Tag Archives: Cass Gilbert

Broadway Chambers Building

Babe Ruth has a couple of things in common with Cass Gilbert, architect of the Broadway Chambers Building. Both were superstars in their field, and both came to New York via Boston. (But Cass Gilbert came 20 years ahead of the Babe.) *

According to the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, St. Paul, Minnesota-based Gilbert became prominent for his 1893 design of the Minnesota State Capitol. That led to an 1896 commission to design a commercial building – the Second Brazer Building – in Boston. Alexander Porter, an investor in that project, was so impressed with Gilbert’s work that he introduced him to Edward Andrews, who happened to be looking for someone to design a new building on Broadway at Chambers Street.

The resulting Broadway Chambers Building, begun in March 1899, was Gilbert’s first project in New York. It was immediately successful – and followed by nine other architectural landmarks by 1936. (Babe Ruth’s career closed in 1935.)

Like other tall buildings of the era, the Broadway Chambers Building was designed like a classical column, with base, shaft, and capital. Gilbert used the then-popular Beaux Arts style of ornamentation, with a twist dictated by Andrews: Color, to make the building stand out among the monochromatic neighbors.

The three-story base is of pink granite; the 11-story shaft is of red and blue brick; and the four-story capital is of beige terra cotta with blue, green, yellow and pink accents, and a green copper cornice. The base and crown are deeply rusticated (the joints between the blocks of granite or terra cotta are deeply incised). The brickwork of the middle floors has bands of raised brick that mimics (in reverse) the rustication.

While the Broadway Chambers Building was Cass Gilbert’s first New York project, his most famous building was erected three blocks south and 13 years later: The Woolworth Building (celebrating its centennial in 1913). Gilbert’s other New York City landmark buildings include: United States Custom House (1907), 90 West Street Building (1907), Rodin Studios (1917), New York Life Insurance Company (1928), 130 W30th Street (1928), Audubon Terrace auditorium and art gallery (1928), New York County Lawyers’ Association (1930), and United States Courthouse (1936 – completed after Gilbert’s death in 1934).

* OK, I know I just gave architects and architectural historians massive heart attacks by coupling a great architect with a mere baseball player. I accept that I am forever banned from the Society of Architectural Historians and the American Institute of Architects. But this is a website aimed at non-professionals.

Broadway Chambers Building Vital Statistics
  • Location: 277 Broadway at Chambers Street
  • Year completed: 1900
  • Architect: Cass Gilbert
  • Floors: 18
  • Style: Beaux Arts
  • New York City Landmark: 1992
Broadway Chambers Building Suggested Reading

Google Map

Woolworth Building

The Woolworth Building is a landmark of architecture, as well as of New York, and celebrates its centennial in 2013. Take a good look while you can – new tower construction is fast crowding Cass Gilbert’s elegant tower from the west and south; City Hall Park may soon be the only place from which to see the building in all its glory.

The Woolworth Building has several claims to fame: It was the world’s tallest building from 1913 to 1929; it was officially opened by then-President Woodrow Wilson; it became the prototype “romantic skyscraper”; it is considered Cass Gilbert’s finest work; it is a New York City Landmark and in the National Register of Historic Places. However, it didn’t start out to be any of those things.

Frank Woolworth’s original plan in 1910, according to the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, was for a “standard twelve- to sixteen story office building” to be shared with Irving National Bank’s headquarters. But toward the end of the year Woolworth began to raise his sights, first to build higher than his immediate neighbors, and finally to build the world’s tallest building, for the advertising value.

Architect Cass Gilbert was already acclaimed for designing “the last word” in tripartite (base-shaft-capital) buildings, the Broadway Chambers Building, three blocks north. But he abandoned that scheme to create what became known as a “romantic skyscraper” which celebrated rather than hid its steel frame construction. Gilbert used Gothic-styled terra cotta detailing to accentuate the Woolworth Building’s verticality and to emphasize the steel frame, but it was Gothic inspired by civic buildings, not churches. Gilbert was said to be annoyed with references to the Woolworth Building being a “Cathedral of Commerce.”

To maximize rental space, Gilbert’s facade minimized the use of columns, pilasters and arcades that would cast deep shadows and help define the building’s shape. Instead, he used colored accents to give the illusion of deeper shadows and strong vertical lines.

Although best known for its soaring addition to the New York skyline, the ground floor interior is every bit as inspiring – spectacular, in fact. It’s one of the few interior spaces to be designated a New York City Landmark. There are occasional tours by architectural societies. In addition, the building now permits photography (no flash or tripods) on a limited basis – for a $10 fee.

