Saturday, October 20, 2012

Cass Gilbert's 1907 West Street Building -- No. 90 West St.

photo by Alice Lum
At the turn of the 20th century, Howard Carroll was a man of many talents and interests.  Having been a reporter for The New York Times, he dramatically changed career paths when he joined his father-in-law’s Starin Transportation Company.    By 1905 he had risen to vice-president of that firm and was president of the Sicilian Asphalt Paving Company and the Asphalt Company of Canada.

That year he conceived of a first-class high rise building near the banks of the Hudson River to serve the shipping and railway industries.   He formed a syndicate of businessmen called the West Street Improvement Company to execute the project.  Included in the group was contractor John Peirce who also controlled much of the Maine granite industry.  He not only supplied the granite for some of the most monumental buildings along the East Coast, but was responsible for their construction.

The new syndicate took offices in the new Broadway-Chambers Building, completed in 1900 and designed by Cass Gilbert who had come to New York specifically to for that project.   The upper floors of the office building burst forth in brilliant colored terra cotta ornamentation and its won five awards at the 1900 Paris Exposition.

Howard Carroll’s group turned to Gilbert to design its proposed structure.

On July 22, 1906 the New York Tribune announced that the syndicate would erect the new West Street Buildling on West Street from Albany Street to Cedar Street.  “It is to be twenty-three stories high and finished on the uppermost stories in beautiful colored terra cotta, harmonizing with the copper sheathed mansard roof.  Its unobstructed frontage on the river will make it one of the landmarks to those who use the North River ferries.”

The building shortly after completion -- King's Views of New York City (copyright expired)
Gilbert encased the entire building from sidewalk to the copper mansard in Gothic-inspired terra cotta—a foreshadowing of his magnificent Woolworth Building begun five years later.   The ornamentation rose to a crescendo at the upper floors where tracery, gargoyles and grotesques, and finials of molded terra cotta frosted the structure like a wedding cake.

The upper floors burst forth with an explosion of terra cotta ornamentation -- photo by Alice Lum
John Peirce served as contractor for the building which was designed to be completely fireproof.  Working with structural engineer Gunvald Aus, Gilbert used state-of-the-art construction methods specifically aimed at preventing the spread of fire.

The double-layer terra cotta of the façade was more than a foot thick.  Inside, the steel support columns were encased in 4-inch thick clay pottery tiles and the fire stairwells were walled in heavy tiles ranging from four to six inches thick.   Arched tiles, a foot thick, were installed within the floors to halt the spread of fire between floors.

photo by Alice Lum
On Valentine’s Day 1907 the building was nearly completed.  The West Street Improvement Company placed a glowing advertisement in The Sun announcing it would be ready for occupancy on April 1.  As expected, the Syndicate’s members relocated into the building.  Peirce moved his company in and Carroll reserved space for his Sicilian Asphalt Paving Company.   Two months before the doors opened the building was largely rented.

As envisioned, transportation firms made up the majority of tenants.  The Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad Company took three floors.   Others included the Standard Railway Equipment Company, the Railway Equipment, National Railway Materials Co., and Railway supplies.  Construction firms like Dodge & Bliss Lumber; Young & Co., engineers; Empire City Marble Company, Empire Crushed Stone Company; and contractors such as John B. McDonald; Sundstrom & Stratton Co., The T. A. Gillespie Co., and George B. Spearin all vied for space.

photo by Alice LUm
The Syndicate unashamedly called The West Street Building “Architecturally the most beautiful office structure in the world.  One of the sights of the Metropolis.”  Critics tended to agree.   Fellow architect John Carrere said “if my opinion counts for anything I think it is the most successful building of its class.”  The Architectural Record’s Claude Bragdon wrote “the building is the work of a master mind, the last word in New York skyscraper architecture.”

