A Personal Favorite

Around 1924, Underhill made this portrait of the American Radiator Building on West 40th Street. At 23 stories, high, it’s barely on the big side of the mid-rise/high-rise divide, but it’s one of my favorite skyscrapers. I’m not sure I can explain why, but I’ll try.

First some housekeeping notes. The picture, as published, is reversed. We’re looking just south of west from a vantage point on Fifth Avenue between 40th and 41st Streets. The low building on the left is the New York Public Library, and the mid-rise just east of American Radiator (to the right) with the pronounced square windows is now an apartment hose but was constructed as the Engineers’ Club, at a time when engineers did things like form clubs. Per the landmarks designation, “Prominent members have included Andrew Carnegie, Herbert C. Hoover, Thomas Edison, Charles Lindbergh, Cornelius Vanderbilt, H.H. Westinghouse, and Nikola Tesla.”

American Radiator later became the American Standard company, which still exists. The architects were Hood & Howells; given Raymond Hood’s later work, it is likely that he was the main designer here. H&H were coming off their career-making success in Chicago where they won a well-publicized competition for the Tribune Tower. This building, like pretty much all of Hood’s work after Tribune, is usually described as “Art Deco” but has been better described as Neo-ziggurat. It turns out that stretched-out stepped pyramids work pretty well as tall buildings.

The most striking architectural feature when you see the building in person, and one not entirely captured by the photo, is its color. The building is black with gold trim. If you want, there’s a explanation of the symbolism, based on American Radiator’s business (black is for coal and gold is for flame) but there’s a practical implication as well. The windows on a high-rise with masonry facades have a tendency, during the day, to look like black holes against the lighter-colored brick or stone. At this building, that doesn’t happen, giving it an almost solid appearance. Hood played up his practical approach whenever he spoke publicly about design – he described the cascading setbacks of the RCA Building as being based solely on the interior elevator core, while they are obviously intended for visual effect – so it is likely he was thinking about the window’s appearance more than symbolism. In many of his later buildings – Rockefeller Center and Daily News, for example – he used dark spandrel panels to create dark stripes at the windows.

You can talk all you want about the economics and technical engineering issues in high rises (and I have) but they are still seen as romantic pieces of architecture. For me, this little building is maybe the ideal of that romanic vision.

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