Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Art Deco 1929 State Bank & Trust Co. Building -- 8th Avenue at 43rd Street

Although tacky shop signs mar the street level, the Art Deco design remains intact -- photo by Alice Lum

New York, as well as the rest of the country, experienced radical changes after World War I.  Conventional ideas regarding social proprieties, art and music were shaken.  Shocked socialites gasped at the thought of flappers with bobbed hair exposing their knees and dancing the Charleston.   

As the Roaring ‘20s swept across the nation, architecture changed as well.  Fussy Edwardian ornamentation was stripped away, replaced by the clean, geometric and idealized lines of the new Art Deco movement.

The architectural team of Dennison & Hirons were high on the Art Deco bandwagon.  English-born Frederic Charles Hirons probably met his partner, Ethan Allen Dennison in Paris while the pair studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.  They opened their office together in 1910 in New York City with Hirons doing most of the designing and Dennison handling the business end.

In those early days they produced extravagant Beaux-Arts-style structures often ornamented with terra cotta embellishments.  By the 1920s the architects had turned to Art Deco, but continued to use the highly-versatile material for decoration.  

Architects customarily commissioned artists to execute the sculptural details of their designs and the practice continued with the new Art Deco structures.    Hirons’ favorite architectural sculptor was Rene Chambellan, a New Jersey-born artist whose details in bronze, stone and terra cotta graced important buildings throughout New York City and elsewhere.

Hirons told a journalist from Pencil Points, “The most satisfactory way is to select a painter or sculptor by quality of his work –and not by competitive bids.”

On February 19, 1928 the United Capitol National Bank and Trust Company announced plans for a new bank building on the northwest corner of 8th Avenue and 43rd Street on a plot 60 x 100 feet.   The bank commissioned Dennison & Hirons to produce their three-story building.

The bank was founded in 1890 at 347 Grand Street and in the course of its three decades had undergone several name changes.  By the time the new building opened on January 17, 1929 – just nine months before the onset of the Great Depression – its name was changed again, to the State Bank & Trust Company.

The building embodied everything that the Jazz Age stood for:  it was new.  A sturdy stone block with a wrapping cornice, it relied on light and shadow for visual interest.  Recessed windows were separated by two-story pilasters, allowing for dimension and depth.  Bronze Art Deco panels separated the tall banking floor from the third.  But most eye-catching were Chambellan’s sculptured capitals – Art Deco stylized foliate forms in colorful terra cotta.
Colorful terra cotta capitals crown the fluted stone pilasters, separated by bronze panels -- photo by Alice Lum

Throughout the next few decades, as had been its habit, the bank would change its name repeatedly; becoming Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company in 1961.  Around 1990 the bank abandoned its striking building, which would sit empty and neglected for eight years.
photo by Alice Lum

In the meantime, during the 1970s, Robyn Goodman and Carole Rothman founded the Second Stage Theater with the intention of producing, for the most part, American plays (which would account for the decidedly American spelling of Theater).  By the late 1990s the highly-successful group was ready to expand.

Esteemed Dutch architect and designer Rem Koolhaas was commissioned to transform the bank into an up-to-date theater.  He worked rich Richard Gluckman in the renovation and in 1999 it was ready for unveiling – a sleek 296-seat playhouse with little hint of its former use on the inside but virtually intact on the exterior.
photo by Alice Lum

The auditorium was placed on the second floor in what had been the main banking area.  New York Times architectural critic Herbert Muschamp may have wanted just a little more, calling it “an architectural hors d’oeuvre, really just a piece or two of sushi on a plate.

“But it’s fresh and tangy, a morsel of the sophisticated design many New Yorkers have been craving,” he added.  “To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, this latest addition to the Theater District is exquisite and leaves one unsatisfied.”

Koolhaas kept the original, tall banking floor windows.  The seats are constructed of material first designed to manufacture bicycle seats.

The AIA Guide to New York City was pleased, saying the “interior is appropriately spartan (no 1920s retro flamboyance here),” although it added, “but the bathrooms are orange.”

Muschamp summarized “Straightforwardness filtered through a wayward imagination: this is a Koolhaas design, all right.  A theater with windows?  No wall between lobby and auditorium?  These ideas may be odd to contemplate, but they fit.”

Most importantly, Second Stage Theater adds one more example to the list of successfully recycled vintage structures.  The exterior, with what the AIA Guide described as “multicolored column capitals in a rich abstraction of Art Deco variations on a Classical theme,” remains a familiar anchor at 8th Avenue and 43rd Street. 

Dennison & Hirons’ wonderful design – at once austere and jazzy – is preserved as a reminder of pre-Depression days when times were changing and everyone, it seemed, was growing rich.

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