Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Paul Rudolph's Masterful No. 246 East 58th Street

photo courtesy PRF

The Upper East Side was slowly developing during the Civil War years.  East 58th Street, between Second and Third Avenues saw the construction of modest row houses clad in brick or brownstone that coexisted with earlier more rural-type houses.

During the war the Wallack family lived at No. 246 East 58th Street, described by The New York Times as “a three-story brick” house, 20 feet wide.  Young Joseph was attending New York City College in 1866.

The house, expectedly, would see the comings and goings of several owners.  In 1905 Simon A Nies transferred the title to Babbette Brody.  She paid $3,750 for the building.   Shortly thereafter the it would become home to the Cohn family for decades.  Michael and Amelia Cohn had four children in the house, Nathan, Rose, Bella and Isaac.  Members of the family would occupy the house until the late 1930s.  In 1941 it was divided into 15 furnished rented rooms.

By the late 1950s the building—still a single family house—sat empty and neglected.  In September 1960 The New York Times (which once deemed the building brick) reported the “vacant brownstone house” was sold for $65,000 in cash.  “The buyers plan to convert [it] to store and commercial space.”

The building would survive for nearly three more decades.  It was variously home to Ellsworth& Goldie Galleries, dealers in modern paintings, sculpture and prints; Fabrications, an interior decorating store; and Mira-X International Furnishings.

In the meantime, architect Paul Marvin Rudolph had established himself on the cutting edge of Modernist design.   In 1989 he and close friend Ernst Wagner purchased No. 246.  Rudolph envisioned a transformation that would result in rental apartments—unlike any seen in New York City.  In recent years Rudolph’s major commissions had been outside of the United States, primarily in Asia, due to consistent derision of his works by other American architects. The residential-retail structure at No. 246 East 58th Street would be his last New York work.
Paul Rudolph's original concept called for a taller structure.  Subsequent zoning changes resulted in the reduced size.  courtesy PRF
The old house was dismantled and a new steel structure began rising.  Brilliant in comprehending the play of light, shadow and shape, Rudolph reportedly worked on scores of studies for the façade of the little building.   Interior as well as exterior details were honed to the smallest detail; resulting in a 14-year construction process.  

Six years into the project, in December 1995 while in Mexico City, Rudolph first evidenced troubling symptoms. Within two months he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a cancer resultant from exposure to asbestos.    On August 8, 1997 Rudolph died before seeing the building completed.

Finally finished in 2003, the structure houses a two-story retail space below two duplex apartments.  Today the residential areas are home to Ernst Wagner.  The headquarters of the Paul Rudolph Foundation are housed in on a separate office level.
photo courtesy PRF

As dazzling as the façade is—an artwork of geometric boxes, shadows and angles—the interiors are fascinating.  Sean Khorsandi, Co-Director of the Foundation, eagerly showed off the space pointing out the genius in Rudolph’s design.    There are no dead ends—the eye follows lines that disappear around corners or into walls and floors.   The open staircases seamlessly evolve from the lines of bookcases in soaring spaces that are seemingly carved from light itself.
A ceiling beam disappears into a void rather than disrupt the visual motion of the space's lines --  photo courtesy PRF

Somewhat amazingly, the architectural gem—Paul Rudolph’s last Manhattan work—is little known by most New Yorkers.  Hidden on a side street far from Midtown the mostly overlooked building deserve a detour.