Tag Archives: 1929

Williamsburgh Savings Bank (Tower)

Williamsburgh Savings Bank is New York architecture that entertains from afar – and from close up. The tower’s graceful taper dominates the Brooklyn skyline for miles; the Rene Chambellan sculpture around the base fascinates passers-by. More sculpture, mosaics, and majestic vaulted ceilings overwhelm visitors inside.

The landmark fulfills architect Robert Helmer’s wish that the tower “be regarded as a cathedral dedicated to the furtherance of thrift and prosperity of the community it serves.” Not bad for a tiny bank that started out in the basement of a (now-demolished) church in 1851, before Williamsburgh dropped the “h” from its name.

Architects Halsey, McCormack & Helmer specialized in banks, so it is a little ironic that one of the firm’s non-bank buildings was the Central Methodist Episcopal Church – right next door to their “cathedral of thrift.”

The building is based on a steel “portal frame” – a special structure designed to support the weight of the massive tower above the equally massive void of the banking hall. (Think of this as a 35-story office building on top of a six-story church.) The bank insisted – over the architects’ objections – on a gilded dome as a crown for the tower. The dome was an architectural reference to Williamsburgh Savings Bank’s original headquarters in downtown Williamsburg.

When built, this was the tallest building in Brooklyn, and the clock was the largest four-sided clock tower in the world. “Brooklyn’s wristwatch” sometimes had trouble keeping time, but it seems to have been fixed. Although this was its headquarters, Williamsburgh Savings Bank only used two floors (above the banking level) as offices. The rest of the tower was rented – and for some reason, mostly to dentists!

Williamsburgh Savings Bank was acquired by Republic National Bank, and then merged into HSBC. In 2005, a partnership of the Dermot Company and Canyon-Johnson Urban Funds bought the tower. The lower floors were converted to Skylight One Hanson – event space – while the upper floors became 1 Hanson Place luxury condominiums.

The tower has the distinction of being triple-designated by the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission: as an individual landmark (1977), as part of an historic district (1978), and as an interior landmark (1996).

Urban Omnibus has an exceptional narrative on the building’s history.

Williamsburgh Savings Bank Vital Statistics
Williamsburgh Savings Bank Recommended Reading

Google Map

818 Flatbush Avenue

818 Flatbush Avenue is a two-story commercial building in Flatbush, unremarkable except for Art Deco terra cotta uncannily similar to that of the Chanin Building on E 42nd Street in Manhattan.

The Brooklyn store and office building and the Chanin Building were both completed in 1929 – but were planned by different architects. Boris W. Dorfman planned the Flatbush Avenue structure; Sloan & Robertson designed the famous skyscraper. The NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission reports that Chanin Building’s terra cotta was created by sculptor Rene Chambellan and architect Jacques Delmarre (of the Chanin Construction Company).

I suspect that Mr. Chambellan was also responsible for the Brooklyn art, but I can’t find any documentation.

Newspaper accounts show that real estate and construction could move at lightning pace in 1929. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that the existing three-story apartment building and lot were being auctioned on April 15. By June, new owners Flatbush Improvement Corporation had picked an architect and filed plans for a new $45,000 building. On December 10, the Department of Buildings issued a Certificate of Occupancy for the structure, completed the previous day. In just over eight months developers bought the property, demolished the old building, and completed the new structure.

818 Flatbush Avenue Vital Statistics
818 Flatbush Avenue Recommended Reading

Google Map

Beekman Tower Hotel

Originally known as Panhellenic Tower, the 28-story Beekman Tower Hotel was conceived by the New York Chapter of the Panhellenic Association in 1921 as a 14-story residence for female college grads. The association of Greek-letter college sororities wanted to provide affordable housing for women who were just entering the workforce in the years after World War I.

The building was completed in 1929 – delayed until the association raised enough money (through stock and mortgage) to buy land and build. The architect, John Mead Howells, also designed Pratt’s Memorial Hall and Columbia’s St. Paul’s Chapel. However, Howells was the Panhellenic Association’s second choice: Their original architect, Donn Barber, died before the land was purchased.

The building’s name changed to Beekman Tower Hotel and its clientele changed to include men during the 1930s, to stay viable through the Depression.

The lighter-colored bricks seen today are the result of repairs in 1996-97; originally the tower had a uniform orange-tan color. The deeply recessed columns of windows give the building its strong vertical lines. The glassed-in “Top of the Tower” enclosure was added in 1959.

While cited as an example of Art Deco architecture, the building’s decoration is relatively sparse (compared to other NY examples such as Rockefeller Center, Chanin Building and Chrysler Building). Greek-letter tiles on the ground floor reveal the hotel’s sorority lineage.

Beekman Tower Hotel Vital Statistics
  • Location: 3 Mitchell Place at First Avenue
  • Year completed: 1929
  • Architect: John Mead Howells
  • Floors: 28
  • Style: Art Deco
  • New York City Landmark: 1998
Beekman Tower Hotel Suggested Reading

Google Map

Mercantile Building

The Mercantile Building, once considered the world’s fourth-tallest building, was owned by Frederick William Vanderbilt. Frederick was grandson of Cornelius “The Commodore” Vanderbilt, whose New York Central Railroad was headquartered a few blocks away in what is now the Helmsley Building.

The building was also known as Chase Tower – named for Chase Brass and Copper, not the bank.

The Mercantile Building was the last building in New York City to leave Thomas Edison’s original DC (direct current) power grid. It switched to AC on Nov. 14, 2007.

