Friday, March 26, 2010

An Overlooked Modern Masterpiece on 34th Street

Seven years after the completion of The Empire State Building, its famous next-door neighbor to the north, the Spear & Company furniture store unveiled its $300,000 New York showroom.  Intimidated by the internationally famous landmark next door the new building took modern design a step further.

Unlike the Empire State Building which immediately became the icon for Art Deco, the Spear building eschewed ornamentation.  No Deco zig-zags and lightning bolts here.  The visual impact was left to the surfaces, shapes and lines.  The result is a masterwork of 1930's modern architecture.

The main structure, not square with the street line, sits back from 34th Street, a stark plane punctuated by a series of four rectangular and off-set windows over what was once the large show window at street level, still slightly visible.  To the north end a curved, slightly higher, section juts out to continue the flow of The Empire State Building.   A series of five brilliantly-designed rectangular windows break the curve like glass shoe boxes shoved into the smooth rounded surface.

Prior to the paint job we see today, the two sections contrasted slightly in color -- architects De Young & Moscowitz fashioned the curved section in limestone, the main section in beige brick.  Far ahead of its time, Spear's 1938 building was the last word in modern interior touches including indirect lighting and air conditioning -- innovations that would not become common for another two decades. 

Today the ground floor is a carnival of garish signs and awnings.  The interior has been divided into myriad retail spaces since 1959.  Virtually no one stops to marvel at the astounding architectural design of the Spear & Company building; yet amazingly the overall character of this 20th Century work of art remains intact.

uncredited photographs taken by the author

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