If you’ve ever been inside the lobby of the American Express Building in Lower Manhattan, you can’t have missed Craig McPherson’s haunting, beautiful murals. What I find interesting about the cityscape murals at the World Financial Center (now Brookfield Place) is that they allude to the somewhat mysterious history of modern finance; even their colors and angles present a sense of mystery — like there is a secret to be discovered, or a riddle.
Detail of Istanbul mural from the AmEx Building.
The cities depicted are key seaports of the world. Two (Venice and Istanbul) represent trading capitals of the Old World, while the others (New York City, Hong Kong, Sydney, and Rio) might be said to illustrate the global growth that was driven by the sudden expansion of Old World trade that took place after the Renaissance. What facilitated that expansion? Stock corporations and insurance companies. Both had their origins in the pooling of capital and risk to facilitate the shipping industry of that time. The capital they raised and the assets they protected drove the expansion of Western trade beyond the traditional routes of Europe and the Mediterranean. In this sense, the murals at the World Financial Center are very much part of long tradition in public-facing art: they present a romanticized narrative of a bigger (and potentially obscure) story behind the walls they adorn, and they remind of us the day-to-day work that went into that story.
On another note, the murals all survived September 11th relatively unscathed, even though the American Express Building suffered severe damage.
Although New York’s Singer Building (149 Broadway, New York City) was lost in the late 1960s, at least two other buildings remain today with strong claims of sisterhood. One is in New York City, just about a mile north of where the lost Singer Building once stood. The other is halfway around the world.
The Little Singer Building (561 Broadway, New York City) was built in 1903. Like the (Big) Singer Building, it designed by the Beaux-Arts-trained architect Ernest Flagg for the Singer Manufacturing company. The Little Singer is an attached, zero-lot-line building, in keeping with traditional urban forms. But, unlike Flagg’s next project, it does not have a freestanding tower. Although it was sandwiched between two other buildings, the architect found ways to make it stand out, including the use of cast-iron, arches, and a recessed bay that gives shape to its distinctive color scheme (red brick and green), which presaged the palette of the Singer Tower. Today, it has a clothing store on the ground floor, with residential units above. Here it is, today:
Singer House (28 Nevsky Prospekt, Saint Petersburg) is located on one of pre-Soviet Russia’s grandest commercial strips — the Nevsky Prospekt. Designed by Pavel Suzor, and completed in 1904, the Singer House is more playful in its Art Nouveau design than either of its Beaux-Arts, New York sisters. Yet, in a less formal way, it expresses a similar tendency to combine solid materials and ornate flourishes in a way that defined the visual themes of the company. The Singer House couldn’t have a tower, because the Czar wouldn’t allow anything to exceed the height of his nearby Winter Palace. Here it is, today:
I never find a site on Google Maps without doing some virtual wandering. Roaming around Saint Petersburg on StreetView makes me want to visit. It’s a beautiful and complex city. I’m often taken aback by the incredible richness and refinement of Russia, and its contrast with the country’s seemingly interminable political harshness. It’s a mystery — which makes it interesting.
Seen above, a mural in the Liberty Tower, at Liberty and Nassau Streets, shows how the Singer Building might have appeared during its early days. The painting was commissioned by one of the great architects of recent restorations, Joseph Pell Lombardi.
The Amalgamated Dwellings in New York City. Photo: Theo Mackey Pollack.
I have a new article published at TAC’s New Urbs blog, about the history and legal structure of New York City’s limited-equity housing cooperatives, which continue to provide surprisingly affordable, high-quality housing units in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the United States. The piece tells the story about how limited-equity co-ops got started; their philosophical roots; their early successes; why the model declined in popularity; and how an approach that recovers its best qualities might be be compatible with various subsets of the polarized political landscape of contemporary America.
I think there’s little question that the shortage of affordable housing in the regions with the best economies is a major driving force in the structural inequality that characterizes our current moment; and that the biggest beneficiaries of this status quo are rent seekers, rather than actors who contribute anything dynamic or innovative to the economy. Taking the role of speculation out of the equation can do a lot to keep prices in line with what residents can actually afford. For the reasons described in my article, I think this is an important idea that deserves to be recovered and applied in today’s metropolitan real estate economies.
