New York 1880: Architecture and Urbanism in the Gilded Ageby Robert A.M. Stern, Thomas Mellins, David Fishman
This is the fourth volume in architect and historian Robert A. M. Stern's monumental series of documentary studies of New York City architecture and urbanism. The three previous books in the series, New York 1900, New York 1930, and New York 1960, have comprehensively covered the architects and urban planners who defined New York over the/i>/i>/i>
This is the fourth volume in architect and historian Robert A. M. Stern's monumental series of documentary studies of New York City architecture and urbanism. The three previous books in the series, New York 1900, New York 1930, and New York 1960, have comprehensively covered the architects and urban planners who defined New York over the course of the twentieth century.
In this volume, Stern turns back to 1880 the end of the Civil War, the beginning of European modernism to trace the earlier history of the city. This dynamic era saw the technological advances and acts of civic and private will that formed the identity of New York City as we know it today. The installation of water, telephone, and electricity infrastructures as well as the advent of electric lighting, the elevator, and mass transit allowed the city to grow both out and up. The office building and apartment house types were envisioned and defined, changing the ways that New Yorkers worked and lived. Such massive public projects as the Brooklyn Bridge and Central Park became realities, along with such private efforts as Grand Central Station.
Like the other three volumes, New York 1880 is an in-depth presentation of the buildings and plans that transformed New York from a harbor town into a world-class metropolis. A broad range of primary sources critics and writers, architects, planners, city officials brings the time period to life and allows the city to tell its own complex story. The book is generously illustrated with over 1,200 archival photographs, which show the city as it was, and as some parts of it still are.
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Read an Excerpt
New York is a great secret, not only to those who have never seen it, but to the majority of its own citizens.
James D. McCabe Jr., 1868
New York is a study of contrasts. It has no virtue without its corresponding sin; no light without its shadow; no beauty without deformity; for it is a little world in itself.... New York is the City of the time to come.... It is now ... the Great Metropolis of the Continent, and in the next century will be the Great Metropolis of the World.... This City will be a country of itself, a nation for its strength, its resources, its incalculable riches. Broadway will be the great thoroughfare of the World; Fifth Avenue the street of luxury and splendor beyond what history has shown. Our rivers will be spanned with noble bridges, and Babylon, Palmyra, Rome, Athens, in their palmiest days will be re-created here.
Junius Henri Browne, 1869
New York is not a picturesque city, like London or Paris.... It has no great antiquity, and has, therefore, little regard for what is old. In London or Paris you may see some relics of past centuries; these are reverenced and preserved as long as they endure. But New York is a series of experiments, and every thing which has lived its life and played its part is held to be dead, and is buried, and over it grows a new world.
Harper's Weekly, 1869
THE WORLD'S COSMOPOLIS
Post-Civil War New York was the nation's most moderncity. Even so, and despite a population of 900,000, it remained a comparatively provincial place, a small town exploding. One observer, James D. Miller, nonetheless wrote in 1866 that it was "justly regarded as the Metropolitan City of the New World." While most pre-Civil War New Yorkers lived below Fourteenth Street, by 1875 more than fifty percent of the populationsome 511,021 personswere living "uptown." Uptown at this time fell below Forty-second Street, which meant that 500,000 people were crowded into the lower city, not including the thousands who poured into its commercial, manufacturing, and warehouse districts each business day. The city was ripe for expansion once the development of rapid transit rendered possible a daily commute to the open land at the north end of the island. In anticipation of this growth, almost two-thirds of the gridiron of streets were laid down as far uptown as Ninety-sixth Street. The blocks they formed were empty except for scattered shanties, a few small inns, and country houses built before the war.
