The Stage is Set

By Peter D. Paul & Barbara Sandrisser

The year is 1934. The Great Depression is in its fifth year, and ominous rumblings of another war are sweeping across Europe.  What are depressed Americans doing for entertainment? They are escaping to the movies to watch Fred Astaire dance with Ginger Rogers. They want some glamour and romance.

 

Astaire, wearing a tux, glides across the stage, encountering Rogers in her backless evening dress. Together they move around the elegant Art Deco stage set, designed to look like an entrance lobby of a grand hotel. They dance up and down the stairs, through the revolving doors, and over the furniture, gracefully, effortlessly. They waltz, they tango, then slide into some jazz, all in a number called "The Continental." This film, The Gay Divorcee, is only one of many Astaire/Rogers movies that epitomized Art Deco design, especially in its musical numbers.

 

What people saw in such glamorous movies was, in fact, also all around them. One could find Art Deco design in public spaces such as office building lobbies and train station waiting rooms, even in small cities and towns such as Newark, Passaic, and Morristown, New Jersey. Public spaces were the designer's delight. People from every walk of life could experience Art Deco elegance, just like in the movies. In downtown Newark, for example, there are two notable buildings that were strongly influenced by Art Deco design.

 

Newark’s Pennsylvania Station was the last major structure designed by the firm of McKim, Meade & White. Conceived in 1929 and built between 1932 and 1935 at a cost of $2 million, it was the city's major building project during the 1930s.  Planned as a multi-modal transportation facility, the station organized all the early twentieth century modes of transportation––rail, subway, bus––into a complex facility. The station building, about 300 by 80 feet, is connected to a raised train shed building, about 1,200 feet long and 300 feet wide. The public space of the waiting room, which is currently being restored, shows the building to its best advantage; it is a high, spacious room, classically ordered, and restrained in color. Within this envelope, the architects handled the detailing and decorative forms with imagination, using the new materials and formats of the 1930s in an exemplary way. White opal glass globes, hung from flowing bronze chandeliers, bathe the space in luminous subdued light. Metal screens, trim, and medallions, plus the ornate inlay on the terrazzo floor, create a unified Art Deco ornamentation, whose inventive curvilinear forms give the building its coherence and impact.

Façade of Newark's Pennsylvania Station, also known as Newark Penn Station.

In the immense train shed, the huge, skylighted space shelters tracks and platforms. Although its exterior is sheathed in masonry, accented with Art Deco embellishments, the handling of the interior space is the most exciting. Expression of the engineering forms with steel exposed is refined in its detailing of curved flanges and fillets. The introduction of the skylights––an industrial form––and the handling of multiple levels, capture some of the period's fascination with modern technology––the infatuation with speed and power that the Italian Futurists bequeathed to the 1930's. Especially effective is the diagonal of the ramp, dropping into the waiting area from the PATH level above. The station complex is a showcase of materials and techniques of the 1930s. It reflects outstanding planning, engineering, material technology and decorative techniques of the period. Had the producers of Shall We Dance––an Astaire/Rogers film released in 1937––discovered Penn Station, they might have used it for a set. It would have been a perfect spot to shoot the roller skating dance number, choreographed to George and Ira Gershwin's "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off."

A few blocks away is One Washington Park, the former New Jersey Bell Telephone Company building––a twenty-story brick and pink-limestone structure completed in 1929. Density of ornament is concentrated for effect at the pedestrian level, and the richer materials––bronze and limestone––are used where they can be directly experienced. The bronze Art Deco screen above the entrance doors is a taut vertical design that employs attenuated triangles. The frieze above the ground floor level is carved with florid limestone arabesques in low relief, an exemplary Art Deco presentation of lively surface detailing.

 

As one enters the building, the full impact of the Art Deco design becomes apparent. This is really a stage set that calls itself a lobby. The richness and excitement of the detail intensifies as one moves through the space toward the information desk. The interior space is high, drawing the eye to the subtle archways and to the ceiling. Despite proliferation of ornamental detail, a feeling of simple elegance prevails. Particular emphasis is given to the ceiling, where triangular shapes and beveled edges provide a low-key counterpoint to the intricate bronze wall detailing. Every design detail is carefully thought out. Even the original public telephone booths were works of fine craftsmanship that blended perfectly with the lobby. The bronze mailbox is an integral part of the total design scheme. Dramatic upward lighting is provided by classic Art Deco floor lamps, accented by beautifully designed wall fixtures. This fascination with incandescent lighting is central to the visual aesthetic of Art Deco. It affects the colors of materials such as marble, bronze, and the new plastics. The rich golden hues, in which metals mix, emphasize the abstract qualities of the various patterns, giving them a unified sculptural effect.

Even buildings in small towns, such as the railroad station in Morristown, use Art Deco lighting in the waiting room, combined with minimal decorative grille work. The impact is substantial. Take away the in candescent lamps that were specifically designed to fit on top of the benches and the essential character of the interior space is lost.

 

Passaic, another small city of lost glory, was submerged in the suburban tide that followed World War II. The tallest building in the downtown area, an eleven-story office building, is an Art Deco design. This fact was either not understood or, more likely, ignored when, during the 1950s––and even more recently––some of the lofty interior spaces were remodeled with eight-foot dropped acoustical ceilings and fluorescent light fixtures. Fortunately, the lobby was left intact. Except for the addition of fluorescent fixtures over the elevators, the space was left alone, showing the erosion of time and grime. The building's distinction rests on its use of materials––a black marble entrance, patterned travertine floors in the lobby, bronzed elevator doors, and an elegant central staircase leading to the second floor. Again, the perfect setting for an Astaire/Rogers dance number. Careful detailing is evident; the design of the brass radiator grille exactly matches the design on the elevator doors.

Interior of Walker House, the former New Jersey Bell building.

Interior grillework above the entrance to the former New Jersey Bell building.

Architectural ornamentation on the façade of the former New Jersey Bell building that illustrates the building's original purpose.

Dancing through the lobbies and waiting rooms of the 1930s is not as outrageous as it might seem. The music of "The Continental" captured the essence of Art Deco. In fact, another name for Art Deco was Jazz Modern, a term used mainly in the United States, and in some ways, quite appropriate. Art Deco was truly international in scope––a synthesis of an enormous number of influences, including Art Nouveau, American Indian and Mexican Art, Russian Constructivism, Italian Futurism, and even Japanese Art. These influences, along with an appreciation of the beauty of machines––particularly trains––and desire to use new materials such as plastics and metal, inspired Art Deco’s sophisticated designs for mass production.

 

Art Deco turned out to be a culminating point in design. It successfully abstracted images from different geographical locations, from different art forms, and from history. In a way, it was the beginning of the end of the concept of decorative art––Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier made sure of that. World War II clinched it. The epitome of style and the fine art of elegant understatement were replaced with emphasis on purely functional and economical solutions. Art Deco remains the last of the "total" styles. The irony is that people love it, and the dancing ghosts linger on.

Note: This article was originally published in the Winter 1982, Volume 2, Number 4, edition of the Art Deco Society of New York News.

All photos: Daniel Leventhal

The façade of People's Bank and Trust Company Building in Passaic.

Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 4, Issue 1, Winter 2019. View a digital version of the full journal here.

© 2020 Copyright Art Deco Society of New York, Inc. 

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