My favorite of the city’s Art Deco skyscrapers, this soaring Pine Street tower was built as the headquarters of the Cities Service Company, predecessor of Citgo. The Cities Service logo — a pyramid within a cloverleaf, usually black or green in trade dress — can be found pervasively worked into the concrete and metal exterior details, and the interior details, as well. Designed by architects at Clinton & Russell and Holton & George, the 952-foot tower opened in 1932.
Last year, I posted a batch of pictures that I had taken of the exterior details at ground level; and of the tower within the skyline of Wall Street. It is a striking tower, sleek and tapered at the top. But given the dense cluster of tall buildings that now characterize the neighborhood, it is a challenge to find a clear shot of more than its very top. Fortunately, an outside detail (above) provides a scale model of the complete tower in clean, white concrete — like the building itself.
A residential conversion was recently completed, which includes a beautiful top-to-bottom restoration of the landmark skyscraper. I doubt the building could have looked much sharper in 1932, when it opened amid the Great Depression, having been on the drawing board before the fortunes of Wall Street turned dark. The redeveloper, Rose Associates, has really done an incredible job.
Here, I include a number of new pictures of the grand lobby, the basement, and various stairwells and corridors.
Hope you enjoy. I love this building, and think you will, too.
Hard to believe that it has been 16 years since that morning. I was in my second year of college at The New School. A few lines from a piece that I wrote shortly afterwards (mostly for myself, so that I would be able to remember exactly what I’d experienced):
I went upstairs to class and took a seat. My advisor, Henry, was already there, getting organized. A minute later the second professor showed up. A small argument ensued between the two.
“Do you know what’s going on out there?” said Stuart.
“Yes, but I think we need to go on with class,” said Henry.
“A lot of people are out there watching…. We may not have everyone.”
“Well, I’m not much for that. We should go on with who we have.”
“Well, it’s pretty hard not to watch … the fucking World Trade Center is on fire. Another plane just crashed into the South Tower.” Everyone in the room was jarred.
“Oh my God. Some kind of … attack?”
“Oh yeah, it’s definitely an attack.”
“Well, what do you think? I mean, it’s important … but I think what we are doing here is important, too.”
“I mean poetry isn’t the least important thing.”
“No, definitely not. I guess we should go on.”
“Yes, I think that would be the right thing to do.”
Later, after the class had finally been dismissed:
I turned left and walked on through the grid of streets, up through the warehouses and housing projects beyond Ninth Avenue. I wasn’t sure where I was going; I just gravitated in what seemed to be the right direction. I lived in Brooklyn Heights that semester, but I was walking the opposite way. Getting back to my room would have involved either a long detour through Williamsburg, or a trip straight through the scene. Instead, I thought I might have to walk all the way to my uncle’s apartment on 207th Street — and I didn’t know if anyone would be home, if I did.
I managed to stay cool-headed, but I was really unsure of what I should do. I kept going north and west. Getting out of the heart of the city seemed like the main idea. At some point, it occurred to me that a ferry might be crossing to New Jersey, so I made my way west to the Hudson River. If I went back to the town where I had gone to high school, I would find someone to put me up overnight. It wasn’t far away; just across the river from the city. But it was a different world. By that point, I was sure that I didn’t want to go back to Brooklyn….
There were thousands of people walking up Twelfth Avenue. Most of them had walked all the way up from the site. People were sort of talking to each other briefly and moving on. It was strange. You don’t usually talk to strangers in a moving crowd, but everything was different then. Normal street smarts seemed useless. The ethos of minding your own business and ignoring anything out of the ordinary? I knew that would not work anymore. But how could you replace it with something else?
There was a middle-aged man in a suit who told me he worked at the World Financial Center. His hair and jacket were covered with gray ash. When the first plane smashed into the North Tower, he began to leave, but his boss said, in all seriousness: “That’s a World Trade Center problem. This is the World Financial Center. Get back to work.” I laughed, and he moved on.
There’s more, but it’s not really in any shape to be posted. Maybe one day I’ll clean it up and share it here as a single piece of writing.
Would definitely recommend to anyone with an interest in the building itself, early skyscrapers, tesellation and mosaics, the transition from classical to modern architecture, or just the history of American business. The colors are incredible. Likewise, the masonry and marble. Photos in my album begin in the main lobby, then move to the back of the main floor, down into the basement (where a lost entrance to the subway can be found, sealed off), and finally up to the balconies, where you can almost touch the tiled ceilings.