Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The 1890 Lincoln Building -- No. 1 Union Square West

photo by Alice Lum
As Union Square transformed from a fashionable residential neighborhood to a bustling commercial district, many of the new structures were being built by firms for their own use – Tiffany & Company, Lord & Taylor Dry Goods and Decker Piano Co. for instance.

But the nine-story Lincoln Building that began rising at the corner of 14th Street and Union Square West in 1889 was purely speculative. Jacob D. Butler recognized the potential of the site which had originally been part of Henry Springler’s farm and was still owned by that family. Butler gambled that a new office building would quickly become a lucrative investment.

Architect Robert Henderson Robertson was given the commission to design the structure.  It would replace four small buildings on what was considered the most desirable corner on the Square. The Philadelphia-born architect had already established his reputation and was now working heavily in the popular Romanesque Revival style.

Robertson’s design was a marriage of the traditional and the up-and-coming. He utilized modern engineering in the interior steel skeleton – an innovation that would result in later soaring skyscrapers—but also incorporated load-bearing masonry walls. He successfully adapted the medieval Romanesque prototype into a modern multi-storied office building.

Heavy arches and piers, thickset columns and stone carvings drawing from Byzantine, Norman and Celtic designs covered the fa├žade. Robertson combined rock-faced Indiana limestone and brick, granite and terra cotta to create his visually interesting building. His most eye-catching ornament was a large carved griffin serving as a flag pole base that wrapped the corner at the seventh floor.

A profusion of lion-headed brackets support an elaborate cornice, while a flag pole base in the form of a  fearsome griffin wraps the corner - photo by Alice Lum
The Lincoln Building – possibly so named because of the statue of Abraham Lincoln directly in front of it on the Square – was completed in 1890. Critical reaction was, on the whole, positive. The often-irascible architecture critic Montgomery Schuyler praised “the picturesque features” of the carvings and detailing; however he complained about the numerous horizontal divisions that “confuse the principal division.” Engineering Magazine disapproved of the use of brick and limestone saying the difference in materials resulted in a “lack of unity essential in all good designs.”

The Abraham Lincoln statue sits squarely in front of the building as horse-drawn drays and trolley cars pass by -- NYPL Collection
Despite architectural criticisms, the building filled quickly. Among the first tenants were the architects Field & Snelling, Van Campen Taylor, and William H. Holden. In 1891 F. M. Pirsson & Company also moved in. The firm was general agents for architectural materials companies supplying, for instance, sliding blinds, screen doors, slate work, and stone.

While the building was home to ordinary, expected tenants – Raymond & Whitcomb travel agents and William Price Jones “stationers’ specialties” company, for instance – it had more than its fair share of peculiar leasers as well.

One was the Order of the Old Colony which established its offices here in 1892. The firm offered insurance “against the evils of matrimony.” For an $8 initiation fee, $1 dues per month and a 50 cent assessment upon marriage, the member was guaranteed a payout of $500 as a marriage dowry.

The founder, Ernest V. Marschall , insisted that no discrimination was made against engaged persons although only non-married persons could join.

Equally unusual was the scheme of tenant Charles M. Coen who, in 1894, began plans for a luxury hotel to be built 11 miles into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Long Island. Coen hosted an excursion on June 15 that took a party of engineers, newspapermen and potential investors to the site. Here he threw overboard a buoy flying the flag of Atlantis, broke a bottle of champagne and announced “There being no legal obstacles in the way, we take possession of the Cholera Banks in the name of Atlantis and raise her flag over this shoal.”

Coen intended to raise “a number of palatial iron structures, connected with each other by bridges on iron pillars 30 feet in diameter.” He estimated the cost of the foundation for the hotel would cost about $2 million and said that “the first building will be finished by October.”

It wasn’t.

Three years later tenant George J. Mersick got himself into legal problems by advertising his “Artograph” for mail order. The Artograph, Mersick promised, would reproduce and enlarge pictures for the minimal price of $7 ($6 in advance) and $1 on delivery – satisfaction guaranteed.

The Postmaster General, however, received numerous complaints from women who had purchased the product and found it “of no value.” Despite the guarantee they were unable to get a refund.

Post Office Inspector Schopp found that Mersick’s visits to his office “were very irregular.”
photo by Alice Lum
On October 26, 1900 Jacob D. Butler sold the Lincoln Bulding to William Crawford for “$200,000 over a mortgage of $150,000.” Interestingly the original building application listed “Mr. Crawford” as “owner” in 1889.

On May 17, 1912 four partners, Carl Laemmle, W. H. Swanson, P. A. Powers and David Horsley, brought four desks into an office here and started their new business: Universal Film Manufacturing Company. The company, known today as Universal Pictures, grew so quickly that before the summer was ended new, larger offices were taken at 1600 Broadway.

The Lincoln Building, often known as 1 Union Square West, still commands attention at the corner of 14th Street and the park. An important example of the transitional phase in the development of the modern skyscraper, it is also a handsome illustration of the architect’s ability to meld historic styles – in this case medieval Romanesque – with modern requirements.

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