The city, including the business district, crowded onto the island's tip, was made up of low structures. Only church steeples punctuated the skyline; the tallest, climbing 284 feet, belonged to Trinity Church (Richard Upjohn, 1846), at Wall Street and Broadway. Among the most prominent commercial structures were John B. Corlies and James Bogardus's Harper and Brothers Building (1854), at 331 Pearl Street, facing Franklin Square, and James P. Gaynor's Haughwout Building (1857), at the northeast corner of Broadway and Broome Street. While Harper and Brothers was located in the traditional downtown business district, Haughwout's, a retailer specializing in such goods as cut glass and silverware, was farther north along the city's most fashionable shopping stretch, uptown from Alexander T. Stewart's marble-clad department store (Trench & Snook, 1846), America's preeminent palace of trade.
No sooner had the Civil War ended than New York began to grow quickly, outstripping its rivals Philadelphia and Boston, leading the prolific diarist George Templeton Strong, a lawyer, to record that the city was rapidly expanding above Forty-second Street and that the gentry's shopping strip, along lower Broadway, was being rebuilt as a prime business address. On August 6, 1866, Strong observed "another material change in the aspect of Broadway": "Taylor's showy restaurant" had become the office of the American Express Company, and Chapin's Universalist Church, which had been serving as an art gallery, on the east side of Broadway between Prince and Spring Streets, was demolished. Strong, neither an apologist for the past nor a dedicated futurist, took a fatalist's view: "So things go. Let `em go!' Fourteen months later, on October 22, 1867, Strong took a trip to Fifty-ninth Street from his house at 74 East Twenty-first Street, "traversing for the first time the newly opened section of Madison Avenue between Fortieth Street and the [Columbia] College [at Forty-ninth Street], a rough and ragged track, as yet, and hardly a thoroughfare, rich in mudholes, goats, pigs, geese, and stramonium."
A half century of investment prepared New York for the Civil War and post-Civil War boom. One writer, William R. Martin, an early booster of the West Side, stated in an 1865 pamphlet titled The Growth of New York:
New York stands in relation with the whole country as its commercial and financial capital. During the second period of its growth, from 1820 to 1860, a portion of its wealth was employed in constructing railroads and other works of internal improvement, over the valleys of the Ohio and Mississippi and along the borders of the lakes; an employment of capital that involved great waste and loss, and brought but small returns. The leading lines of railroad across this region, beginning to stretch up the western side of the Mississippi valley, have been so long completed that now the promised results of increase of production and wealth have ripened into a harvest for the city.... We are now reaping, without further outlay, all the results of our enterprise and investment. The increasing production and commerce of the great Northwestern country (of which but a small portion is as yet fully occupied) are now flowing upon us through channels established and paid for.
In 1869, New York's critical role in national life was cemented with the completion of the Union Pacific Railroad, making transcontinental rail service possible for the first time. John Augustus Roebling, the designer of the Brooklyn Bridge, was quick to sense the importance of this event for the dry. In his 1867 report outlining his designs for the new bridge and enumerating its value to the city, Roebling wrote that the "great change" that would inevitably follow the completion of the transcontinental line would have international consequences, at first occurring slowly but increasing
with every coming year, until at last the city of New York will have become the great commercial emporium, not of this continent only, but of the world. In mother half-century, Liverpool and London, as commercial centres, will rank second to New York. This is no futile speculation, but the natural and legitimate result of natural causes. As the great flow of civilization has ever been from East to West, with the same certainty will the greatest commercial emporium be located on this continent, which links the East to the West, and whose mission it is in the history of mankind to blend the most ancient civilization with the most modern. The old and the new are to meet on this continent, and this will be effected through the means of commerce.
