Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The 1926 Scientific American Bldg -- Nos. 24-26 W. 40th Street

photo by Alice Lum
In the 1840s when Rufus M. Porter was not painting portraits and murals or inventing he was writing.  Between 1825 and 1826 he published four editions of A Select Collection of Valuable and Curious Arts, and Interesting Experiments.  At the same time he painted murals in homes and inns throughout New England—by 1845 he would have decorated around 160 rooms.   In his spare time he worked on inventions.  Among his inventions were clocks, churns, an apparatus for measuring distances, a cheese press, a revolving rifle and a camera (he could make silhouette portraits within 15 minutes).

In 1841 he published the New York Mechanic which dealt with new inventions and served as a platform for publicizing his own creations like the rotary plow.  The periodical stopped printing in 1843, but two years later Porter established a new weekly called the Scientific American.  Like his former paper, it focused on new inventions and patents, provided illustrations and updated readers on “the most interesting news of passing events, general notices of progress of Mechanical and other Scientific Improvements; American and Foreign.”

Ten months after printing the first issue in 1845, Porter sold the weekly to Orson Desaix Munn and Alfred Ely Beach.   The partners formed Munn & Co., Inc., publishers, and established The Scientific American in the New York Sun Building at Fulton and Nassau Streets.  Their first issue from here was printed on July 23, 1846.

In 1859 the magazine relocated to larger space at No. 37 Park Row, in the midst of the publishing district.  It would be the first of several moves.  When that building was destroyed by fire in 1882, it moved to No. 261 Broadway and later slightly uptown to No. 361 Broadway.   When the soaring Woolworth Building was completed in 1915, Scientific American was one of its first tenants.

From the Woolworth Building the magazine reported on war technology in 1916 (copyright expired)

Nine years later Munn & Co. would be looking to relocate once again.

This time the successful magazine would build its own headquarters.  By now the block of 40th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, only two decades ago lined with comfortable brownstones of the 1880s, was filling with modern office buildings.   In 1924 Munn & Co. commissioned Ely Jacques Kahn, of Buchman & Kahn, to design its new home facing Bryant Park behind the New York Public Library.

Throughout his career Kahn would produce mainly office buildings and he intrepidly moved from Beaux Arts into the modern Art Deco, Modernist and Cubism influences.  But for the Scientific American Building at Nos. 24-26 West 40th Street, he drew upon the French Renaissance.  Working in brick and terra cotta, he emphasized the verticality of the 16-story skyscraper with three 11-story side-by-side arches, each divided into three smaller arches, with pencil-thin colunettes drawing the eye upward.  Atop was a pyramidal roof, interrupted on three sides by French dormers with spiky finials.

A large sign offering office space hangs on the building in 1926 -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
On July 5, 1926 the building was completed and the Scientific American moved into the top five floors.  The New York Times made note that “The building is the first owned by The Scientific American in its eighty years of existence.”

With its new headquarters, the magazine did some revamping of itself.  On July 6 The Times reported “Orson D. Munn, editor and publisher, told of his plans for changes and improvements, including a new cover design, enlarging the editorial staff, contracting for articles by distinguished scientists, adding eight pages of text to each issue and increasing the number of illustrations.”  Noted scientists like Albert Einstein and Jonas Salk would contribute to the magazine.

Without a telephone, calculator or typewriter in sight, Scientific American workers enjoy their new office space in 1926 -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Scientific American was known for its cutting edge reporting—two decades before the radio it published articles on Marconi’s experimentation and two years before the Wright Brothers Kitty Hawk flight it published photographs of their airplane.  Shortly after moving into the new building it reported on a practical exhibition of television.  The demonstration emanated a moving image and the voice of the Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, from Washington, D.C. to New York via telephone lines.

Kahn's clean design for the lower levels and retail space is little changed today -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Along with the publishing firm, the patent attorneys, Munn & Co., that handled “trade-marks, designs and foreign patents,” moved in.  Not surprisingly, considering the name, it advertised “associated since 1846 with the Scientific American.”

Taking two floors in 1927 was the organization with the cumbersome name of the Association for the Establishment and Maintenance for the People in the City of New York, of Museums of the Peaceful Arts. Founded on February 6, 1914, its stated object was “To further education in science and industry.”  Here the association’s 2,000-volume library was housed along with modern innovations like telephone equipment in its efforts “to bring together a permanent collection of the inventions which have helped to develop industry and commerce.”

The work of the association had been interrupted by World War I, but now was in back in operation.  The complimentary interests of the magazine and the Association made the location ideal.

/Despite his sleek, modern designs for other office buildings, Kahn turned to French Renaissance for the Scientific American commmission -- photo by Alice Lum

Until December 1928 the offices of The Miller Company were scattered throughout Manhattan—at No. 105 East 40th, No. 68 Park Place and No. 546 Broadway.  In December of that year the manufacturer of lighting fixtures leased two full floors in the Scientific American Building, consolidating its operations into a single location.  In doing so, it took the last available floor space in the building.  Both The New York Times and Buildings and Building Management commented that the 16-story building “is now 100 percent rented.”
The years following the Great Depression and leading up to the United States entering World War II were harsh on The Scientific American.   In November 1943 the building was sold to investors for $425,000.  Included in the sale was a long-term lease on the ground floor, mezzanine and basement to General Ribbon Mills.

Five years later Dennis Flanagan, Donald Miller and Gerald Piel purchased Scientific American from Munn & Company, founding Scientific American, Inc.

photo by Alice Lum

Little has changed in Ely Kahn’s stately structure designed for a scientific magazine.  Even the lower levels have been subjected to little modernization.  The Scientific American Building stands out in a row of exceptional structures erected along the block in the first half of the last century.

No comments:

Post a Comment