Shimmer and Shine: Cutting-Edge
Materials with Art Deco Pizzazz
By Kathleen Murphy Skolnik
Many of the glamorous, exuberant buildings of the Art Deco era owe their smooth, sleek, shiny façades and shimmering ornamentation to innovative building materials introduced in the early twentieth century. Novel steel alloys, such as nickel silver, monel, Nirosta, and duralumin, and creative new glass products, including pigmented structural glass and glass block, were among the technological advances that made architecture of the 1920s and 30s in New York, as well as other parts of the country, shimmer and shine.
Nickel silver is something of an oxymoron. These copper-nickel-zinc alloys contain no silver and relatively low percentages of nickel. Nickel silver’s origins go back to seventeenth century China, where it was more accurately labeled pek meaning white and tung meaning copper. Also known as white brass and German silver, nickel silver became popular in the United States in the 1920s as a less expensive alternative to silver for decorative grilles and panels, railings, and elevator doors.
Nickel silver’s resistance to corrosion and elegant silvery-white appearance were among the desirable attributes that made it so sought-after for architectural applications. The copper content, which typically ranged from 60% to 75%, accounted for its anti-corrosive properties, and the presence of 5% to 20% nickel provided its visual appeal. Zinc, which made up another 5% to 20%, lowered the melting point and enhanced its strength.
The original City Bank-Farmers Trust Company Building at 20 Exchange Place in lower Manhattan, an especially outstanding illustration of nickel silver’s decorative potential, is said to represent the alloy’s first extensive architectural use. The nickel silver panels on the curved center doors of the entrance at William Street and Exchange Place depict historical methods of transportation, including sailing ships, hot air balloons, and steam locomotives. Modern means of transportation—airplanes, ocean liners, and diesel engines—appear on the flat side doors. Nickel silver panels above the doors frame allegorical bronze figures symbolizing banking and abundance, surrounded by animal and floral motifs.
The Hanover Street entrance doors repeat the transportation motifs found at William Street and Exchange Place, but the nickel silver grilles above the doors contain two caducei, the ancient Greek symbols of commerce, rather than allegorical figures.
Corrosion-resistance also accounted for the desirability of Nirosta, a metal alloy developed in Germany by the Krupp firm in the early twentieth century. The trade name is a German acronym for nichtrostender stahl, meaning non-rusting steel. Nirosta steel contains approximately 18% chromium, which conveys its anti-corrosive properties.
The most prominent example of Nirosta’s architectural use in New York is the iconic Chrysler Building. The tower’s glistening crown, with its seven concentric ribbed steel arches set with triangular windows, is clad entirely in approximately 4,500 plates of Nirosta. A “glittering spire of Nirosta,” as a 1930 issue of Fortune phrased it, tops the structure. The ornamentation at the building’s setbacks—the stylized pineapple urns at the twenty-fourth floor, the Chrysler radiator caps at the thirty-first level, and the Art Deco gargoyles in the form of eagle head hood ornaments at the sixty-first floor—are also Nirosta.
The architect, William van Alen, described the merits of his use of Nirosta in the Chrysler Building in the 1933 and 1935 editions of Ernest E. Thum’s The Book of Stainless Steels: “The use of permanently bright metal was of greatest aid in the carrying of rising lines and the diminishing circular forms of the roof treatment, so as to accentuate the gradual upward swing until it literally dissolves into the sky.” He went on to explain the effect of light on the mirrored surfaces: “The splays get black and then brighter as the light reflexes occur, or the position of the observer changes, so that the entire building is changeable, like a brilliant piece of silk waving in the wind.”
In 1929 the American Society for Testing Materials committee on stainless steel selected the Chrysler Building to evaluate Nirosta’s durability for architectural applications. The building’s Nirosta sheets were inspected every five years until 1960, when the evaluations ceased because of the virtual lack of deterioration detected over the previous three decades.