In the eyes of the so-called civilized world, and especially those in the major European capitals, post-Civil War New York was only just beginning to come into focus as America's representative city, one that vividly exhibited the nation's strengths and weaknesses. According to the historian Albert Fein, New York embodied "the challenge of a democratic nation's capacity to plan for and maintain an urban environment to meet the needs of a uniquely heterogeneous population." Given that New York was not a state capital, its sense of itself as the representative American city was critical, giving rise to what might be called its metropolitan destiny: New York saw itself as a quasi-independent political and cultural entity that was both a microcosm of and a model for the nation as a whole. The ideal of Metropolitanism, not a fully articulated concept until the 1890s, is discussed in New York 1900. By the Civil War's end, diversity and breadth of outlookthe "cosmopolitanism" that was to be a key aspect of Metropolitanismwas widely acknowledged as a uniquely New York phenomenon among American cities. This was sensed by William R. Martin, who wrote in his previously cited pamphlet:
New York is cosmopolitan in feeling. Its increase has been so rapid that of its million inhabitants but few are native born. It has received its accessions from every country of Christendom; from the middle states, the proud-spirited South, the true grit of New England; and these accessions have included the very best elements. All feelings and all opinions are represented here. We are all closely in contact. Nowhere are men more energetically intent on their business. Nowhere are opinions more fixed. Nowhere is discussion more earnest and more sharply to the point. Nowhere has it greater freedom.... The news of the country concentrates and emanates from here. The intellectual pulsations throb instantly from Portland to San Francisco, and return instantly. No provincialism or sectionalism can secure a lodgment here. Out of this trial comes the true spirit of New York. The sympathies of all nations and all classes are fused into one common mould and flow out, corrected and purified, for the whole country, with all its variety of people, interests and climate.
New York's cosmopolitanism was extolled as a defining trait by James D. Miller in 1866:
Society in New York has many phasesit is cosmopolitanan amalgam, composed of all imaginable varieties and shades of character. It is a confluence of many streams, whose waters are ever turbid and confused in their rushing to this great vortex. What incongruous elements are here commingled,the rude and the refined, the sordid and the self-sacrificing, the religious and the profane, the learned and the illiterate, the affluent and the destitute, the thinker and the doer, the virtuous and the ignoble, the young and the agedall nations, dialects, and sympathiesall habits, manners, and customs of the civilized globe.
Henry James also took note of New York's cosmopolitanism. In a letter written in April 1883, when the expatriate writer was revisiting New York after a considerable period of time in Europe, James confessed: "I never return to this wonderful city without being entertained and impressed afresh. New York is full of types and figures and curious social idiosyncrasies.... It is altogether an extraordinary growing, swarming, glittering, pushing, chattering, good-natured cosmopolitan place, and perhaps some ways the best imitation of Paris that can be found yet with a great originality of its own."
Styles and Stylists
New York's cosmopolitanism was frequently invoked as a justification for the eclectic architecture that characterized the Gilded Age. As the editors of the Real Estate Record and Builders' Guide observed: "Importations of domestic styles and features in so great variety gives to New York architecture a Mosaic or composite complexion. Much has been said of the uniformity and monotony of our residence quarters, and yet the scrutiny of skilled persons will detect not only a wonderful variety, but a bewildering exuberance of styles and models." The eclecticism of the Gilded Age also reflected its cultural insecurities. The architecture of postwar New York was dominated by a vigorous to the point of vulgar display of French Second Empire-inspired Classicism. A tonic to this aesthetic, seen especially in the work of Richard Morris Hunt, was a more disciplined, if less easily appreciated, synthesis of the more restrained Neo-Grec of France and its opposite, the Gothic favored by the English critic John Ruskin, but largely freed of its moralizing imperative.
