From Wall Street to Midtown:

Art Deco Goes Commercial

By Kathleen Murphy Skolnik

Despite the economic downturn that began with the 1929 stock market crash, 1931 also saw the completion of a number of architectural projects—commercial,  residential, and educational—that adopted this new Art Deco approach to design. 

City Bank-Farmers Trust Company Building, 20 Exchange Place

Construction was booming in lower Manhattan in 1929 when Cross & Cross began designing the headquarters of the City Bank-Farmers Trust Company at 20 Exchange Place. The initial proposal called for an 846-foot high building that was expected to be a contender for the title of world’s tallest. When the stock market collapse thwarted those plans, the project did proceed, although the height was scaled back to 685 feet.

 

This New York City Landmark, now a luxury apartment building, represents the restrained Art Deco variant known as Modern Classicism or Classical Moderne. In conformance with New York’s 1916 zoning ordinance, the fifty-seven story structure incorporates a series of setbacks, culminating in a slender tower with chamfered, or angled, corners atop the irregularly shaped base.

 

Ornamental details speak to the building’s original function. Coins representing the countries where the National City Bank of New York maintained offices surround the large round arch leading to the main entrance on Exchange Place, and monumental “giants of finance” peer down from the nineteenth floor setback.

20 Exchange Place, the "giants of finance"  atop the nineteenth floor setback of the City Bank-Farmers Trust Company Building.

Photo: Richard Berenholtz

The bronze-trimmed, silver nickel doors designed by British sculptor David Evans for the two corner entrances, one at Exchange Place and William Street and the other at Beaver and William Streets, celebrate early to modern means of transportation from the sailing ships, steam locomotives, and hot air balloons of the past to the ocean liners, diesel engines, and airplanes of modern times.

29 Broadway

Sloan & Robertson, the architects of 29 Broadway, were well versed in the Art Deco aesthetic, having also designed the Graybar, Chanin, and Fred F. French Buildings, all from 1927, and the Century and Majestic Apartments, also completed in 1931. Abe N. Adelson’s Adway Realty Corporation, the building’s developer, targeted brokerage houses, banking firms, and law offices as the principal tenants for the thirty-two-story building.

 

The narrow Broadway frontage of approximately thirty feet accentuates the height of this sleek tower with its upper-level setbacks. The cream-colored cladding alternates with dark bands of windows on the Morris Street façade, creating an interesting striped pattern. Bold sculpted geometric motifs frame the Broadway entrance and reappear on the spandrels of the vertical band of windows rising above it.

29  Broadway, striped pattern on façade.

Photo: Meghan Weatherby

29 Broadway entrance.

Photo: Meghan Weatherby

21 West Street, stepped-back profile.

Photo: Meghan Weatherby

21 West Street, cantilevered corner.

Photo: Meghan Weatherby

21 West Street

This landmarked thirty-one-story tower at 21 West Street between Morris and Washington Streets was originally constructed as a speculative office building and is now an apartment tower. It shares the stepped-back profile so typical of tall structures of this era, including its neighbor, the Downtown Athletic Club, designed by the same architects, Starrett & Van Vleck. But 21 West Street also possesses distinguishing features that set it apart from other lower Manhattan skyscrapers. 

 

The entrances and retail spaces are recessed behind a ground-floor arcade, which can be found in other New York buildings of the time. The unique corbelled, or stepped, arches of this arcade, however, lend an exotic touch reminiscent of the architecture of the ancient Mycenaeans and the Mayan monuments of Central America.

 

Even more unique are the cantilevered corners, unusual in office towers of the time. The spacious wraparound windows made possible by the elimination of corner piers bring light and air into the interior and provide uninterrupted views. Their application in 21 West Street may have been the first use of corner windows in a commercial building in the United States.

 

The brick cladding doubles as ornamentation, adding color and texture. The continuous light tan piers, which emphasize the building’s verticality, contrast with the red brick spandrels framed in bright orange. The exquisite patterned brickwork, especially apparent on the spandrels and parapets, looks much like a woven fabric.

275 Madison Avenue

This stepped-back tower at the northern edge of Murray Hill was one of the few speculative office buildings planned after the stock market crash. Its most striking feature is the three-story base with a sophisticated color scheme of polished black granite embellished with silver-painted metal accents, including starburst and skyscraper motifs in the spandrels and geometric moldings surrounding the entrances. The windows at the top of the base alternate with black granite panels filled with an abstract design in unpolished light-grey granite.