Monel—a product of the International Nickel Company, consisting of approximately two-thirds nickel and one-third copper—was another corrosion-resistant alloy popular during the Art Deco era. It was named for the company’s president, Ambrose Monell, but the final L was dropped because family names could not be used as trademarks. An early architectural use of monel in New York was the roof of Pennsylvania Station, installed in 1909. In 1936 monel replaced the copper roof on the New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street.
But monel also had decorative applications. As stated in a manual for architects and metal craftsmen issued by International Nickel, “Monel Metal may be forged to create patterns which in earlier periods could be developed only in wrought iron, with a resulting brilliance and crispness to the work which exceeds the beauty of the inferior metal.”
A prime example is the monel entrance gate of the five-story Art Deco townhouse at 49 East 80th Street that the architect Harry Allan Jacobs designed for Lionello Perera in 1930. As Jacobs told The New York Times, the house reflected “a modernistic spirit in decorations as well as in materials, as representative of this materialistic, artificial, and practical age.” The monel grille at the entrance is covered with an intricate geometric pattern that includes wavelike forms and graceful scrolls. Jacobs also selected monel for the elegant curved railing of the interior staircase with abstract geometric designs that connects the first four levels of the residence. In later years, Barbra Streisand owned the Perera house for a time.
Duralumin is an aluminum alloy containing approximately 4% copper and a smaller amount of manganese that was developed by Dürener Metallwerke AG in Düren, Germany, in the first decade of the twentieth century. The name is a combination of Dürener and aluminum. Although it is not corrosion-resistant, duralumin is strong, hard, and lightweight; it was widely used for industrial applications, especially aircraft construction. It was also adopted for decorative metalwork during the Art Deco era.
The most notable examples of its decorative use in New York are found in Shreve, Lamb, & Harmon’s Empire State Building of 1931. The metal silhouette of the building that embellishes the back wall of the lobby was cast in duralumin by the skilled German-born metal designer and fabricator Oscar Bach. The light rays extending from the top of the building’s image and the outlines representing the boundaries of New York and neighboring states in the background map were also fabricated from duralumin.
In addition, circular duralumin medallions ringing the lobby pay homage to 12 crafts and industries that contributed to the building’s creation: elevators, decoration, masonry, metals, stone, heating, concrete, machines, carpentry, excavation, plumbing, and steel.
Duralumin medallions similar to those found in the Empire State Building adorn the façade of the New York City Health Department Building at 125 Worth Street in lower Manhattan, although here the metal plaques are octagonal rather than circular. Designed by the architect Charles B. Meyers in a “conservatively classic” style, the Health Department Building was completed in the early 1930s. The medallions, designed and fabricated by Bach, are located between the third and fourth stories on each of the building’s four façades. Although untitled, the images appear to relate to the building’s function. Medical imagery includes a man mixing a potion in a bowl, a woman examining a child’s knee, and a man performing an experiment on a laboratory rat in a cage. In others, a man fills a bowl with water and a woman sits under the sun, perhaps a reference to the health benefits of clean water and sunlight. The images of men reaping grain and catching fish suggest the value of a healthy diet; a woman washing clothing in a fountain and a man shoveling trash into a furnace stress the importance of cleanliness and sanitation.
Pigmented Structural Glass
Pigmented structural glass made its debut in the early years of the twentieth century. A combination of borax, cryolite, kaolinite, manganese, silica, feldspar, and fluorspar made it opaque. Structural glass was billed as an inexpensive substitute for marble, although the fusion of the components at a high temperature, followed by a lengthy annealing process, made it even stronger than marble. It was impervious to moisture, easy to clean, and simple to install.
The first such product, Sani Onyx, was introduced by the Marietta Manufacturing Company of Indianapolis in 1900. Sani Onyx was subsequently joined by similar products, such as Carrara glass from the Penn-American Plate Glass Company, named for the Italian quarries known for fine white marble, and vitrolite, originally produced by the Vitrolite Company, which was later acquired by the Owens-Illinois Glass Company.
