's broad window facing Central Park, the meeting house has wide, limestone expanses, like a mausoleum, and simply, blocky detailing. When the building opened in 1910, the Times wrote: 'The severe plain wall is eloquent in its protest against the breathless rush and hustle of the modern city; it beckons to the hastening, sordid throng, Tarry a while; there is in life more than stocks and shekels and vain show.'"

The hall's building north facade on 64th Street has impressively tall windows over its sidestreet entrance.

 

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