There was a moralizing strain and singularity of stylistic approach in such Gothicist architects as Calvert Vaux, as seen in his buildings for the American Museum of Natural History (1874-77) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1874-78) (see chapter 2), and C. C. Haight, evidenced in his campuses for Columbia College (1874-89) and the General Theological Seminary (1883-87) (see chapter 2). But after the late 1870s, New York architects, increasingly inspired by the exotic, placed a high valuation on individuality of expression and on a self-conscious search for beauty. Puritanical American culture had rarely, if ever, indulged in such a sybaritic view of form. Mirroring Walt Whitman's most intimate poetry, this stylistic ethos reached its climax in 1891 with the selection of Heins & La Farge's exotic, individualistic proposal for the new Cathedral of St. John the Divine (see chapter 2). Rallying under the banner of art for art's sake, the search for beauty could be seen in the overheated opulence of Richard Morris Hunt's Fifth Avenue palace for William K. Vanderbilt (1878-82) (see chapter 4) and in the great new places of public amusement, especially theaters, reaching its peak with Stanford White's Madison Square Garden (1887-90) (see chapter 5). In the late 1870s, artistic architecture began to be seen as something apart from the specific programmatics of building. The cast-iron commercial blocks and the Brooklyn Bridge (see below), with their combinations of advanced engineering and schematized historical-symbolic form, vividly symbolized the split between construction technique and functional program on the one hand and the issue of style on the other. For this reason, such structures were in many ways the era's most liberating, representative, and disturbing monuments. Similarly, George B. Post's historicizing skyscrapers and the mansions of Hunt and McKim, Mead & White were valued not for their compositional integrity but for the original and skillful way in which schematized historical form mirrored the ambitions of their patrons.
The depression of the 1870s caused a virtual stoppage of construction at the same time that a definite break occurred between the architectural tastes of the 1860s and early 1870s and those that would prevail in the 1880s. During the Civil War and subsequent Bonanza economy, New York's architecture reflected the robust, if somewhat vulgar, character of the local culture. Newly rich New York was rough in its manners and provincial in its outlook. Its most prominent architects were almost exclusively foreign-born and foreign-trained. Some, such as Detlef Lienau and especially Leopold Eidlitz, did their best to provide the city with refined buildings.
Perhaps the city's most fashionable architect in the 1860s and surely one of its most gifted, Detlef Lienau frequently mixed ideas from France with those from Germany. Lienau was a German-Dane trained in Berlin and Munich who worked in Paris for Henri Labrouste and others before coming to New York in 1848. He may have emigrated to New York because of political unrest in Europe, but in all likelihood he also made the trip to join up with his brother, an established wine merchant. A meticulous draftsman with a fine sense of building craft, Lienau took advantage of his brother's connections and of the patronage of a French decorator working in New York, Leon Marcotte; with these boosts, he became one of the city's most prominent architects almost overnight, relying heavily on sophisticated interpretations of prevailing French taste. Lienau is credited with introducing the mansard roof to New York; it was the crowning feature of his first large house (1850-52), built at the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Tenth Street for Hart M. Shift, a French merchant and banker. By 1872 the New York Times pronounced that a "Mansard Mania" was engulfing architecture.
Leopold Eidlitz was born in Prague in 1823. At the Vienna Polytechnic, Eidlitz studied to be a land steward. His instruction in the construction and maintenance of utilitarian farm buildings sparked an interest in architecture, though there is no record of where he received specialized training in Europe. In 1843, Eidlitz came to New York, following his brother Marc, who was to become one of the city's most important builders. After working as a draftsman in the office of Richard Upjohn until about 1846, Eidlitz joined with Charles "Otto" Blesch, a Bavarian with the architectural training Eidlitz lacked. The partnership, which lasted until 1852, was formed to fulfill the commission for the new St. George's Church (1846-48), facing Stuyvesant Square, a twin-towered house of worship that for many years boasted the largest interior space in the city. While St. George's reflected Eidlitz's admiration for the Bavarian Romanesque Revival of Friedrich von Gärtner, much that Eidlitz learned in Upjohn's office, where Romanesque and Gothic precedent were almost equally valued, could also be seen in the design. Most important, Eidlitz believed in the tectonic morality of Gothic architecture as it was interpreted by the British architect and author A.W.N. Pugin, by the French architect and theorist Eugne-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, and by John Ruskin. At the core of Eidlitz's belief was a Romantic Medievalism that permitted him to work with Romanesque forms and even, as in Temple Emanu-El (1868) (see chapter 2), with Moorish motives. Most of all, Eidlitz's commitment was to a Gothic Revival approach, decrying the Classical and proclaiming that "in true Gothic, so long as you find two stones together, you find architecture."