The first large-scale architectural application of pigmented structural glass came in the early teens when Cass Gilbert covered the restroom walls in New York’s Woolworth Building with Carrara glass. By the 1920s the use of these products had extended to lobbies and storefronts. Because of its ability to be curved and its availability in a number of colors and finishes, structural glass was an ideal cladding material for the Streamline Moderne architecture introduced in the 1930s.
The use of pigmented structural glass for remodeling storefronts received a boost from the 1935 Modernize Main Street competition sponsored by Architectural Record and the Libby-Owens-Ford Glass Company. As stated in the jury’s report, “The major objective of the competition was to create designs for remodeling stores which would ‘attract the public, display goods to the best advantage, and provide space, convenience, and light so that purchasing is a pleasure.’ ” The competition offered $11,000 in cash prizes and attracted more than 3,000 entries for four storefront categories: drugstores, food stores, automobile sales and service stations, and apparel shops. The portfolio of 52 designs that received prizes or honorable mentions were published to “stimulate the interest and imagination of hundreds of thousands of store owners throughout the country and induce them to bring their stores up to date.” Surviving examples of pigmented structural glass are relatively rare today, but this portfolio provides a valuable record of its application and potential.
Glass block can be traced to 1886 and the French architect and engineer Gustave Falconnier, who received a patent for what he called briques de verre, or glass bricks, two molded pieces of glass annealed together with a hollow center. Early New York examples of the use of glass block from European suppliers include the four-story glass atrium roof of the former Barbizon Plaza Hotel at 106 Central Park South (now Trump Parc), which opened in 1930, and the large rectangular amethyst-colored glass block panels in the tower of the Towne House Apartments at 108 East 38th Street, also completed in 1930.
As the 1930s progressed, American manufacturers such as the Macbeth-Evans Glass Company, Owens-Illinois, and Pittsburgh Corning Corporation began producing glass block. In 1933, Owens-Illinois introduced this new material to the public in its Glass Block Building at Chicago’s Century of Progress International Exposition. The symmetrical pavilion, with its staggered 50-foot tower flanked by two projecting wings, was constructed entirely of multicolored glass blocks, approximately 25,000 of them.
Glass block features prominently in the architect William Lescaze’s remodeling of a nineteenth century brownstone at 211 East 48th Street that he transformed into his home and studio. Said to be one of the first modern residences in the city, the four-story townhouse with its simple, flat stucco façade, originally painted off-white, contains two large rectangular glass block windows at the third and fourth levels that extend almost the entire width of the building. A solid glass block wall separates what was Lescaze’s office, just below ground level, from the street. The attention Lescaze’s unique design attracted earned him commissions for two other townhouses that incorporated glass block: the 1935 Kramer House at 32 East 74th Street and the 1941 Norman House at 124 East 70th Street.
Not far from the Lescaze House is another example of the residential use of glass block, a five-story townhouse completed in 1935 containing the ground-level office of the architect Morris B. Sanders, who designed it, and two duplex apartments above. The white marble facing of the first level is punctuated by a large panel of small glass blocks that illuminated the office space. Distinctive blue glass bricks clad the four upper floors of the townhouse. Large glass blocks frame the vertical steel casement windows at the third and fifth levels and within the balconies at the second and fourth levels. Glass block infill is also found on the rear façade. A 1936 article in Modern Mechanix labeled the house the “latest architectural miracle to be wrought by glass blocks.”
Glass block became one of the hallmarks of the Streamline Moderne architecture of the 1930s and was prominently featured in several pavilions at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Glass blocks formed the curvilinear wall at the entrance to the Ford Building, although much of the glass block was replaced with white Carrara glass for the 1940 season. The Glass Center Building was fittingly constructed almost entirely of glass block, and a glass block fountain adorned the exterior of the Metals Building.
Many of the innovative materials that added such pizzazz to the architecture of the Art Deco era fell into oblivion as newer, and less expensive alternatives became available following World War II and tastes began to change. However, their legacy lives on in these surviving examples in New York City as well as skyscrapers, residences and storefronts found in cities and towns throughout the United States.
The Kaete Dan Hotel (1932) in Tel Aviv, Cohn’s first major project.
