A Really Terrible Great Idea

I somehow managed to combine exploration of two entirely separate rabbit holes for today’s topic. The rendering above is the Heidelberg Building, better known today as the Crossroads Building, at the southern end of Times Square. It was built in 1910 and demolished in 1984, and never looked like that picture.

Crossroads occupied the end of a narrow block between Seventh Avenue and the diagonal of Broadway, facing the south side of 42nd Street. The north side of 42nd is the narrower triangular block occupied by the old (second, actually) New York Times Building. That location means that it is surprisingly hard to find a decent picture of Crossroads, since every photographer seems to have taken the same dramatic picture looking south at the Times Building, which then blocks the view of Crossroads. This issue of being hidden in plain site played a large role in the building’s history.

When the Times Building was completed in 1905, there was a small hotel on the Crossroads site. The hotel was covered in advertising signs, similar to those that Times Square is famous for, but painted rather than made of lights. Developers planned a thirty-story building at that site to take advantage of the boom in the area, but decided to save on up-front costs by building a smaller building that could be expanded later. This was a reasonably popular idea in early 1900s New York: for a small additional cost of providing a steel frame that was designed for more stories than would be built, it would be easy to add more floors later. I’ve seen several sets of original structural plans where the upper floors are drawn in dashed lines, indicating potential future growth. Crossroads, as built, was a seven-story office building with the elevator-and-stair core framing of a 17-story building. If that sounds strange, it looked it, too. Here’s an aerial view showing the gothic Times Building with Crossroads to its left:

The usable part of Crossroads is the white base, with the darker core extending up to where floors might, hopefully, someday be. Here’s a clearer view during construction:

The steel structure in the tower is quite heavy, suggesting that it was intended for the core to serve as the wind-bracing for the entire theoretical taller building. Since the upper floors were not coming any time soon, why was the core tower built? To serve as a platform for ads. The first ads were supposed to be for an electrical contractor, which may have been the inspiration for the top rendering. That deal never happened, the exterior of the tower was covered in plain terra cotta, and few if any ads ever were put up there. The location was bad – invisible from most of Times Square because of the much-larger Times Building blocking the way – and the backlash worse. The article that alerted me to to the weird early history of the building quotes a critique in the American Architect: “The futility of doing good architecture in a conspicuous public place when there is no legally constituted commission to safeguard such interests is well illustrated by the recent appearance of an advertising abomination which rears its abhorrent form in New York alongside the Times Building.”

The article I had found was in a magazine I’d never heard of, Building Progress. I was wondering how I could have entirely missed the existence of this magazine, and then I flipped to its masthead. It was published by the National Fireproofing Company – the makers of Natco tile-arch floors, among other things – and was a combination of real articles about construction and advertising for the company. In other words, it was a useful source of information at the time as long as you were interested in terra cotta. The article on the construction of the Heidelberg Building ends by deliberating avoiding a discussion of the issue that was so hot in American Architect, and then pointing out that the tower is a marvel of (terra cotta) fireproofing.

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