Sunday, April 4, 2010

Harde and Short, Still Standing

You’ve all heard the joke about why architects are so difficult to buy gifts for . . . it’s tough to find just the right thing for a person who is everything.

The stereotype is almost always funny. The truth is, though, that architects aren’t a whole lot different than all the other Joes who have to sell their talents for money. For every Wright or Mies, there are hundreds and hundreds of capable designers and draftsmen who live lives uncluttered by newspaper clippings of praise or damnation.

Take the case of a pair of New York architects who worked in the early 1900’s. They designed a few upscale apartment buildings in Manhattan, saw them built, retired and passed away in obscurity. Today we know virtually nothing about them, their practice or their relationship, one to the other.

Maybe it’s because the partnership reads like some cheap Second City joke – Harde and Short.

That’s right, Harde and Short – Herbert Spencer Steinhardt (who in the 1890’s changed his name to Styne-Harde and then to Harde, thankfully, because it tickles the funny bone better) and R. Thomas Short, who came to the United States from Canada around 1885.

The two formed a partnership in 1901, designed some modest apartments, and in 1906 were hired by Charles F. Rogers to design a ten-story apartment building at 45 East 66th Street.

45 East 66th Street
That apartment block caught the eye of developer Walter Russell, who hired Harde and Short (I just can't stop myself!) to design 44 West 77th Street. That building attracted a new developer, Alwyn Ball, Jr. (Can you believe it?), who hired the two to design Alwyn Court at 58th and Seventh. [New York Times, December 4, 2005]

44 West 77th Street

When finished in 1910, Alwyn Court had everything a wealthy New Yorker could want. It was just over a block away from Central Park with only two large apartments with 14 rooms and five baths each per floor, renting for $10,000 a year. One 32-room apartment occupied an entire floor and rented for $22,000 a year.

The apartments were furnished in stone imported from France, with marble fireplaces, and parquet floors of fine wood. They were built around a 12-story central light court and included music conservatories, billiard rooms and wine cellars. [New York Times, April 6, 1997]

The novel concept of apartment living was intriguing to the rich. In 1910 the New York Times pointed out that apartment houses could be just as "palatial" as private homes, but needed only half as many servants. Among the first tenants were Jacob Wertheim, president of United Cigar Stores and Frederick Steinway, the president of the family's piano business.
The splendor of the building's interior was matched in the faces that it showed to the streets. The architects chose the French Renaissance style of the age of Francis I, King of France from 1515 until his death in 1547, to decorate the building's exterior, a combination of Italian Renaissance and Gothic elements. The symbol of Francis I, a salamander breathing fire, can be found throughout the scheme.

Using glazed terra cotta tiles, manufactured by the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company, the largest producer of terra cotta in the United States, Harde and Short covered their building with angels, flowers, animals and plants. Architecture magazine praised the work of Atlantic Terra Cotta but said of the ornamentation, "while the design of the façade if made by a pastry cook, would be of the highest excellence . . . it can hardly be considered at all in the light of architecture."

Terra cotta was a smart construction option at the time because designers could mold and make it into patterns that were far less expensive than other high-grade materials. Once the mold was created, the process was a simple one -- fill, bake, glaze and fire. That was obviously a cheaper way to clad a building than hiring a team of sculptors. This was particularly true at Alwyn Court where almost every inch of the building is covered with decoration.

Alwyn Court has had a riches to rags to riches history.

On March 4, 1910 a fire broke out in an unoccupied apartment on the ninth floor. Despite its luxury, the Alwyn Court had no fire escapes or fire doors. Its single narrow stairway served as a perfect chimney flue. [Fons, Mary K. Profile of a New York Classic] No one was seriously hurt although three housemaids, thinking the entire building was in flames, nearly jumped from the roof to Seventh Avenue. [New York Times, March 6, 1997]

Alwyn Court remained fully occupied throughout the 1920's. In the next decade, with Manhattan in the grips of the Depression, Seventh Avenue lost its mystique and by 1937 the grand apartment building was empty.

The Dry Dock Savings Institution took over the building and gutted it, upping the number of units to 75, each with three, four or five rooms. The renovation also removed the grand cornice and balustrade from the top of the building. A look at the 45 East 66th Street apartments gives some idea of what the Alwyn Court looked like before its crown was removed.

After the remodel occupancy rates continued to be high for several decades as artists, musicians and other well-known New Yorkers took up residence. Carnegie Hall, after all, is only a block to the south on Seventh Street.

In 1980 the building was converted to a co-op, and a half-million dollar restoration of the façade began under the direction of the architectural firm of Beyer Blinder Belle. More façade work was completed in 1997.

Today 2.3 million bucks will get you a 4.5 room, two-bedroom, two-bath co-op in Alwyn Court. The maintenance fee will run you just a few bucks short of $2,500 a month.

As for the architects, Harde and Short . . . with Alwyn Court in their portfolio, you would think they were at the beginning of an exceptional career.

Instead, they split up.

In 1916 Harde teamed with Frederick Hasselman (Harde and Hasselman, although nicely alliterative, is not apt to provoke a chuckle and a wink as the former partnership did), and the two designed a Tudor-style school building at 52 East 78th Street, which is now an apartment building.

72 East 78th Street

After that Harde left architecture for good, apparently to join his brother, Dudley, in real estate. Small continued to design buildings in Brooklyn, where he lived, but even that is hard to determine. The date of his death is unknown.

All that we really know of the firm is found in that incredible, one-of-a-kind apartment block on Seventh Avenue, a one-hit wonder by Harde and Short.

Alwyn Court


Donna Fraser said...

R. Thomas Short was my great grandfather!! I just recently discovered that two buildings he designed, Alwyn Court & Red House both in Manhattan, NY, are on the US National Register of Historic Places. I don't know why he & Harde split up, but I do know of many buildings he designed on his own after they split & being his great granddaughter, I know of his family life from that time up until his demise. I would like to know if there are any photos of him in existence.

Anonymous said...

Donna- Greetings! I'm posting a bit late.I am publishing the monograph / biography of James E Ware, for whom Harde and your great grandfather served as head draftsmen in the late 1890's.

I have never seen photos of either
Harde or Short. I was blessed to
find photos of Ware through his descendents. Keep looking,it took
me almost a decade.

It would be great to chat,if you read this, I am sure we'd have alot to talk about your talented
great grandfather.

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Christopher Gray said...

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Christopher Gray

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