New York Skyscrapers
By Anthony W. Robins
Check out our recorded Video Event, Forty-Second Street from East to West, which showcases some of New York's most acclaimed Raymond Hood skyscrapers including the Daily News Building, Chanin Building, American Radiator Building, McGraw-Hill, as well as icons by other notable architects such as the one-and-only Chrysler Building! Learn More
It is impossible to think about Art Deco architecture in New York without the name of Raymond Hood coming instantly to mind. His personal stature among modernist architects of the 1920s and 1930s, his midtown office buildings, and his involvement in the design of Rockefeller Center make him perhaps the single most prominent figure of the movement. Yet the four New York skyscrapers––American Radiator, Daily News, McGraw-Hill, and RCA at Rockefeller Center––are each works of such great individuality, so highly idiosyncratic, that they seem to comprise a style all their own. Where William Van Alen’s Chrysler Building, Cross & Cross’s G.E. Building, or Ralph Walker's Irving Trust all use a style of ornament that fits anyone's notions of Art Deco, each of Hood’s towers seems somehow slightly out of the orbit. The American Radiator Building has Gothic details; The Daily News has little applied ornament; the McGraw-Hill was New York's only building to be included in The International Style, the definitive book by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, and the RCA, as part of Rockefeller Center, is a case apart. Can Hood's buildings be called Art Deco?
One of the problems in answering that question is the ambiguity of the term Art Deco. Consider how many definitions have now been supplied by our readership! It has been broadly applied to anything from saltcellars to skyscrapers, produced anywhere in the world during the early decades of the Twentieth Century, in a nontraditional, modernistic style. In the case of New York architecture, a narrower definition is possible: Art Deco can be thought of as a specific style established by a series of skyscrapers built between 1923 and 1931, which then filtered down to smaller building types during the remaining years of the Great Depression. The style is often identified by ornament based on abstract design, first floral in inspiration, later geometric. But are stylized swirls and zigzags the only marks of an Art Deco building? They can be found in abundance on many major ones, like the Chrysler Building, and countless minor ones, like the Bronx apartment houses. But on Hood's buildings? Not to any great extent.
The characteristics of Art Deco buildings in New York, however, go well beyond applied ornament. What identifies these structures as modernistic, and sets them apart from others, is a set of architectural qualities involving massing, emphasis on verticality, the handling of windows, skyline value, and the effect, as well as the motifs, of ornament. Once that is realized, it becomes clear that Raymond Hood's buildings are central monuments of the style, and that the development of his architectural ideas marks the path of development for New York Deco generally.
Originally from Pawtucket, Rhode Island, Hood was educated at M.I.T. and at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. At the age of 41, after a dismally obscure career in New York, he suddenly found himself the winner of the most celebrated architectural competition in the country––for the Chicago Tribune Tower. His Gothic design for the Tribune catapulted him to instant fame, and during his next and last twelve years, he became known as one of New York's and the country's most brilliant architects. Hood designed several churches, an apartment house, and, during his underemployed days, Mori's Restaurant;1 he introduced roof gardens to New York on a large scale at Rockefeller Center, and produced an extraordinary manifesto for rebuilding Manhattan along the lines of Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin, but his fame rests primarily on his five skyscrapers in Chicago and New York.
The skyscrapers were commissioned by a succession of practical-minded businessmen. The Tribune Tower was designed for Col. Robert R. McCormick, heir to the Medill publishing empire in Chicago, and the Daily News Building for McCormick's cousin, Capt. Joseph Patterson. The McGraw-Hill Building was built to the specifications of James McGraw, while at Rockefeller Center, Hood and his associates answered to John Todd, the developer hired by the Rockefellers to oversee the project. From Hood’s occasional writings and interviews, and from his friends' recollections, it appears that he considered himself to be a businesslike architect, in tune with his employers, and that his function was to manufacture shelter, not to be an artist. "There has been entirely too much talk about the collaboration of architect, painter, sculptor," he wrote, "nowadays, the collaborators are the architects, the engineer, and the plumber . . . We are considering comfort and convenience much more than appearance and effect." Yet, his work shows conscious manipulation of design towards very specific “effects" (his word, always, in describing his designs), and these can be traced through the rapid development that led in ten years from the Gothic Tribune to the ultra-modernistic RCA Building.