Rendering of Marion Manley’s student club at the University of Miami.
Large cities undergoing massive rebuilding (such as San Francisco) or expansion (such as New York) also provided many openings for aspiring women architects, as did expanding universities. An outstanding example of this may be seen at the University of Miami, where Marion Manley (1893–1984) left a considerable mark.
Opportunities sometimes arose in government work, although some countries would not employ women in the civil service or passed over highly qualified women for promotion into senior positions. With the arrival of World War II, governments engaged many women architects to design military structures and later to work on postwar reconstruction schemes.
Two designs for the Golden Gate Bridge toll plaza. Sketch by Morrow & Morrow.
Photos: Environmental Design Archives, Irving & Gertrude Morrow Collection
Many women gained entry to the profession by marrying another architect, which enabled them to share professional roles and even juggle childcare—though it can often be difficult to determine who did what in these partnerships. Gertrude Comfort (1888–1983) married the architect Irving F. Morrow, and the couple set up the firm Morrow & Morrow in San Francisco. From 1925 to 1940 the Morrows collaborated on many projects in the San Francisco Bay Area, including the design of the geometrically stylized Art Deco towers, walkways, railings, and lighting for the Golden Gate Bridge. In Finland, Aino Mandolin (1894–1949), who qualified as an architect in 1920, married Alvar Aalto in 1923 and participated in the design of his earlier buildings, often contributing to their interiors, as in the Villa Mairea (1937) in Noormarkku. Elizabeth “Lisl” Scheu Close (1912–2011) had difficulty finding employment after graduation until she followed her classmate William Close to Minneapolis. In 1938, the two started Close & Scheu Architects. To avoid the scandal of living and working together without being married, they wed one afternoon during their lunch break. They contributed a number of designs to the University Grove district of Falcon Heights, Minnesota, renowned for its large collection of innovative houses.
As in other professions, architectural firms often required women architects to resign if they chose to marry. Like their contemporaries in other professions, they often just neglected to tell anybody of their new status. In firms other than their own, women rarely became partners or senior members. They often saw their work subsumed into designs signed off by the firm’s male partners and rarely received recognition for their work in architectural journals. A prime example was Marion Mahony (1871–1961) from Chicago, who worked for Frank Lloyd Wright in 1895 after being dismissed from the employ of her cousin, the Chicago architect Dwight Perkins, during an economic downturn. She met and married another Wright employee, Walter Burley Griffin, who in 1911 won the competition to design Australia’s new capital in Canberra. The couple completed many wonderful Modernist designs in Melbourne and Sydney, as well as in India. After Walter’s premature death in 1937, Marion returned to Chicago. Highly regarded for her distinctive renderings of projects, for many years she was thought of merely as a highly talented artist. Recent examination of established histories, however, has revealed her extensive contributions to the designs emanating from the studios of Griffin, as well as Wright, and she has finally stepped out of their shadows.
Women architects who established their own firms often hired only other women, at least at first. Some collaborated with other women architects, as in the stylish Café Galina for the Levant Fair in Tel Aviv in 1934 by Genia Averbuch and Elsa Gidoni Mandelstamm. Averbuch left a major mark on Tel Aviv in 1934 when she won a design competition for a municipal plaza, Zina Dizengoff Circle, that became the city’s central public space and symbolized its modernization. The surrounding buildings achieved a high degree of unity with similar Bauhaus-style designs, including one by Averbuch.
Genia Averbuch, Elsa Gidoni, and Sclhomo Ginsburg, Café-Restaurant at the Levant Fair, Tel Aviv, Palestine, 1934. Photo: Library of Congress
Ward W. Willits house, Highland Park, Illinois, 1902. Watercolor and ink rendering by Marion Mahony Griffin. Photo: Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation/Frank Lloyd Wright Trust
Aino Mandolin and Alvar Aalto Villa Mairea façade.
The Faulkner House or Lippincott House in the University Grove district of Falcon Heights, Minnesota. Designed by Close & Scheu Architects for Ray Faulkner, E. Ziegfeld, 1938.
