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.