In the 1870s and 1880s, Richard Morris Hunt and George B. Post presided over a much more important scene than Lienau and Eidlitz had in the 1860s. Their importance lies not only in their sheer success but also in their polished professionalism. As the anonymous author of A History of Real Estate, Building and Architecture in New York City During the Last Quarter of a Century put it in 1898: "It may fairly be said they represent perhaps more notably than any other two individuals the thoroughly trained and technically educated element which, about thirty years ago, commenced to gain an ascendancy in the profession." Hunt and Post and the other important architects of the 1880s, such as Charles Follen McKim and Stanford White, were, as Henry-Russell Hitchcock has pointed out, reacting against the moralistic Gothic and hedonistic Second Empire Baroque of midcentury practice.
Richard Morris Hunt, an architect whose career first took off in the Bonanza economy of the late 1860s and early 1870s and, in dramatically different form, flourished in the boom years of the 1880s and early 1890s, was the most representative architect of the Gilded Age. Hunt's importance had its roots in his talent and education as well as in his ability to move in the highest social circles and his profound understanding of the evolving expectations of those figures who shaped and dominated the culture of the reunited republic. Usurping the positions of Lienau and Eidlitz, Hunt was able to continue in top form for close to two decades, until his death in 1895. Hunt was a completely new type of American architect. Not only was he native born, he was educated in the modern sensenot by apprenticeship but by formal academic training. Born in 1827 in Brattleboro, Vermont, Hunt had a sketchy early education in America and Europe until he entered the studio of Hector Lefuel in Paris in 1845 and then decided to take the entrance examination for the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He was admitted the following year, the first of a long line of Americans who would study at what was in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the world's most important school of architecture. After his studies at the Ecole, Hunt assisted Lefuel with an expansion of the Louvre, returning to New York in 1855 as a uniquely experienced twenty-seven-year-old, ready to establish an independent architecture practice.
Hunt's synthesis of contemporary English and French stylesin essence Victorian Gothic and, despite his training under Lefuel, not Second Empire Baroque but its astringent antidote, the Neo-Grecwas new to the American scene and in many ways his own invention. Although in some ways the early work was not so different from Lienau's and especially Eidlitz's, Hunt's vividly polychromed and vigorously movementedsome would say restlesscompositions were bolder and more individualistic. As a result, Hunt failed to impress the increasingly influential critic Montgomery Schuyler, who much preferred the work of Eidlitz. Hunt was, after all, a trained Classicist, with a full command of formal composition and a scholar's appreciation for virtually all the historic styles of the Western Humanist tradition. In a sense, then, the styles were merely a way of clothing the plan. Beginning with the Lenox Library (1870-77) (see chapter 2) and continuing with a series of remarkable mansions on Fifth and Madison Avenues (see chapter 4), Hunt turned away from the Medievalism of Ruskin and Viollet-le-Duc, with its moralistic overtones, and began to base his work on specific historical models chosen to celebrate beauty for its own sake. This approach, not coincidentally, also celebrated his frequently crude and tasteless millionaire clients' ambitions toward taste and refinement. Hunt triumphed over his age, producing a series of scholarly works that, though they did not achieve a distinct American architectural language, at least established a distinctly American diction. Hunt's very rich patrons wanted, above all, to convey the impression that they were not parvenus, and they treasured the incontrovertible beauty of these seemingly timeless designs. Hunt established the authority of the past and of the architect as an artist, and in so doing he gave the city's architecture and urbanism a gravitas it had never possessed.