Mercantile Building Vital Statistics
  • Location: 10 E 40th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues
  • Year completed: 1929
  • Architect: Ludlow & Peabody
  • Floors: 48
  • Style: Art Deco
Mercantile Building Suggested Reading

Google Map

210 E 68th Street

There are plenty of more imposing buildings on Third Avenue – Trump Palace is on the next block – but 210 E 68th Street stands out at street level because of its colorful Art Deco accents and orange brickwork.

The 1929 apartment building was designed by George and Edward Blum, prolific architects who have more than 120 apartment buildings to their credit (not even counting their office and loft buildings). Alas, this was one of their last two buildings (the other is at 235 East 22nd Street).

The New York Times architecture critic Christopher Gray suggests a rationale for these apartments’ unusual color and decoration: “Perhaps because [the Blums] were fighting the hulking Third Avenue elevated train nearby, they used giant zigzag stripes of contrasting brick running across the front like World War I naval camouflage.” (The Third Avenue El was closed in 1955.)

210 E 68th Street Vital Statistics
210 E 68th Street Recommended Reading

Google Map

261 Fifth Avenue

261 Fifth Avenue replaced six houses from the mid-1800s; it was used primarily as showrooms and offices of companies in the housewares and carpet industries, according to the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission.

The commission also notes that the striking bold terra cotta ornament used by architect Ely Jacques Kahn had “similarities to motifs used by Frank Lloyd Wright.” Which leads to a small bit of irony: Frank Lloyd Wright was the inspiration for Howard Roark, the hero architect in Ayn Rand’s novel “Fountainhead.” But Ayn Rand worked for Kahn (as an unpaid typist) while she was researching the book; she is quoted as saying of Kahn, “As a type, he was Guy Francon.” (Francon was a sycophant in the novel.)

261 Fifth Avenue Vital Statistics
261 Fifth Avenue Recommended Reading

Google Map

Chanin Building

Chanin Building is among New York’s most prominent Art Deco towers (and cater-corner from the most prominent, the Chrysler Building). It was designed by Sloan & Robertson, who also designed the Art Deco Graybar Building, on the next block.

The Chanin Building’s base and its lobby are boldly decorated with terra cotta and bronze. The first story, dedicated to retail shops, is clad in Belgian black marble. That is topped by a bronze frieze depicting evolution from low marine life forms to fish and birds. Two floors of bronze-framed casement windows, set between limestone piers, come next. The fourth floor is clad in a floral patterned terra cotta band. Fourth floor windows align with the bays above, creating vertical lines to emphasize the structure’s height.

One critic – Carter B. Horsley writing in City Review – observed, “It is interesting to note that the Chrysler Building has the city’s greatest crown but a rather prosaic base. Imagine if it had the base of the Chanin Building, or vice versa?”

Above the base, the Chanin Building’s form was largely dictated by New York City’s 1916 zoning law, which required setbacks proportional to the width of the facing streets. From the 17th to the 29th floor the building tapers to a 22-story slab tower, capped by a four-story buttressed crown. The 50th and 51st floors originally held a theater (one line of Chanin’s businesses), and the 54th floor had an open-air observatory. The tower was once (briefly) the third-tallest in New York. Now, it is rarely appreciated.

Chanin the owner was every bit as impressive as Chanin the building – you can read more in the Landmarks Commission’s designation report and in The New York Times article.

Chanin Building Vital Statistics
Chanin Building Recommended Reading

Google Map

Master Apartments

Master Apartments is the tallest building on Riverside Drive, and reputedly the first building in New York City to have corner windows. But the most interesting side of this Art Deco architecture is that it was built as a personal museum for a prolific Russian artist and philosopher, one Nicholas Roerich. The name “Riverside Museum” still rises above the Riverside Drive entrance.

As reported in The New York Times, Roerich set up a school – Master Institute of United Arts – at a mansion owned by a wealthy follower, Louis Horch. The mansion also housed the Nicholas Roerich Museum – displaying the artist’s prolific output.

In 1928-29 Horch replaced the mansion with this 27-story tower. The first three floors contained museum, theaters, libraries and more devoted to Roerich; the rest of the building was apartments. Following the stock market crash, Horch was in and out of control; Roerich’s popularity waned and in 1938 the museum became simply the “Riverside Museum.”

The building became a cooperative in 1988 – and became a NYC Landmark the following year. The museum moved to a brownstone on W 107th Street.

Master Apartments Vital Statistics
Master Apartments Recommended Reading

Google Map

480 Park Avenue

480 Park Avenue is one of those buildings that makes a non-architect wonder: Why is so much decoration put so high, where no one can see it?

Modest decoration appears on the three-story base; but at the 13th floor and above, there’s a proliferation of terra cotta. Garlands, grotesques, medallions, dentil and egg-and-dart moldings, brackets, balustrades, sculpted balconies and wrought-iron railings galore!

This is one of Emery Roth’s lesser-known buildings in New York – he has more than 200 to his credit. It’s still a joy to study, and another reason to look skyward when walking the streets of New York.

480 Park Avenue Vital Statistics
480 Park Avenue Recommended Reading

Google Map

502 Park Avenue

502 Park Avenue, aka Trump Park Avenue, is now in its fifth incarnation. Built in 1929 as the Viceroy Hotel, it was victim of the stock market crash and quickly became the Cromwell Arms, then Delmonico’s. It has been a hotel, rental apartments, a cooperative, back to hotel, and finally as a condominium.

Donald Trump’s conversion added a seven-story glass box to the top of the north side of the tower, adding floor space at the expense of the building’s appearance.

502 Park Avenue Vital Statistics
502 Park Avenue Recommended Reading

Google Map