November 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 7
The great buildings of the 1920s are standing all over Manhattan, preserving in masonry the swank and swagger of an exuberant era.
New York rebuilt itself in the twenties. The most anarchic, self-regarding, self-proclaiming city of them all achieved its new self by an astounding vertical leap that thrilled, disordered, delighted, and terrified the critics who tried to take its measure. Since then Manhattan has suffered at least three origins of demolition, but many of the classics of that barely believable era remain — almost a miracle in a city where the concrete never sets.
This twenties boom wasn’t merely a matter of tall buildings. As far as true skyscrapers were concerned, Chicago clearly outdid New York in rigor and clarity. But abundant cash and credit, ambition and vanity, skilled labor and immigrant brawn, cheap steel, and trained architects nourished the wild overnight sprouting of a forest of forty- and fifty-story buildings: masonry exclamation points in a city outdoing itself in speed and flash and dazzle — or, in a word, jazz.
Energy for the enterprise flowed uptown from Wall Street and was harnessed by the country’s first code of zoning and building regulation, passed by the city in 1916. These regulations attempted to preserve a vestige of light and air by requiring a structure to have setbacks at heights graded to the width of its adjoining streets. The last quarter of the plot on which the building stood could bear a final spire rising as high as the builder pleased. Thus was born the vision of steps rising from a solid base at street level — and thus also a profusion of wildly distinctive caps or pinnacles. Like Mayor Jimmy Walker, who streamlined his derby to make it more dashing than the traditional squat hat of the Tammany heeler, architects searched for devices not merely to finish buildings but to proclaim their presence against any and all comers on the skyline.
A new midtown emerged as the product of filling out the plan of the 1913 Grand Central Terminal, whose air rights along Park Avenue were leased to builders of hotels and offices, apartment houses, and even the Yale Club. On the west side of midtown, “the Roaring Forties,” the theater district expanded, and big houses opened to accommodate splashy new musicals.
Great buildings were going up all around the island: Ralph Walker’s Barclay-Vesey Building for the Telephone Company, whose Art Deco lobby is still overwhelming; One Fifth Avenue, an icon of the setback style, whose facade hints of the Gothic and, surprisingly, of the Georgian; Joseph Urban’s Hearst Magazine Building, the stubby base of an incomplete skyscraper with some of the jollity Urban brought to his stage designs for the Ziegfeld Follies.
These still stand, along with a host of other classic reminders of that time and place. Some of the most beguiling appear on the following pages.
A demon salesman, the flamboyant builder who put up this building was surely aware of the sales value of saying, “The Fred F. French Building, Five-fifty-one Fifth Avenue, at Forty-fifth Street.” But his creation had more to recommend it than euphony. Built in 1927 on a tight corner plot, the long, thin building proved that a slab rising from a series of setbacks could turn a profit despite the overpriced land available in midtown. The very narrowness of the building meant that most of the office space it enclosed was within reach of natural light and thus rentable at prime rates, and the elevators at the end of long central corridors gave the remainder of each floor the flexibility to be designed for a variety of uses. French’s thirtyeight-story building was the first skyscraper on this part of Fifth Avenue, and he tricked it out sumptuously, from the bronze in its lobby to the multicolored faience decorations on top — among them heads of Mercury, the messenger, “spreading the message of the French plan.”
Prohibition killed off the great public restaurants of the bigger hotels and old classics like Sherry’s and Delmonico’s. But more modest places for working people, shoppers, and theater- and moviegoers thrived. Ye Waverly Inn chose a colonial costume and a menu of meat loaf, chicken pot pie, succotash, and the like to appeal to sturdy American family tastes. The quaint little place at the corner of the Bank street and Waverly Place is not, in fact, colonial: the building it occupies is a Greek-revival townhouse built in the 1830s, and the Waverly itself began its genteel colonial-revival career in 1920, perhaps in symbolic response to the riotous life all around it in Greenwich Village. In any event, no Waverly diner would ever have asked for a shot of hooch in his teacup; for that kind of thing you went to Lee Chumley’s speak-easy over on Bedford street. There writerS, actors, painters, and the usual hangers-on liked to sit and talk and play chess—and, of course, drink, although Chumley’s was at least as popular for its dollar dinner as it was for its liquor. It was hard to find, and still is: there is not now, nor has there been since Lee bought the joint in 1926, any identifying sign out front.
The Varieties Theatre at Third Avenue and Thirteenth Street was built in 1914, and its marquee’s electric bulbs date from its construction. The neon overlay, however, is most likely the work of the 1920s: under the El every bit of light possible was deployed to inveigle customers into a distinctly non-first-run theater.
The Beacon on Broadway in the Seventies was something else again. Built for Roxy Rothafel and designed by Watter Ahlschlager, who was responsible for the Oriental, Spanish, rococo, you-name-ft splendors of the famous Roxy, its vast downtown progenitor, the smaller Beacon had twenty-seven hundred seats and enough decor for three theaters.
Years of neglect have darkened the frescoes on the theater’s walls, but you can still make out Greek and Egyptian slaves bearing riches. Who could have kept a straight face in the presence of this mad wealth of historical detail? The Beacon’s proscenium is flanked by huge Artec warriors who lift a symbolic tent flap. The entire effect was planned to make the audience feel that it was in an elaborate sheik’s tent that, when opened by these magical servants, would reveal a tale on an even more magical screen.
When the Bowery Savings Bank joined the rush to crowded midtown after World War I, it had to make do with the ground floor of an office building on Forty-second Street. But York and Sawyer were not defeated by the constraint; the architects produced, in 1923, a formidable Romanesque-Byzantine banking room whose sumptuous furnishings were as functional as they were decorative. All this splendor was in the service of a new style of banking based on speed and efficiency in taking care of a new clientele —those savers who stood in line at tellers’ windows with their deposit books in hand. The Bowery had moved to its uptown site because commuter trains, subways, and a Third Avenue El spur converged here, and with them two sources of customers: the old carriage trade that had begun to settle in the suburbs and workers drawn to the area’s new offices. Old money or fledgling money, the basilica-like banking room welcomed every depositor with a grandeur to match the grandest ambitions.