 

The forty floors above the base are clad in stripes of glazed white brick placed between vertical bands of windows with dark terra-cotta spandrels. Architect Kenneth Franzheim intended these upper levels to be virtually “shadowless,” an effect he achieved by setting the windows flush with the walls and eliminating “obstructive ornamentation.”  Obviously pleased with the final result, he moved his own offices to the top three floors.

McGraw-Hill Building, 330 West 42nd Street 

The gritty neighborhood on Manhattan’s West Side known as Hell’s Kitchen may seem an unlikely site for a corporate office tower, but McGraw-Hill’s new headquarters on 42nd Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues was more than that. It consolidated all of the many facets of the publishing house—printing, binding, shipping, editing, finance, administration—under one roof. New York City zoning laws prohibiting printing plants between Third and Seventh Avenues dictated the building’s far West Side location, which was relatively close to the site of the original McGraw-Hill Building on Tenth Avenue.

 

Streamline Moderne meets the International Style in the colorful design by Raymond Hood of Hood, Godley, and Fouilhoux. It has been cited as an Art Deco icon but was also included in the Modern Architecture: International Exhibition curated by Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock at the Museum of Modern Art in 1932.

In contrast to the strong vertical lines of Hood’s Daily News Building, completed one year earlier, the McGraw-Hill Building is all about horizontality. The façade is wrapped in bands of blue-green terra-cotta tiles alternating with ribbon windows framed in green metal with vermillion accents. The continuous strips of windows were Hood’s response to the need to bring abundant light into the building. Curved horizontal bands of green and blue enameled steel separated by narrow chrome bands flank the 42nd Street entrance.

McGraw-Hill relocated to the Rockefeller Center area in 1970, but the eleven-foot-high letters spelling out the company name in green terra-cotta blocks remain in place above the thirty-fourth floor windows.

275  Madison Avenue, Art Deco motifs at entrance

Photo: Meghan Weatherby

275  Madison Avenue, upper-level

façade. Photo: Meghan Weatherby

275 Madison Avenue, abstract pattern on base. Photo: Meghan Weatherby

McGraw-Hill Building, 330 West 42nd Street, blue-green terra-cotta tiles cladding the façade. Photo: Richard Berenholtz

General Electric Building, (originally RCA Victor Building), 570 Lexington Avenue

In designing what was to be the Radio Victor Corporation of America (RCA) headquarters at Lexington Avenue and 51st Street in Midtown Manhattan, Cross & Cross abandoned the modernized classicism used in the City Bank-Farmers Trust Building in favor of a modernistic interpretation of Neo-Gothic. This stylistic approach harmonized beautifully with the Romanesque-Byzantine Saint Bartholomew’s Church to the west and the now demolished Cathedral High School to the south.

           

Warm red granite sheathes the base of this fifty-story landmark skyscraper with its chamfered corners and brick cladding in shades ranging from buff to salmon. Principal designer John W. Cross adopted “vibrant energy” as the motif for the building’s ornamentation. The building’s illuminated crown, one of the more impressive and recognizable in the city, expresses this theme. The spirits of radio, four fifty-foot-high figures surrounded by cast-aluminum lightning bolts, encircle the pinnacle. At the center is an explosion of Gothic tracery described at the time as a “golden tiara,” a web of flame-like terra-cotta spikes glazed in gold.

           

Before the building’s completion, RCA had become a separate entity and was planning to relocate to Rockefeller Center. The new owner and principal tenant, General Electric, was acknowledged by incorporating the firm’s logo onto the face of the clock held by disembodied hands clutching an electrical current at the rounded corner.

General Electric Building, crown with spirits of radio. Photo: Richard Berenholtz

General Electric Building, polychromatic brick cladding. Photo: Meghan Weatherby

About the Author:

Kathleen Murphy Skolnik teaches art and architectural history at Roosevelt University in Chicago. She is Editorial Consultant to Art Deco New York and a member of the ADSNY Advisory Board.

Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 1, Issue 2, Winter 2016. View a digital version of the full journal here.

© 2019 Copyright Art Deco Society of New York, Inc. 

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