Decades before landfill would extend the shoreline, the new building sat close to the banks of the Hudson River.   The breathtaking vista of the harbor and city from the top floor inspired a relatively novel concept: a rooftop restaurant.
Garret’s Restaurant would deem itself the “world’s highest restaurant,” and the advertisement in The Sun in February 1907 noted “Grand restaurant on 24th floor, connecting in summer with beautiful roof garden.  Magnificent views of the city, bay, harbor and rivers.”
Highly polished red granite columns soar two stories, creating a pleasing contrast with the white terra cotta -- photo by Alice Lum
The owners marketed the modern conveniences.  “Nine standard plunger elevators.  No dust or noise of sweeping; vacuum cleaners throughout,” boasted the ads.

The West Street Building was an instant success.   Along with the contracting and transportation firms were tenants as diverse as the National Electric Lamp Co., Neptune Meter Company and John R. Waters, insurance.  The International Acheson Graphite Company would market its engine lubricants here.  “Plain oil and plain grease are the ‘yesterday’ in lubrication,” its ads read.  “Oilidag and Gredag are the ‘Today,’ as is the modern gas engine.”

Before the World Trade Centers would dwarf No. 90 West Street, it dominated the neighborhood -- NYPL Collection
The real estate market took notice when The West Street Building which had been constructed at a cost of around $2 million, sold in December 1913 for $4.5 million.   At the time of the sale to the American Sugar Refining Company, the building was assessed at $2.3 million. 

Ten years later it was sold to Brady Security and Realty Corp. which renamed it the Brady Building.  It continued to be filled with tenants involved in the transportation industry, and others like the Western Electric a variety of tenants, including the offices of Western Electric Company.

photo by Alice Lum
By 1933 the owners decided that the 26-year old building was in need of updating.   The mechanical systems were upgraded, office space renovated and the elevators replaced.  They now turned to the lobby.

Cass Gilbert had carried his Gothic theme inside with groin-vaulted ceilings and terra cotta decoration.   Surprisingly, the owners who felt that the lobby was outdated, turned to its designer to bring it up to date.  The 74-year old Gilbert was commissioned to modernize his own first floor interiors.

As the century progressed, things changed around the No. 90 West Street.  Landfill that extended the shoreline placed the building blocks from the river.  Across the street, in 1973, the World Trade Center complex was completed, dwarfing the building that once dominated the skyline.   Like Garret’s Restaurant decades earlier, Windows on the World in the north tower now claimed bragging rights as the highest restaurant in the world.

Then on the morning of September 11, 2001 terrorists flew airliners into the twin towers. 

Pieces of the airplanes and fiery chunks of the buildings rained down onto No. 90 West Street, piercing the roof.    Burning debris started fires inside.  As the south tower of the World Trade Center collapsed, giant columns ripped through the façade.  Later structural engineer Derek Trelstad would compare it to “as if a giant claw had run down the front of the building.”

At least one employee in the building, a female executive assistant, died while trapped in an elevator as the building burned.    While attention was understandably focused on digging through the pile that had been the World Trade Towers, No. 90 West Street burned for nearly two days.

When the flames finally died, much of the interior of the building had been gutted.  Yet to the amazement of modern architects and engineers, Cass Gilbert’s 1907 fireproof structure survived intact.  The tiled stairwells were untouched by the flames and the ingenious arched tiles between the floors had worked as intended.

Almost immediately the building’s owners talked of restoration.  By 2005 a $148 million project was nearing completion.   The damaged façade was given nearly 7,000 pieces of recreated terra cotta fabricated by the Boston Valley Terra Cotta company of Orchard Park, New York.  Among those were over 100 replacement gargoyles and grotesques—seven of which wore the faces of the building’s current owners and contractors involved in the project.
Some of the damage from 9/11 was purposely left unrestored as a reminder -- photo by Alice Lum
A new copper-sheathed mansard gleamed in the sunlight while the original metal balustrade which had melted and contorted in the fire was recreated in fiberglass.   When completed the former office building housed 410 residential units.

From the smoldering ashes of tragedy born of a despicable act of terrorism, the No. 90 West Street reemerged.  Cass Gilbert’s West Street Building, specifically designed to survive fire, more than passed the test.

photo by Alice Lum

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