An Old Order

That may be the cutest Doric temple I’ve ever seen. Actually, it’s the 72nd Street Branch of the 19th Ward Bank, at 180 East 72nd Street, a bit west of Third Avenue, and it is still there although all but one of the neighboring rowhouses are gone.

I mentioned the orders yesterday as being the organizing principle of classical architecture – here’s the Doric order from Wikipedia and that is exactly how the front facade of this building was designed:

Note how small the building is: it’s a single lot in width and much shorter than the neighboring houses. But it’s big enough for a branch bank, even in those pre-computer days when records were stored on paper. The classical facade is, however, literally just a facade. Daytonian In Manhattan has a modern picture of it that makes it clear that the sides are just plain and ordinary brick walls, with nothing classical about them. In other words, this building is a three-sided brick box with a classical stone front on it. For the school of thought that Manhattan architecture is all stage sets, this is a good example.

The bank was built in 1906, long after the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago kicked off the classical-architecture revival in the US, but before that style had completely run out of steam. A lot of banks used some variation on the classical temple front to give an air of permanence and age to a business that might in reality be shaky and new. In other words, the facade is not necessarily a stage set but it is a symbol of solidity and gravitas. And making this argument is several steps on the slippery slope that leads to Post-Modern architecture.

This facade is classical revival, using the architectural style as a symbol for the business within; a post-modern facade would also use the classical elements as symbols but not necessarily assembled into a recognizable version of the Doric Order. A version of that distinction, believe it or not, shows up in preservation: additions and reconstructions are supposed to be architecturally related to the original building but different enough that they can be visually distinguished from the original. In other words, one way to add or rebuild a historic building is to keep the symbols of its style but not the reality of it. You heard it here first: preservation is a form of post-modernism.

Anyway, cute building.

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