After 1880, under Hunt's leadership New York's rich began to house themselves in urban palaces such as had not been constructed in Europe for a hundred years or more. These grand mansions were not only built to exhibit wealth in the public realm but also to enhance and enrich that realm with recognizable interpretations of exemplary specific monuments or styles from the history of architecture. After 1880, fine architecture became a public responsibility of the rich, to be enacted in the houses they built for themselves and in the charitable institutions they supported. This trend would culminate in the civicism of the City Beautiful movement, which Hunt, McKim, White, and others helped initiate and which would be the dominating ideal of American architecture between 1890 and World War I.
By training, experience, and personal inclination, Hunt, more than any other architect, was prepared to shape the metropolitan city. His abortive plan (1861-63) for gateway plazas leading into Central Park (see below), though brilliant, was ill-timed. But when the boom of the 1880s unleashed itself, he was ready to transform the city from a commercially prosperous but culturally provincial backwater into a world capital. He was the first architect to take up the challenge posed by the Real Estate Record and Builders' Guide in 1881: "We ought to pay some attention to architecture. Let our descendants see that we can build noble and beautiful as well as large and elaborate structures."
While Hunt had designed commercial buildings in the 1860s and 1870s, it was George B. Post, Hunt's student, who dominated the city's commercial work in the 1880s. Ten years younger than Hunt, Post was a native New Yorker who had studied civil engineering at New York University before entering Hunt's office as a student draftsman in 1858. He remained there for two years before establishing a partnership with another student of Hunt's, Charles D. Gambrill, a partnership that lasted from 1860 to 1867 and was interrupted by the Civil War, in which Post served, rising to colonel from the rank of captain. Post burst to prominence in 1870 with the completion of the Equitable Life Assurance Society Building, on which he had collaborated. Although he was that building's engineer, his association with the project led to the commission for the Western Union Building (1873-75) (see chapter 3), which was built at the same time as Hunt's Tribune Building (1873-75) and with which it was inevitably compared. Montgomery Schuyler wrote: "The pupil evidently surpassed his master. Because in the original Tribune Building, Mr. Hunt, confronted with a novel problem, was fain to resort to a group of stories, instead of a single story as the new architectural unit, whereas Mr. Post in his first essay, hit upon the arrangement of a triple division into a base, shaft and capital, following Aristotle's requirement." Post was the architect who best grasped the aesthetic possibilities of the new skyscraper building type, seeing that its formal possibilities lay not in a direct expression of functional and structural realities but in a purely aesthetic overlay that drew from time-honored principles of Classical tripartite composition.
In the 1870s, Post, like Hunt, gave shape to the newly emerging cultural institutions, including New York Hospital and the Long Island Historical Society. His Renaissance-inspired Williamsburgh Savings Bank (1869-75), in the same manner as Hunt's Lenox Library, turned away from midcentury eclecticism to a purer, more scholarly approach rooted in Classicism. In the boom of the 1880s, Post built at least one grand house, that of Cornelius Vanderbilt II on Fifth Avenue. His design echoed Hunt's for William K. Vanderbilt, leading his client to call Hunt in as a consultant. But in the succession of office buildings Post designed between the Post Building (1880-81) and the World Building (1889-90), he was second to none in his mastery of the so-called skyscraper "problem," establishing a pragmatic Classicism of approach that transformed the banalities of a provincial business district into a bold new urbanism fleshed out with convincing monuments to free enterprise.
Hunt set the standard for professionalism. In his Parmly (1861) and Stevens (1878) lawsuits, Hunt vigorously pursued the legal rights of architects as artists and professionals. He also recognized as a professional obligation the need to educate younger architects, establishing an atelier system that in many ways mirrored the way education and practice were combined at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Post, who appears not to have been interested in architectural education, was instrumental in transforming the studio-like character of traditional architectural offices into a new type of organization. Post initiated his designs but, rather than turning them over to an assistant to develop, divided the project into component parts and assigned specific tasks to different assistants, organizing the practice of architecture in efficient ways similar to those pioneered by other American professional and commercial enterprises.