The reddish-brown, black, and white brick color scheme of the Daily News Building.
Globe in the lobby of the Daily News Building.
With a freestanding tower now possible, Hood developed Plasticine models showing various design possibilities. His first notion was for a tall slab rising above a three-story base, but that gave up too much valuable space available under the site's zoning. One day, Kilham came into the office and discovered Hood carving up the News model, while asking, "Do you mind if I do a little zoning myself?" The result was a large block with irregular setbacks on all sides, creating a tapered, stacked massing, completely different from the tall shaft he had first contemplated, and possible only in a three-dimensional conception.
Next, the windows: windows can be arranged or emphasized in many ways. The long columns of windows in Hood's design for the News Building are perhaps the single most important element defining it. They give the building its overwhelming verticality and also its basic color scheme: reddish-brown and black stripes of windows between white stripes of bricks. This was done by recessing the windows––and the colored brick spandrels between them––slightly behind the uninterrupted white brick piers; the red color was emphasized in the windows by using red window shades.
The major applied ornament on the building is at its base: an extraordinary three-story limestone entrance with a bas-relief. The scene is a great city, with people of every profession coming and going and––of course––buying newspapers. At the top is the image of a great skyscraper––identified by its vertical stripes as the News Building itself––with the sun rising behind it. At the bottom is the inscription “He made so many of them,” a quotation from Lincoln that apparently began either as "God must have loved common people," or "God must have loved common-looking people." In any case, the imagery of the city and the idea of the common people represent the Daily News, the popular tabloid newspaper.
The three-story limestone bas-relief above the entrance to the Daily News Building.
Inside the building, Hood created a popular-science display lobby under a black faceted-glass hemisphere. Like the three-story bas-relief, this was a symbol of the paper: popular science for the popular audience.
At the building’s top, the extraordinary aspect of Hood's design is that there does not seem to be any architectural treatment: it looks like the walls simply stop, a functional expression of the architectural fact. Actually, the walls continue up well above the top story in order to conceal the elevator shafts and other unsightly utilities, which otherwise, in a truly functional expression, would have been visible. Hood, in other words, did not just stop the walls, but rather designed them to have the effect of stopping.
Are there no standard Art Deco ornamental details on the News Building? Yes, some: bronze banding with zigzags runs around the building’s base, and some of the brick patterns are stylized and geometric. But these are extras. The design of the building is based on its form, rather than its ornament. The tapered, stacked massing, the great colored stripes, the abrupt cut-off at the top, the three-story stone base with bas-relief and inscription, and, inside, the popular-science display lobby, all combine to form an instantly recognizable structure, unique in New York City. It is massing, verticality, applied color, and emblematic imagery that define this building, and those are in fact the marks of Art Deco skyscrapers in general.
The applied ornament around the second-story balconies of the American Radiator Building.
Gothic inspired spires framing the main entrance of the American Radiator Building.
With this understanding of Hood's effects in mind, we can go back to the 1924 American Radiator Building, designed just two years after the Gothic Chicago Tribune Tower––and one year before the 1925 Paris exposition des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes, from which the name Art Deco is derived. On first sight, the Radiator Building seems to be Gothic in style, with slender spires framing the main entrance, little grimacing gargoyles supporting second-story balconies, and a Gothic crown at the top. Looking behind the ornament, however, it is possible to see many of the elements that we discovered at the News Building. First, even though this is a mid-block building, and not a very tall one at that, Hood gave it the appearance of being a freestanding skyscraper, separating it from its neighbors on either side. Using the zoning code's setbacks, and chamfering (or beveling) the corners, he treated the building as a three-dimensional block, designed through its massing. Verticality is emphasized by the same recessed windows and brick spandrels seen at the Daily News Building, and, whereas the News is red-and-white striped, the American Radiator Building is dramatically black-and-gold. In other words, the American Radiator Building is a freestanding skyscraper, designed by tapered massing, with verticality created by long recessed window bays, and with applied color. Even though the ornamental motifs are strictly Gothic––no zigzags or stylized floral swirls on this building––here is a modernistic design, betraying most of the characteristics of the Art Deco skyscrapers shortly to follow it.
