Adding Some Utilitas to the Venustas

The pictures above and below were taken on Astor Place. They are parts of the street facade of a loft building constructed for industry in the 1870s and long since converted to other uses.

The vast majority of nineteenth-century American “classical” architecture isn’t. That’s not a critique, just recognition of the fact that the classical orders were not originally meant for use in six-story buildings, or for iron construction, or for train stations, and so on. What we call classical architecture in the US is typically adaptations of the various classical styles, and that’s fine. Better than fine: it’s evidence that those styles have some life in them rather than being dead and mounted under glass in a museum. There are a number of home-grown styles that are classically-inspired but in the end have not much to do with the originals. This building is listed by the Landmarks Commission as “Neo-Grec” which is a good example of that.

Neo-Grec architecture in NYC has nothing to do with classical Greek architecture. It ignores the proportions that the Greeks worked so hard to perfect, it uses the arches that they avoided, and much of it is built in cast iron. The Commission described the style in one guide as “Characterized by extremely stylized, classical details, angular forms, and incised detailing formed by mechanical stone cutting.” That sounds a lot like what we see in these pictures.

I want to focus on one detail: which is the double top to the columns in the storefronts – both the big structural columns and the slender mullion-type columns. They have vertical shafts and then about nine or ten feet above the pavement there are things that look somewhat like column capitals…and then the shafts re-emerge from the top of those capitals and go up a couple of more feet to another capital, where they end.

The glass above the main storefront window is a transom and it was put there, in those days before electric lighting, to try to get as much daylight as possible deep into the first-floor space. Transoms built after 1900 often had prism glass to reflect the light more horizontally and so deeper. These transoms may well have been retrofitted with prism glass at some point.

If the column shaft continued straight up past the horizontal mullion that separates the main window from the transom, the connection of that mullion to the column would look odd. The lower column capital is a way to address this that adds its own oddness, but one more in line with the aesthetics of the era. I applaud the architects who decided that a little stylistic aberration was worth the real-life benefit of more light.

Re the title: firmitasutilitas, and venustas.

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