Tag Archives: Gothic

Church of St. Thomas the Apostle

Church of St. Thomas the Apostle in Harlem is stunning architecture, even without its stained glass. Abandoned by the Catholic Church and once destined for demolition, the former church has found a new life as a community arts center.

The Archdiocese of New York closed the church in 2003 in the wake of declining attendance and ballooning maintenance costs. Although community groups sued to prevent demolition, the church transferred its German stained glass windows to Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha Church in LaGrangeville, NY in 2008. Meanwhile, the crumbling Harlem edifice was in limbo until 2012.

That’s when Artimus, a developer, purchased the church, its school and a nearby vacant lot from the Archdiocese of New York. The developer has since restored the front and rear walls and the ceiling. Additional restoration is continuing. Artimus is also converting the church’s school to affordable housing, and is to build a 10-story apartment house on a nearby vacant lot.

Church of St. Thomas the Apostle Vital Statistics
Church of St. Thomas the Apostle Recommended Reading

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American Radiator Building

Passers-by are probably puzzled by the industrial-strength gilt-painted chimerae on Bryant Park Hotel – if they even lift their eyes to the third floor level. But the figures make perfect sense in the context of the facade’s original owners, American Radiator and Standard Sanitary Company.

Originally, this was the American Radiator Building and later known as the American Standard Building. The ground floor initially contained showrooms for the company’s bathroom fixtures.

The 23-story tower still stands out for its colors – black brick trimmed in gold – and unconventional shape. One architecture critic called it “the most daring experiment in color in modern buildings yet made in America.”

According to the Wikipedia article, the building is based on a design submitted for the Chicago Tribune building.

The building was converted to a hotel in 2001; it has New York City landmark status, and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Bryant Park Hotel Vital Statistics
  • Location: 40 W 40th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues
  • Year completed: 1924
  • Architect: Raymond Hood and André Fouilhoux
  • Floors: 23
  • Style: Gothic/Art Deco
  • New York City Landmark: 1974
  • National Register of Historic Places: 1980
Bryant Park Hotel Suggested Reading

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Liberty Tower

Even if Liberty Tower wasn’t a beautiful and distinctive landmark building – a soaring white Gothic tower with acres of terra cotta – it would be significant. Significant because the building is in its second life (third, if you count the $5 million post-9/11 restoration), and was key in returning the Financial District to its earliest use – as a residential neighborhood.

But to start at the beginning….

The 33-story Liberty Tower was built at the same time as the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company tower at the foot of Madison Avenue, and just before the more famous Woolworth Building. The architect, Henry Ives Cobb, was an early adopter of steel construction, but adhered to historic styles throughout his career. In this case, he opted for one of his favorite styles, Gothic.

Originally known as the Bryant Building – for William Cullen Bryant, editor of the New York Evening Post which previously occupied the site – Liberty Tower was among the tallest structures in the neighborhood. The elaborate terra cotta ornament of the upper stories makes it seem that the building expands as it goes up, until capped by the steep copper roof.

The building’s north facade – facing other buildings instead of a street – is clad in cream-colored brick with terra cotta accents. Contrasting white brick patterns suggest medieval half-timbering.

The building was sold in 1916, and again in 1919 – to Sinclair Oil (of Teapot Dome infamy), which held the building until 1945 as the Sinclair Oil Building. From 1945 to 1979 Liberty Tower continued to be used for offices, but not profitably.

Second Life

Architect Joseph Pell Lombardi sized up the building’s problems – and found opportunity. As he described it, Liberty Tower in 1978 was “…an economically failed building. Substantially vacant, it was in a rundown condition with antiquated mechanical facilities and only one stair (two were required). New York was in the midst of a severe recession and soothsayers were again predicting that the Financial District would never recover.”

The building’s small floor size – 60 by 80 feet – made it too small to attract big companies as tenants. The 1916 zoning law meant that a modern replacement building on the same site would be even smaller, so that option was economically unfeasible. However, the limited floor size was an asset for residential use: apartment owners could have views in two, three or even four directions. The building’s history and beauty were icing on the cake.

Lombardi’s solution borrowed from the loft conversion concept: Whole and partial floors were sold to cooperators as “raw space” which the tenants themselves designed and built. Thus, each of the 89 apartments is different.

Since then, scores of office buildings in the Financial District have been converted to residential and other uses.

Post-9/11 Restoration

The collapse of the World Trade Center towers shook Liberty Tower, damaging some of the terra cotta blocks. Subsequent water seepage made the problems worse. Fortunately, the tenants voted to spend $5 million to restore or replace 3,200 terra cotta blocks and 202 exterior sculptures.

(If you are interested in architectural restoration and recycling, I recommend the Lombardi links below.)

Liberty Tower Vital Statistics
  • Location: 55 Liberty Street at Nassau Street
  • Year completed: 1910
  • Architect: Henry Ives Cobb; Joseph Pell Lombardi (restoration/conversion)
  • Floors: 33
  • Style: Gothic
  • New York City Landmark: 1982
  • National Register of Historic Places: 1983
Liberty Tower Suggested Reading

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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

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Barbizon Hotel for Women

Barbizon Hotel for Women, now known as the condominium apartments Barbizon 63, was built as a residential hotel catering to young professionals.

The NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) added the building to its roster in April 2012, noting that the structure is “an excellent representative of the 1920s apartment hotel building, and is notable for the high quality of its design.”

The zoning law of 1916 required setbacks – indented upper floors – on tall buildings to permit more light to reach the street. Complex arcades and courtyards in Barbizon Hotel’s setback design add visual interest to the tower. The complex brickwork, with a mix of colors and corbelling, adds visual rich texture, even from a distance.

Hotels for women were the ladies’ answer to late-1800s “bachelor flats” for men (e.g., The Wilbraham), and completed the quaint (by today’s standards) segregation of residences: for families, for single men, and for single women. (See also Beekman Tower Hotel, the former Panhellenic Tower.) See the LPC designation report for a great synopsis of New York City’s housing variety: tenements, apartments, french flats, rooming houses, residence and club hotels.

The first owners lost the hotel through foreclosure, but a second group led by Lawrence Elliman was able to show a profit by 1938. Quite a few now-famous women lived at the Barbizon through the mid-70s – by which time the hotel was again losing money. Between 1980 and 2001 the hotel changed hands five times, and then in 2005 it was converted to condominium apartments.

Barbizon Hotel for Women Vital Statistics
Barbizon Hotel for Women Recommended Reading

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