Cast-iron buildings were a major feature of the city's complex townscape; the material made it possible to recapitulate past forms in a totally modern way. James Bogardus introduced cast-iron construction in the late 1840s on three different city sites: a four-story row of storehouses for Edgar H. Laing, at the northwest corner of Washington and Murray Streets; a grinding plant at Centre and Duane Streets, for Bogardus's own use; and a drugstore for Dr. John Milhau, at 183 Broadway, between Cortlandt and Dey Streets, which, with its tiers of engaged Roman Doric columns and its cornice frieze, demonstrated how grand effects could be achieved with the material. Another Bogardus design (1854), for Henry Sperry, a clock dealer, at 338 Broadway, near Worth Street, was a six-story, Venetian-inspired building, the round arches of which culminated in an attic pierced by three rondels. That same year Bogardus, acting as engineer for John B. Corlies's design, completed the grandly scaled, inventively if eccentrically detailed, massive and impressive five-story building for the publishers Harper and Brothers, at 331 Pearl Street, facing Franklin Square, which combined offices, storage space, and a printing plant. By 1857, when the financial panic stopped virtually all construction activity, cast iron had become a more-than-respected building material, valued over wood for its presumed fireproofing advantages and, perhaps more important, for its capacity to incorporate a high degree of architectural detail at a low price. In 1857, James P. Gaynor completed a five-story tour de force of Venetian-inspired Classicism for the retail merchants E. V. Haughwout and Co., at the northeast corner of Broadway and Broome Street. Haughwout's was the first to install Elisha G. Otis's safety elevator for passenger use. The brilliantly detailed walls of Gaynor's building, with regular bays that incorporated a window arch carried in a small order between piers with engaged Corinthian columns, were painted to resemble stone. Gaynor used iron from Daniel D. Badger's Architectural Iron Works of New York, one of a number of companies, including the Cornell Iron Works, that would grow to rival and eventually overtake Bogardus's company.
Cast-iron fronts continued to be used in the post-Civil War era, especially for retail stores, occasionally for office buildings, and, in a great last burst during the boom of the 1880s, for the warehouses that transformed the fading residential quarter along Mercer and Greene Streets from Canal to Houston. In 1876, William Fogarty, an English architect visiting New York recognized the importance of cast iron to the development of American architecture:
The warehouses and shops in ... a commercial community assume colossal proportions. In them more particularly the use of cast iron is general, not alone for internal columns ... but also for all external architectural features. Facades eight and ten stories high are executed with it, and with an excellence of finish and accuracy of detail that is seldom seen at this side [of the Atlantic]. There are several large foundries called "Architectural Iron Works," in which the stock of models is very extensive, comprising all the best examples of the Greek and Roman orders to almost any diameter. The facility with which these can be put together to form fronts, has had a very decided influence on the street architecture, which exhibits a great tendency to run into columns, and the repetition of the same details through nine or ten stories is very common. Indeed, so prevalent have these characteristics become, that even where cast iron is not used, the influence of the cast iron school in this direction is felt. This is noticeable in some...buildings...which, although built of cut granite, exhibit one order with little variation used throughout the stories. This must be looked on as a decided element in what may be called the "American Renaissance" style.
Buildings framed and facaded in cast iron did not, however, prove immune to fire. On January 17, 1879, the cast-iron rows along Worth Street burst into flames, with the fire spreading from building to building because the party walls, in part intended as firebreaks, had not been taken all the way to the front, making it possible for the fire to spread both vertically and horizontally. The fourteen Worth Street buildings (Griffith Thomas, 1869), comprising street numbers 58-84, together with 11-37 Thomas Street, between Broadway and Church Street, constituted one of the most coherent neighborhoods of cast-iron buildings, filling almost all of a 200-by-310-foot site. The spread of the fire was partially attributed to the fact that the iron posts had been left hollow and therefore acted as chimneys. In 1885, as a result of the 1879 fare, revisions to building laws required that iron posts be filled with masonry, that enclosed columns be capped with a plate at the top to prevent the passage of fire or smoke, and that metal panels be backed by at least eight inches of brickwork. The new regulations were deemed so restrictive that cast-iron buildings were rarely built thereafter. A notable exception was Richard Berger's six-story, six-bay-wide, Neo-Grec building at 112-114 Prince Street (1889-90), between Greene and Wooster Streets.
