Ideas and Observations

Francis Morrone
Classical New York
Winter 1993

New York City is the greatest heap of architectural styles on earth. The entire history of building art in the West is recapitulated in this city’s Greek temples, Roman baths, Romanesque churches, Gothic cathedrals, Tudor manor houses, Tuscan villas, French Renaissance hotels particulier, and Georgian terraces.

The Choragic Monument of Lysicrates, the butter tower of Rouen Cathedral, and the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus are pitched thirty, fifty, even seventy stories in the air. The streets of New York are a delirium of finials, cornices, metopes, aedicules, caryatids, rosettes, ogives, pediments, pilasters, and quoins.

Since the Italian Renaissance (beginning roughly a century before Henry Hudson sailed up the river that was later to bear his name), the classical has proven the most resilient of building styles, managing, in one guise or another, to dominate Western architecture till the end of World War II. New York itself has, from its beginning, been a classical city. From Colonial through Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate, and Queen Anne to the full-blown Beaux-Arts of the so-called American Renaissance, New York has had as much claim as Paris, Rome, Vienna, or St. Petersburg to be called a classical city.

We are inclined to think that this classical New York ceased to be added to sometime around 1950, when the long real estate stagnation caused by depression and war had subsided and the city was swept by its first, undoubtedly exhilarating wave of modern building eschewing all reference to the architecture of the past. But if you think classical New York has died, think again. It has only been hibernating. If history teaches us anything, it is that classical architecture has a remarkable power to resurrect itself. In fact, there is reason to believe that a full-fledged classical revival may take place once our present real estate malaise finally gives way to renewed building activity.

Already, in the office building boom of the 1980s, architects who formerly shied away from using classical elements began to employ them, sometimes in the most extravagant fashion, in reaction to what people widely perceived to be the cold, sterile quality of much modern architecture. The loose name given to the new, classicizing stylistic tendencies was “postmodernism.” Philip Johnson, one of the earliest apostles of the modem movement, and John Burgee designed the AT&T Headquarters on Madison Avenue with granite stonework, a high-arched entryway, and most conspicuous of all, a broken-pediment “Chippendale” top. It was completed in 1984. Cesar Pelli’s World Financial Center (1985-88) and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Worldwide Plaza (1989) are deeply and self-consciously indebted, particularly in their interior public spaces, to the grand tradition of classical skyscraper design that flourished from the 1890s to the 1930s.

While, for a variety of reasons, postmodernism did not give New York a major, truly classical building, classicism is busting out all over the rest of the world. In Britain, for instance, Prince Charles has been leading a crusade to revive classicism as the standard style for public buildings. In the United States, the surest harbinger of an imminent full-blown classical revival is to be found in Chicago’s Loop. The new Harold Washington Library Center, designed by Hammond, Beeby and Babka, is a flawed, but nonetheless bravura, exercise in unapologetic classical architecture on the heretofore long-dormant scale of a monumental public building. Its architect, Thomas Hall Beeby, is no less than dean of architecture at Yale, and arguably as influential a figure as there is in contemporary American architecture.

In the meantime, the classical has not ceased altogether to breathe in New York. Some of my favorite buildings to show people when I walk them around New York are the handful of classical buildings that have been built in the last forty years. Most New Yorkers who pass these buildings every day are startled to learn how recent they are.

The first building dates from 1954: Frederick Rhinelander King’s addition to the Council on Foreign Relations, on the southwest corner of Park Avenue and Sixty-eighth Street. The original building, constructed in 1920, was designed by William Adams Delano as the house of Harold I. Pratt, son of Charles Pratt, kerosene magnate and founder of Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute. It is a simple, elegant neo-Georgian box, with a lovely series of arched windows deeply incised in the rusticated base on the east and north faces of the building. The addition, on Sixty-eighth Street, continues this window series but is set slightly back from the lot line, creating a graceful transition from the large corner building to the more modestly scaled row-houses extending west from it—a move worthy of a great classical city.

By 1959, the year of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, and following ten years of intensive building in the modern style, New Yorkers were inured to the glass-and-steel aesthetic. Residents of Murray Hill must have been surprised, then, when an authentic-looking Gothic church rose on the southeast corner of Park Avenue and Thirty-eighth Street. A Gothic church? In 1959? Today, it looks as if it has been there for a century. The Roman Catholic Church of Our Saviour was designed by Paul W. Reilly. Hidden in the tower, where Gothic churches had bells, is air-conditioning equipment. Unfortunately, the overall attractiveness of the building is marred by the curiously lifeless quality of the carving—most noticeably in the figures around the entrance.