For some behind-the-scenes photos of the Woolworth Building interior, visit the photo links under “Woolworth Building Suggested Reading.”

Cass Gilbert fans will find four or five other of the architect’s landmarks within walking distance: Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse (Centre Street at St. Andrews Plaza), Broadway Chambers Building (Broadway at Chambers Street), New York County Lawyers Association (Vesey Street between Broadway and Church Street), 90 West Street Building (West Street between Albany and Cedar Streets), and – if you don’t mind a little exercise – the Alexander Hamilton Custom House (1 Bowling Green – at the foot of Broadway).

Woolworth Building Vital Statistics
  • Location: 233 Broadway between Barclay Street and Park Place
  • Year completed: 1913
  • Architect: Cass Gilbert
  • Floors: 60*
  • Style: Gothic
  • New York City Landmark: 1983
  • National Register of Historic Places: 1966

* The official 60 floors requires a little fudging; the top five stories – in the pyramidal roof – are not habitable; the floor numbers have unexplained gaps (e.g., no 42nd floor).

Woolworth Building Suggested Reading

Google Map

Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse

The Thurgood Marshall US Courthouse (originally United States Courthouse, Foley Square) was the last building designed by the famed Cass Gilbert, who died before the project’s completion. His son, Cass Gilbert, Jr., supervised the structure’s completion.

The 37-story skyscraper design marked a significant departure from other federal government buildings, which until then were all horizontal. The sprawling six-story base, however, blends in with surrounding landmarks.

The base and tower are faced in granite from Gilbert’s home state of Minnesota; the pyramidal roof is clad in gilded terra cotta.

The building was renamed Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse in August 2001, honoring the first African American Supreme Court Justice, who had worked at the courthouse from 1961 to 1965 as a judge of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

The building completed a modernization project in 1992; at this writing (December 2012) it is going through a renovation/restoration that was supposed to have been completed in 2009, but seems to be never-ending.

Thurgood Marshall US Courthouse Vital Statistics
  • Location: 40 Centre Street at Foley Square
  • Year completed: 1936
  • Architect: Cass Gilbert
  • Floors: 37
  • Style: Classic Revival
  • New York City Landmark: 1975
  • National Register of Historic Places: 1987
Thurgood Marshall US Courthouse Suggested Reading

Google Map

90 West Street Building

The 90 West Street Building is an extraordinary building – for its architecture, and for surviving 9/11.

But to begin at the beginning: The West Street Building was built as an office building for shipping and rail companies – West Street in 1907 was on the Hudson Riverfront. The architect, Cass Gilbert, was a master of the tripartite design commonly used for tall buildings, but the West Street Building was different. Gilbert de-emphasized the base, emphasized the vertical lines of the shaft, and finished with a “Gothic fantasy” capital, including a three-story mansard roof. (Gilbert’s initial plans included a five-story tower at the top.) Where Gilbert’s earlier Broadway Chambers Building used terra cotta ornament in its upper stories, the West Street Building was almost entirely clad in terra cotta. Even the inside of the building used terra cotta, for fireproofing.

The building changed hands in 1923, and was modernized in 1933 – including a new Gilbert-designed lobby. In 1998 the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the West Street Building a landmark. It was still in use as an office building on Sept. 11, 2001, when debris from the South Tower of the World Trade Center rained down on 90 West Street.

The north (Cedar Street) facade was gashed, the roof was destroyed, and eight floors of the building were gutted or heavily damaged by fire. Although the building changed hands several times and was in limbo until 2003, the new owners were able to restore the shell thanks to the terra cotta fireproofing.

The three-year restoration converted the offices to 410 rental apartments. Contractors had to replace 75 percent of the north facade’s granite, and 7,853 pieces of terra cotta. Explore the Suggested Reading links for the full story on the restoration.

90 West Street Building Vital Statistics
  • Location: 90 West Street between Albany and Cedar Streets
  • Year completed: 1907
  • Architect: Cass Gilbert
  • Floors: 23
  • Style: Gothic Revival
  • New York City Landmark: 1998
  • National Register of Historic Places: 2007
90 West Street Building Suggested Reading

Google Map

Cass Gilbert

Cass Gilbert

Cass Gilbert (1859-1934) designed seven New York City landmarks between 1900 and 1934, among dozens of his notable works of architecture across the U.S.

