Mechanical Reproduction

I’ve stolen the title of this post from a deservedly famous sociological discussion of the meaning of art, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. This wasn’t just to keep from having to think up my own title, but because Walter Benjamin’s argument directly touches on the topic at hand, which is that heavily ornamented facade in the photo above.

That building – 1 Astor Place (or 746-750 Broadway in the LPC Designation Report) – was completed in 1883 and has a facade consisting of brick (obviously), cast iron, brownstone, and terra cotta. The dark-gray first-floor storefronts are cast iron, and the brown ornament embedded in the brick is a combination fo brownstone and terra cotta. It should be quite easy to distinguish the stone from the baked clay, as brownstone is very soft and after more than 135 years would no longer have any sharp carved edges, but (a) the terra cotta is unglazed and so looks more like stone than the material usually does and (b) the facade was restored not that long ago, so some of the stone may be new. If I had to guess, I’d say that the blocks at the base of the brick piers (with the protruding circular ornament) are brownstone and the keystones-with-faces are terra cotta, but that could easily be wrong.

In 1883, the production of cast iron, terra cotta, and brick were industrial processes, but ones that required a fair amount of skilled labor because they were not automated. The production of carved brownstone trim was the work of skilled stone carvers. Economies of scale – specifically industrial-scale replication of building elements – were the main reason that mechanically-reproduced ornament gradually replaced hand-crafted ornament. This process had started with the introduction of cast iron in the 1840s and continued well into the twentieth century.

The interesting question is whether the origin of the ornament matters. This was a commercial building, not a palace or a church, and the owner’s goal was to have something that fit the expected appearance of the era and could be built quickly and inexpensively. The use of manufactured trim materials allowed for some very complex ornament that would not be present otherwise. Maybe passers-by in the 1880s cared that it wasn’t handmade and maybe they didn’t – I have no way to know. I know that today, the building is preserved as an artifact of its era, including both its appearance and its materials.

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