Monday, December 12, 2011

The Art Nouveau New York Evening Post Building -- No. 20 Vesey Street

photo huffingtonpost.com
For their architecture, staid New Yorkers tended to avoid the avant garde style of Art Nouveau.  From the 1890s until just prior to World War I Paris filled its boulevards with buildings, even its Metro stations, designed in the sinuous, almost sensuous, curving naturalistic lines of Art Nouveau.

New Yorkers, however,  preferred more traditional styles like Beaux Arts.  Only a handful of Manhattan buildings such as the 1898 New Era Building at 495 Broadway or the 1903 New Amsterdam Theater on 42nd Street would embrace the revolutionary style.

One of the most striking and unique of these would be the New York Evening Post building; a bold expression of the Vienna Secession offshoot of Art Nouveau.

In 1905 Vesey Street across from St. Paul’s Churchyard was lined with old store and loft buildings.   The Evening Post, under the ownership of Oswald Garrison Villard, purchased Nos. 20, 22, and 24 Vesey as a site for its newest home.   The property at No. 20 had been in the hands of the Greenwood family since 1790.

In announcing the new site, The Evening Post said on March 3, 1905, “The decision to remain downtown is of especial interest in view of the recent removal of The Times and other newspapers uptown.  The management believes that for a high-class evening newspaper a downtown location is still essential.”

Architect Robert D. Kohn was commissioned to design the new structure, which would house the offices and presses of The Post as well as leased offices.   On March 2, 1906 Kohn filed plans for the new building for Garrison Realty Company, a concern incorporated specially for this project.

photo by Cyann
The building was completed in April 1907 and it was like nothing seen in New York before.   Rising thirteen stories above the street, with two full floors below, its steel-framed structure was clad with limestone.  Kohn based his design on the Vienna Secession Movement; yet produced a building totally unique.  Half a century later the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission would note “The building is particularly interesting because, although Art Nouveau in inspiration, it is not copied from any particular building executed in that style.  It is primarily a free expression of the architect’s individuality.”

Four soaring ten-story piers rose from the sidewalk, accentuating the verticality of the structure.  Between, windows bowed outward giving undulating movement to the façade.  But Kohn’s visual emphasis was above.  Below a tall, shallow copper-sheathed mansard stood four gaunt over-sized limestone sculptures.  Representing the “Four Periods of Publicity,” two were sculpted by Kohn’s wife, Estelle Rumbold Kohn while the other pair was executed by Gutzon Borglum, who would later carve Mount Rushmore.

photo huffingtonpost.com
Despite The Post’s ungenerous comments a year earlier, The New York Times was complimentary of the building on its completion.  “The color scheme of the structure is gray and bronze, giving an impression similar to that obtained in some of the new business structures in Fifth Avenue,” it said.  And The New York Tribune called the $500,000 building “an imposing structure.”

On the evening of April 13, 1907 The Evening Post officially opened the No. 20 Vesey Street headquarters by hosting a grand dinner and play for all employees—from trustees and editors to office boys—and awarding fourteen employees with gold medals and gifts.

The New York Evening Post Building, or Garrison Building, is seen further down Vesey Street from St. Paul's.  Note the line of limousines lining the curb.  -- photo NYPL Collection
The Home Trust Company was located in the ground floor space while The Evening Post used the two basement floors and the four top floors.  From here The Post published not only the newspaper, but publications such as the highly popular The Nation.

Other publishing firms moved in, including Yachting Publishing Company, The Ronald Press Company that printed “books for better business,” The United States Army and Navy Journal published by W. C. & F. P. Church, and the Nautical Gazette.

Non-publishing firms here included the American Multigraph Company, a manufacturer of printing machinery and parts with a plant in Cleveland;  the Benvenue Granite Company; the New York Silicate Book Slate Company, manufacturers of school slates; and Ironmonger Advertising Agency who moved here in 1917.

But in 1910 an organization moved in that set a trend for the building throughout the century.

Oswald Garrison Villard’s grandfather was abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.  From him the publisher had inherited strong commitments to human and equal rights.    Following a race riot in 1908 and persistent lynching throughout the country, Villard and other white liberals including Mary White Ovington, William English Walling and Dr. Henry Moscotwitz organized a public meeting to discuss means to combat racial injustice.   The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was soon born.


The forward-thinking Oswald Garrison Villard
 Villard subsidized the group’s national headquarters in the Post Building.  From here its publication The Crisis magazine was published and distributed.

Later other groups sensitive to equality and social betterment would find offices here.  With Adolph Hitler gaining power in Germany, the Committee on Fair Play was organized in 1935.  The Times reported that “The formation of a nation-wide committee on fair play in sports to oppose the participation of American athletes in the Olympic Games in Berlin next Spring was announced from its headquarters.”

Three years later the American Guild for German Cultural Freedom headquarters was here and the American Council on Public Affairs published a fifty-page pamphlet “Five Years of Hitler.”  That same year the International Relief Association, also with offices in the building, published its “Youth Betrayed,” which, on the fifth anniversary of Hitler’s rise to power, described the young people in Germany under the Reich.

The Catholic Interracial Council headquarters was here in the 1940s; although The New York Post had moved on.  The Mutual Life Insurance Company owned the building until October 30, 1944 when it was sold to an investing firm.

New York artist Sharon Florin captured No. 20 Vesey on canvas -- photo courtesy of the artist.
The building continued through the rest of the 20th century to have a varied tenant list:  J. S. Frelinghuysen Corp., one of the oldest insurance brokerage firms in New York signed a lease on October 1949 after forty years at its former location.  In the 1960s it was home to the Practicing Law Institute and, among others, E. E. Pearce Company, a lumber firm.

Continuing the building’s history of involvement with social issues, No. 20 Vesey Street became the 9/11 Memorial Preview site as the permanent memorial to the victims of 9/11 was under construction.

Despite owner opposition, Robert D. Kohn’s magnificent and rare Art Nouveau building at No. 20 Vesey Street was designated a New York City landmark in 1965.

Many thanks to Sharon Florin for requesting this post.

2 comments:

  1. The buildings got some incredible history. Architectually it is one very interesting building.

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  2. Robert D. Kohn was a great uncle of mine. I was 9 when he died and I cannot remember having met him. I am proud to see this here. Thank you.

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