It should be pointed out that, although many critics have suggested that the modernistic aspects of the Radiator Building derive from Eliel Saarinen's runner-up design at the Chicago Tribune competition, many of its features can be found in Hood’s own Tribune design, specifically the recessed windows and the beveled corners. There is a clear line of development throughout Hood’s quick evolution from 1922 Gothic to 1924 Gothic-Modern to 1929 Daily News modernistic.
If the Radiator Building is transitional from Gothic to Art Deco, and the Daily News Building is the pure new movement, then the McGraw-Hill Building, begun while the News was still under construction, is transitional from Deco to the next new movement to affect New York architectural design, the International Style.
Both the News and the McGraw-Hill Buildings were designed to house major midtown publishing operations. Each was located just outside the central midtown area, the News east of Third Avenue, the McGraw-Hill west of Eighth Avenue, because publishing was forbidden by midtown zoning. To accommodate their intended industrial uses, each building was designed as raw loft space, cheaply built, which could then be adapted for offices, if necessary, by the addition of wall partitions.
The designs of the two buildings were perceived as being very different. The McGraw-Hill Building, in fact, was the only New York building included in Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson’s book, The International Style, which grew out of the 1932 MoMA exhibition of the same name that launched the style in America. To the authors, the McGraw-Hill building “marks a significant turning point in skyscraper design. It is the first tall commercial structure consciously horizontal in design” since the early Chicago days, a slab with horizontal window bands. When looked at from north or south, that is indeed the effect the building has-––but this is an effect only, and not the only one.
The lobby of the McGraw-Hill Building.
In fact, the McGraw-Hill Building is the result of three-dimensional massing and applied color, of skyline treatment and emblematic significance, just like the Daily News Building. It is a freestanding skyscraper, thanks to its location in an underbuilt area west of midtown. Its design, again, comes from massing and window treatment. What is different from the Daily News is the desired effect. The McGraw-Hill Building actually has two very different profiles: from east and west, the setbacks every couple of floors create a tapered Art Deco contour, a broad base narrowing in steps, out of which a slender tower rises to a ribbed pinnacle. This is the shape seen in most photographs of the building. But the setbacks disappear when seen from the north or south, and the building gives the illusion of being a single International Style slab. The window treatment adds to the illusion: an International Style building ideally has unbroken horizontal window bands––ribbon windows. Hood created the effect of such windows by grouping traditional double-hung windows in groups of four, separated by dark panels of metal––hence the sense of horizontal design. That horizontality is broken, however, on the Deco profile facing west, where a strong central vertical row of single windows rises to the top.
The applied color of the building is strictly Art Deco in inspiration, and is achieved by the use of colored terra cotta cladding. Many different colors were considered, including yellow, orange, green, gray, or Chinese red. The blue-green finally chosen was said to have been McGraw’s own choice.
Exactly what color it is was not unanimously agreed upon: Hood called it blue, while McGraw-Hill has always called it green. The romantic notion behind it becomes clear in Hood's own description of the color: "Dutch blue at the base, with sea green window bands, the blue gradually shading off to a lighter tone the higher the building goes, till it finally blends off into the azure blue of the sky. The final effect is a shimmery, satin finish, somewhat on the order of the body of an automobile."
Where is the company’s emblem, the counterpart of the Daily News grand bas-relief and pop-science lobby? Here it is joined into the skyline: a giant, crowning McGraw-Hill sign, made of eleven-foot high hollow terra-cotta blocks. Hood suggested that it was a terra-cotta version of the electric signs then prevalent on New York buildings. Other precedents would be the PSFS Building in Philadelphia and the Russian constructivist movement of the early twentieth century. Like the Daily News walls, which "stop" higher than they ought, the McGraw-Hill sign also hides water towers and elevator shafts. The ribbing at the ends of the sign is Moderne in inspiration, suggesting something of the Expressionism of the German architect Eric Mendelsohn (cf. the addition to the Rudolf-Mosse-Haus in Jerusalemer Strasse, Berlin, 1921–23), but it is the only particularly Art Deco type of ornament discernable on the building.
