Monday, March 22, 2010

Hood and Plenty

If these thoughts appear to ramble, it’s because we have just returned from New York City where we acted like two gawking Midwesterners. The trip came as a Christmas gift from our daughter and son-in-law, both fantastically talented and thoughtful, and the best part of it was that we got to spend much of our time with them.

I had not been in Gotham since the mid-80’s, a trip that I remember mostly as an intimidating experience of cab rides to unfamiliar places in an alarmingly large city where everyone knew where he or she was going but us.

This weekend I returned as a different visitor, older, a little more knowledgeable about architecture, better at figuring out where subways do and do not go.

I did a lot of wandering, both with the family and alone. I’ve learned that the architectural walks are best done by myself. It’s annoying to your strolling companions when you stop every half-minute to point out a cast iron façade or a terra cotta cornice.

I slipped out of the hotel early Sunday morning and walked down Fifth Avenue, past the Library to Bryant Park, where I found a stunning building on the south side of the park, the current home of the Bryant Park Hotel.

The building and I hit it off. It had character and a presence on the street that competed handsomely with the glassy angles of the Bank of America building diagonally across the park.
The Bryant Park Hotel is a relatively recent incarnation of this 1924 building, operating since Valentine’s Day of 2001. [http://new-york.meuk/radiator building.htm] Originally the building was the American Radiator Building, a transitional wonder that bridges the ages of Beaux Arts and Art Deco.

And here is the coolest part of all . . . it was the first building to be completed in Raymond Hood’s long career.

No wonder I liked the building so much. Raymond Hood, along with John Mead Howells, won the design competition for Chciago’s Tribune Tower, besting over 250 other proposals from architects all over the world and winning fifty thousand bucks in the bargain.

Until he joined Howells in the Tribune competition, Hood had been living with his wife and growing family over Mori’s Restaurant in Greenwich Village. He designed the renovation plan for Mori’s in 1920 and then, to make ends meet, went to work for the American Radiator Company, designing radiator covers.

Then came the big win in Chicago. When American Radiator decided to build a new showroom and office building on 40th Street just off Fifth Avenue, the company already had its man.

Concerned with the appraisal of some critics that Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen’s Tribune plan was the superior proposal for Tribune Tower, Hood combined elements of traditional and modern design in the American Radiator Building. The steelwork in the building was finished just seven months after the designs were submitted, and the building was occupied a year before Tribune Tower opened.

Hood designed the building to be free standing, a rarity in Manhattan where most buildings are built to the lot line, often sharing walls with adjoining buildings. Hood’s design meant that 90 percent of the interior space was within 25 feet of a window. It also meant, though, that elevators gobbled up a lot of interior space with the area of a typical floor coming in at about 5,600 square feet. [February 20, 1994 New York Times]

The architect disliked the typical office building’s façade of the time in which the dark shadows of the windows punctuated a cladding of light stone or brick. He therefore designed the building’s exterior of black brick, with gold terra cotta accents atop the 18-story structure and along the top of the four-story base.

Hood felt that this lessened “the visual contrast between the walls and the windows and [gave] the tower and effect of solidity and massiveness.” [ radiatorbuilding.htm] It carries the same kind of tough street cred that the Burnham boys' Carbide and Carbon Building does in Chicago. Some critics looked at the building metaphorically, suggesting that the black brick symbolized the iron of a furnace and the gold accents the fire that it created.

The fussy top of the building is of another era, but the sleek brick façade of the tower itself is a clear indication that a new style was just over the horizon. It’s interesting to view the building from Bryant Park because one can see the Art Deco behemoth that is the Empire State Building, just a few blocks down Fifth Avenue, looking over the shoulders of Hood’s building.

In 1927 Georgia O’Keefe captured the skyscraper in her “Radiator Building at Night.” At the time O’Keefe and her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, lived in a suite on the 30th floor of the Shelton Hotel on 49th Street and Lexington, just to the northeast of the building’s location. Her painting shows the American Radiator Building, lit by floodlights, a solid beauty in a city filled with remarkable buildings.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission of New York City designated the Radiator building a landmark in 1974.

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