In 1965, the year Eero Saarinen’s CBS Building on Sixth Avenue was completed, Paul Mellon, the billionaire philanthropist, art collector, and enthusiastic admirer of classical architecture, erected one of the few private houses built in Manhattan since World War II. H. Page Cross, a distinguished designer of classical country houses including Paul Mellon’s on Cape Cod, designed a French Provincial house at 125 East Seventieth Street between Park and Lexington avenues. Cut off from the street by a high wall, the cream-colored stucco house, its facade dominated by shuttered French windows with curved iron balcony railings, rises four stories to what is surely the only true dormered-mansard roof built in Manhattan in half a century. The two-story east wing is similarly topped “anachronistically,” by a balustrade.

Two additional examples of recent classical buildings lay to rest any suspicions that the craftsmanship necessary to build in the classical mode has become obsolete. In 1966 the Susan B. Wagner Wing was added to Gracie Mansion, in Carl Schurz Park at East Eighty-eighth Street. The merchant Archibald Gracie built his elegant Federal-style country house in 1799 on the East River, well north of what were then the city limits. At this house Gracie entertained such luminaries as Alexander Hamilton, the Marquis de Lafayette, President John Quincy Adams, and King Louis Philippe of France. The city bought the house in 1887 and from 1924 to 1930 it housed the Museum of the City of New York. In 1942, the new house became the official mayoral residence. By 1964 the need for new reception and office space was pressing. Mott B. Schmidt, aged 75, a renowned designer of classical houses, and John Barrington Bayley, architect for the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, were given the daunting task of adding to one of the city’s oldest and best-loved landmarks. The two-story Wagner Wing replicates the clapboard siding, attic balustrade, and shuttered windows of the original. But the new wing’s glory is its canopied porch, a delicate composition framed by pairs of slender fluted columns with Composite capitals. Of the five orders of classical architecture, the Composite, a combination of Ionic and Corinthian most commonly used in baroque Rome, is rarest in New York. One would think that Composite columns, being the most elaborate, would be the least likely choice in a time when craftsmanship was obsolete, yet there they are. In addition, the porch has an arched entrance with a spidery fanlight, and is entered from either side by graceful curved stairways with wrought-iron railings. The porch was modeled on the one at the Lyman house in Waltham, Massachusetts, designed by Samuel McIntyre and built in 1793. (The beautiful fireplace in the ballroom of the Wagner Wing was originally in the landmark house at 7 State Street, childhood home of Elizabeth Bayley Seton, America’s first Roman Catholic saint, and an ancestor of the same John Barrington Bayley who codesigned the Wagner Wing.)

Eleven years later, in 1977, the year Citicorp Center was completed, John Barrington Bayley designed the most elaborate—indeed, the best—classical building in New York since the 1930s: the addition to the Frick Collection on Seventieth Street just east of Fifth Avenue. Bayley’s addition is based on Jules Hardouin-Mansart’s Grand Trianon at Versailles, built in the late seventeenth century. The one-story addition, like the original, is built of Indiana limestone, with Ionic pilasters and entablature beautifully executed by a new generation of craftsmen at the Indiana Limestone Company. The elaborate bronzework throughout the addition was the work of Arthur Ward, of P.E. Guerin and Company, located in Greenwich Village. An integral part of the addition’s design is a formal garden, visible from within the museum through floor-to-ceiling arched windows, and from Seventieth Street through Louis Quinze gates that were originally placed at the house’s entrance drive. The lush garden, designed by the English landscape architect Russell Page, features a large pool with water lilies. Below the addition and the garden are two stories of exhibition and storage space together with educational facilities.

The additions to Gracie Mansion and the Frick were not the only classical designs for New York buildings conceived by John Barrington Bayley. In response to the huge sums of federal money pouring into cities for urban renewal projects in the 1950s and 1960s, Bayley created a series of visionary schemes for the classical makeover of such perennially problematic sites as Columbus Circle, Roosevelt Island, and the Hunter’s Point waterfront. He even designed a classical housing project for Harlem. At that time, of course, Bayley’s visionary drawings seemed as fantastic as the works of Piranesi; only a handful of “eccentrics” like Paul Mellon or the trustees of the Frick collection were willing to commission even the most modest classical projects. Thirty or forty years later, Bayley’s schemes would have been taken much more seriously.

There is, finally, the question of whether we can afford to build in traditional styles. After all, one of the reasons for the rise of modern architecture was supposed to be its cost effectiveness. Modernism, however, has not proven itself to be any more cost effective than other styles. The factors influencing building costs are varied and complex. Materials and craftsmanship are only a small part of the equation. The cost of the Frick addition was $2.85 million, which is no more per square foot than many of the heralded museum additions of recent years. All other factors being equal, the cost of a typical classical building will be marginally more expensive than the cost of a typical modern building. The “smart” office buildings of today, for example, are very expensive to build, and the materials and craftsmanship necessary for a high-level classical design will add, at most, two or three percent to the total cost of the project.

These things can hardly be predicted, of course, but I would not be surprised if the classical were to dominate building in New York when the city’s economy recovers. The present recession may then be remembered as the period when all the young architects found time to learn the orders.

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