Even before the legal changes, fear of fire had thrown doubt on the value of architectural cast iron. Moreover, as the editors of the Real Estate Record and Builders' Guide made clear in 1884, cast iron was no longer deemed artistically tolerable:
It is a matter of unmixed congratulation that the fires of Chicago and Boston showed that this construction was as untrustworthy practically, as it was horrible architecturally. The efforts of a few artistic architects to treat the cast-iron front only served to show how intractable the material was. The substitution of brick for the main structure of members made it impossible to play such pranks as could be played with impunity in cast-iron and compelled a treatment which deferred to the material. If now we could secure the abolition of the monstrous tin cornice and the standing of brick walls upon supports of masonry our warehouse architecture would still be further improved, since it is almost as difficult to make a building positively offensive out of bricks alone as it is to make an inoffensive building out of cast iron.
Montgomery Schuyler was an early critic of cast-iron architecture, writing in 1871 that "it was a sorry day for the architecture of the city, as a fine art, when we commenced making our store fronts as we do our kitchen ranges." Schuyler in particular objected to using paint to mask cast iron so that it resembled other materials: "Instead of honestly avowing themselves ironwhen their very construction and multiplicity of detail proclaimed that they could be nothing elsethey have been universally smeared all over with some uniform color, in imitation of marble or stone, often aping even the rustications and the chisel marks of the latter materials." Recognizing the need to protect the cast iron from the weather, Schuyler preferred that it be painted in multiple colors, "in imitation of ancient polychromy, and thereby at once delight the eye without offending the judgment by false pretensions." This approach was taken by Renwick & Sands in the eight-story building the firm designed for Edward Matthews, at 549-551 Broadway (1870-71), between Spring and Prince Streets.
In 1883, according to the Real Estate Record and Builders' Guide, it was the proliferation of cast-iron-fronted buildings that gave "foreigners ... their unique impression that New York is made of pasteboard, and is not a real city, but a set in a theatre. This impression comes partly from the absence of any visible roofs, and partly from the attenuation of the supports of the buildings which is made possible by the use of cast iron along the most characteristic parts" of Broadway, with the metal frequently painted to "imitate marble or sandstone, and used in quantities in which it would be impossible to use building stoneeven granite. The `light and airy' appearance thus obtained has been admired by people who have piously believed that Broadway was one of the finest streets in the world, and has been imitated as far as possible by the designers of buildings made of honest masonry. The result is that from the Battery to Union Square, one can count upon his fingers all the buildings which possess any architectural interest."
Meet the Author
Robert A. M. Stern, principal partner of Robert A. M. Stern Architects, founded in 1969, is also dean of the Yale School of Architecture. In addition to the series on New York, which includes New York 1900: Metropolitan Architecture and Urbanism, 1890-1915, New York 1930: Architecture and Urbanism Between the Two World Wars, and New York 1960: Architecture and Urbanism Between the Second World War and the Bicentennial, Stern has published numerous books, including monographs on his firm's work, such as Robert A. M. Stern: Houses and Robert A. M. Stern: Buildings and Projects, 1999 2003.
Thomas Mellins is an architectural historian and writer educated at Columbia University and the City University of New York. He is a coauthor of New York 1930, New York 1960, and a script collaborator on Pride of Place, the PBS documentary series on American architecture hosted by Stern.
David Fishman, a graduate of Columbia College, collaborated with Stern on New York 1930, New York 1960, Pride of Place, and the exhibition "42nd Street Theaters."
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