Little zigzag ornament, the appearance of a slab, and horizontal windows––hardly what one expects of an Art Deco building; yet the most that can be said is that it is transitional, and only in effects: an International Style building wouldn't seem to be a slab and seem to have ribbon windows, it would be one and have them. The McGraw-Hill Building is as much the product of massing, window treatment, applied color, emblematic imagery, and skyline treatment as the Daily News. It is a modernistic building, even without the Art Deco vocabulary, and even with its adoption of International Style effects.
The lobby of the RCA Building.
The main entrance to the RCA Building.
Hood's last skyscraper was the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center, built 1932–33. The largest urban project in the country, Rockefeller Center was designed by three architectural firms working in conjunction as the Associated Architects, and it is not always possible to separate the contributions of the individual designers. A quick examination of the RCA Building, however, reveals many of the design elements and effects of Hood's earlier towers.
Wisdom, created by architectural sculptors Lee Lawrie and colorist Leon V. Solon. Applied ornament above the entrance to 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
First, the RCA Building is not merely a freestanding tower––it is the skyscraper centerpiece of a multi-block district, so arranged as to give it the three-dimensional prominence that could only be approached in the American Radiator or Daily News Buildings. Then, like the McGraw-Hill Building, it is designed through massing and setbacks to have two very different façade effects: from north or south it is a broad, flat slab, while from Fifth Avenue, down the Channel Gardens, it appears as a slender, vertical tower. The modeling of the tower through set-backs creates a tapered, stacked massing, not unlike that of the Daily News Building, except that where the News is asymmetrically arranged, the RCA is rigidly symmetrical. Endless recessed window-and-spandrel bays create the same sense of verticality as in Hood’s earlier towers.
Applied color is missing from the tower––there is simply the natural gray of the limestone cladding, as in all the Center buildings. Applied ornament is on a wholly different scale: the RCA Building, like the whole Center, is adorned with a series of murals and reliefs related to a symbolic scheme, specifically designed for the Rockefellers and carried out by a variety of painters and sculptors. Little of it involves zigzags or Art Deco floral arrangements. Yet, as a freestanding skyscraper, designed through massing, with strong verticality, and standing as the central emblem of Rockefeller Center, the RCA Building is the crowning modernistic tower of Raymond Hood's career.
Defining the term Art Deco may be impossible because it has been applied to many different mediums, types, and styles that, in the end, share only a certain amount of surface similarity. As a result, often only the broadest common denominators––zigzags or streamlines––are taken to be the essence of the style. Yet while stylized ornament can be found just as readily in furniture or fabric as on building façades, it is one of the less important components of the design of the modernistic skyscrapers of the 1920s and early 1930s. The characteristics of Raymond Hood's buildings, however––free standing tower, design through massing, verticality through window treatment, applied color, emblematic significance––are architectural ideas. They can be traced through most of the other major Art Deco monuments, and finally it is they that define the nature of the Art Deco Style in architecture.
About the Author:
Anthony W. Robins, ADSNY’s Vice President, is a historian, writer, and educator specializing in New York architecture. A twenty-year veteran of New York’s Landmarks Commission, he has a passion for Deco that is reflected in his most recent book, Art Deco New York: A Guide to Gotham’s Jazz Age Architecture.
All Photos: Lynn Farrell
1 Now an apartment building at 144-146 Bleeker Street.
2 Now the Westin New York Grand Central Hotel.
Note: This article was originally published in the Spring 1984, Volume 4, Number 1, edition of the Art Deco Society of New York News. The inspiration for this account of Hood's work was the January–February 1984 exhibition, Raymond Hood: City of Towers, shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art at Phillip Morris, Park Avenue at 42nd Street. ADSNY Member Carol Willis was guest curator, and Anthony W. Robins––who, at the time of original publication was ADSNY’s Director of Walking Tours––led two tours of Hood’s New York Skyscrapers in conjunction with the exhibition.
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.