← 1907 photo in Minnesota Encyclopedia (source: Wikipedia)

While best known to New Yorkers for the Woolworth Building, Gilbert also designed the Capitols of Minnesota, Arkansas and West Virginia, and the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

Born in Ohio, Gilbert rose to prominence in Minnesota when he was selected to design the new State Capitol in St. Paul. His Brazer Building in Boston led to a commission to his first New York commission, the Broadway Chambers Building. During that building’s construction, Gilbert moved to New York.

(Don’t confuse Cass Gilbert with his son – Cass Gilbert, Jr. – or with C.P.H. Gilbert. Cass Gilbert, Jr. supervised completion of the Thurgood Marshall US Courthouse that his father designed before he died. C.P.H. [Charles Pierrepont Henry] Gilbert is best known for mansions and townhouses.) Trivia: Cass and C.P.H. do have a connection, via Frank W. Woolworth: Woolworth hired Cass to design the Woolworth Building, but hired C.P.H. to design his personal mansion.

Cass Gilbert Representative Buildings
Cass Gilbert Suggested Reading

Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House

Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House is one of New York City’s most important landmarks, both for its history and for its architecture.

Historically, this is the site of New York’s first Custom House; the first building burned down. The choice of architect was the first major use of the 1893 Tarnsey Act, which allowed private architects to design public buildings. Cass Gilbert won the commission, after heated (and controversial) competition. The United States Custom House also served as a test of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission: In 1965 the then-new agency was designating a federal building as a city landmark, and the regional administrator for the General Services Administration (GSA) argued that the city had no authority to regulate federal property. (Nonetheless, the city returned in 1979 to declare the interior as a landmark!)

The building was hugely important to the nation: Import duties charged here and at other ports financed the government, in the days before an income tax. The Customs Service moved to the World Trade Center in 1971. The building was empty for a decade, and slated for demolition until Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D, NY) sponsored a bill to restore the Custom House. Additional legislation required the GSA to find new uses for unused federal buildings (they needed a law to figure that out?). Now, the building is shared by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, the National Archives, and the National Museum of the American Indian (Smithsonian Institution).

You can’t tell it from these photos, but the Custom House is actually trapezoidal: The back of the building is wider than the front.

Cass Gilbert’s Beaux Arts design is filled with symbolism and references to classical architecture. The four monumental sculptures in front of the building, sculpted by Daniel Chester French, represent the continents Asia, Africa, America, and Europe. Statues representing 12 seafaring nations stand above the front facade’s columns; the Corinthian capitals of the columns include the head of Mercury (representing commerce); second-story windows are topped by heads representing the “eight races of mankind.”

How did Belgium wind up among the top 12 seafaring nations? According to “Secret New York, An Unusual Guide,” the statue was originally Germany, but ordered changed after the outbreak of World War I.

Interior details are equally rich (and also designated a New York City Landmark). New York artist Reginald Marsh painted the murals in the second floor rotunda, as part of a Treasury Relief Art Project (an offspring of the W.P.A.) in 1937.

(The GSA has an extensive photo gallery showing interior details.)

Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House Vital Statistics
Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House Recommended Reading

Google Map

Brooklyn Army Terminal

Brooklyn Army Terminal is Cass Gilbert’s monumental all-concrete intermodal warehouse, rushed to completion for World War I. Also known as the US Army Military Ocean Terminal or the Brooklyn Army Base, it was the largest concrete building, when built, and also the largest military terminal in the U.S. As a strictly utilitarian facility, the buildings totally lack the lavish ornamentation of Gilbert’s Beaux Arts and Gothic masterpieces.

Although completed too late to play a role in WWI, the five-million-square-foot terminal moved three million troops and 37 million tons of military cargo during WWII.

The terminal continued to operate through the cold war, as a supply base for U.S. troops in NATO. The most famous soldier to “ship out” from Brooklyn was Elvis Presley, in 1958. But after Elvis left the building, things were pretty quiet until the ’70s, when the Army itself shipped out. New York City bought the Brooklyn Army Terminal in 1981 and began converting it to civilian use in 1984, a process that is still continuing.

Like other industrial parks, Brooklyn Army Terminal is closed to the general public, but Turnstile Tours now has twice-monthly weekend guided tours of the facility.

(Many thanks to Corey William Schneider and the New York Adventure Club, the Facebook-based group that arranges explorations of lesser-known attractions throughout the city’s five boroughs.)

Brooklyn Army Terminal Vital Statistics
Brooklyn Army Terminal Recommended Reading

Google Map