Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Early Architecture of New York City (2)

Federal Hall, one of the most important of early public buildings, stood on the site of the present United States Sub-Treasury. Among the most important of the early residences, none of which have survived, were the homes of Governor Clinton, on Pearl Street, the Van Ness house at Bleecker and Cherry streets, the Rutgers home on Cherry Street, and the Walton mansion on Franklin Square. Leopold Eidlitz, who designed St. George's Church, was associated with Richard Hunt in plans for the Capitol at Albany. Neither was involved in the scandals which arose as millions were sunk in this building by contractors, and Mr.. Hunt proved to be among the most useful of the early generation of New York architects in training his successors.

New York's City Hall, the most chaste and lovely of surviving buildings of an official character of the earlier period of New York's history, was the design of John McComb, born in New York City in 1763. He was also the architect of St. John's Church, and of other public buildings.

It may be frankly admitted that in matters of architecture, New York and the rest of America as well, lagged far behind the other arts in development. Perhaps this was fortunate, for with the exception of the buildings already named and Fraunce's Tavern nothing remains of the city's earlier buildings calculated to inspire regret that practically all have vanished. With the increasingly cosmopolitan character of the city it was to be expected that the character of the buildings erected would reflect foreign influences, and be influenced by events in the Old World.

It was not until the period of Stanford White, son of that Richard White whose name appears in the chapters on journalism and literature, that the designs for private residences and public buildings showed the influences of the best in modern European architecture. He and the group contemporaneous with him, mostly Beaux Arts men, brought to New York's buildings a beauty and a dignity worthy of America's greatest city.

The long and narrow form of the Island of Manhattan brought about the creation of the only distinctive element in American architecture. Congestion of population and increasing land values, made it necessary that buildings should be expanded upward, since no other expansion was possible. The firm foundation afforded by the solid rock of Manhattan Island made possible the earliest tall buildings with the aid of structural iron and thus began the development of the modern sky scraper. As early as 1848-49 John Bogardus planned a cast iron building which was erected on Centre Street. Cast iron pillars and a cast iron facade were features of the building erected a decade later by Messrs. Harper Brothers on Franklin Square for their publishing business.

In the Harper building the cantilever system was employed for the support of cement floors, the entire structural material being iron rather than wood; but the sky scraper, of which the Pulitzer Building on Park Row is the first example, was still many years in the future. This building was designed by George B. Post, a Beaux Arts man, who had also designed the Brooklyn Historical Society, the Cornelius Vanderbilt house on Fifth Avenue, the Huntington house opposite it, and many other notable public and private buildings. The World Building with its golden dome is still a landmark, but it was speedily dwarfed in its noble height of twenty-two stories by the Park Row Building, twenty-nine stories, which remained until the erection of the Singer Building, the tallest building in America.

To be continued: Early Architecture of New York City (3)

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