Mary Gannon and Alice Hands formed America’s first woman architectural partnership in New York in 1894 and became noted for designing innovative, low-cost apartment buildings. They spent much of their time on site, where they likely encountered the same problems as other women who supervised construction. Building sites were rough-and-tumble environments, full of explicit language and reluctance among construction crews to take instructions from women. The architects had to learn how to mix it up with the boys, to give as good as they got, and to earn the respect automatically accorded to male architects.
Another form of attitudinal discrimination arose from the perception that women architects should be concerned mainly with women’s aspects of buildings, such as kitchens, children’s rooms, or pediatric wings of hospitals. This limited their scope and bemused some women architects who had never cooked a meal and had no interest in children or domestic affairs.
However, women could have a positive influence on domestic design. A fine example is Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky (1897–2000), the first woman architect in Austria. Combining design with functionality, she was a pioneer of social housing in Vienna and Frankfurt, and she won acclaim in 1926 for her Frankfurt Kitchen using a unified concept, designed for efficiency and economy.
How did women running their own firms win contracts in a commercial world run largely by men, often within an old boys’ network? Women often lacked the necessary contacts to gain commissions, although some were assisted by their family connections. While design competitions were generally open to all, judging panels were generally all-male. Women were often unable to win large-scale commissions and were left to concentrate on modest projects.
Though many women architects resigned the profession prematurely, defeated by systemic discrimination, others found success. The British architect Elisabeth Scott (1898–1972) designed the imposing Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon, completed in 1932. In Australia, Mary Turner “Mollie” Shaw (1906–1990) found it difficult to complete her architecture studies at the University of Melbourne and instead became an architect via articled studentship.* She worked for various architectural firms in Australia (1931–1936) and the United Kingdom (1937) and traveled through Europe, meeting many key Modernist architects. In 1938 she entered a partnership with the Modernist architect Frederick Romberg, who left Europe, and from 1939 to 1942 they produced some of Melbourne’s most celebrated blocks of apartment buildings, including the Newburn Flats, South Melbourne (1939).
One of the most prominent, successful, and acclaimed women architects, Julia Morgan (1872–1957), ranks among California’s best-known architects. After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, in civil engineering, she went to Paris intending to study architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts.
Pool at Berkeley Women’s City Club.
Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Photo: RIBA Library Photographs Collection
After initial refusal, she became the first woman ever admitted. Following graduation, she returned to San Francisco and opened her own office, undertaking a broad range of commissions: residential, ecclesiastical, commercial, educational, and institutional.
Morgan’s works include such acclaimed American classics as Hearst Castle overlooking San Simeon Harbor, and the Berkeley Women’s City Club (now known as the Berkeley City Club hotel). Known for its use of concrete, with steel-reinforced concrete walls and ceilings that were artfully fashioned to look like wood, the finished club building delighted its many members, who had insisted on a woman architect. Morgan also completed many designs for institutions serving women and girls, including a number of Y.W.C.A. locations.
Many women found success during the interwar period in such professions as interior design, furniture design, photography, painting, sculpture, murals, textile design, and graphic design. Continuing research into the world of interwar architecture will no doubt accord more women their proper place in the era’s architectural history.
Frankfurt kitchen pictured in magazine Das neue Frankfurt 5 / 1926–1927.
Mary Turner “Mollie” Shaw, Newburn, Queens Road, Melbourne, Romberg & Shaw, 1939.
John Cushman Fistere, “A Place for Everything in Place (a house planned by a woman architect, Gertrude Comfort Morrow)”. Ladies Home Journal, May 1939. Photo: Environmental Design Archives, Irving & Gertrude Morrow Collection
About the Author:
Robin Grow is the President of the Art Deco & Modernism Society of Australia (ADMSA) and author of the award-winning Melbourne Art Deco (2009). He has researched and written extensively on the interwar era and presents papers locally and internationally. He is active in the preservation of Australia’s interwar buildings, and a number of structures have been landmarked as a result of efforts of ADMSA.