Small Details When Far Away

The picture above, from Berenice Abbott’s “Changing New York” project, is titled “Squibb Building with Sherry Netherland in the background, 745 Fifth Avenue.” Squibb is the tall, blocky, white skyscraper in the center of the shot; the Sherry Netherland Hotel is the slender dark tower with a spire behind it. But neither is what grabs my attention when I look at this photo: I’m staring at the out-of-focus balustrade a few feet away.

The Sherry Netherland is on the east side of Fifth Avenue at 59th Street; the Squibb Building is on the east side of the avenue at 57th Street. There’s an interesting bas-relief on the building at the far right of the spot, which readily identifies that as the old Bonwit Teller store at the northeast corner of Fifth and 56th Street. So we appear to be at the southwest corner of 56th Street and Fifth. The building there was a nondescript (for Fifth Avenue) six-story commercial building, so it appears Abbott was on the roof. That balustrade would be a small detail when seen from the ground, 70 or 80 feet away, but it dominates her photo.

Look at the photo again. The building on the far left with the steeply-pitched roof was at 722 Fifth, and there’s an urn where the pitched roof meets the front facade – roughly in line form our angle with the Sherry Netherland’s spire. That urn looks small from where Abbott was standing and would look smaller from the street, but it was something like three and half feet tall. If you were next to it, it would be very large. The architectural detail has to be big enough to look the right size when seen from the street.

This phenomenon shows up most clearly with cornices. The overhang on the cornices of circa-1910 mid-rise buildings in Manhattan can be, by absolute standards, very big. Four and six-foot cantilevers for cornices are common, in order to make them appear the right size when seen from 12 or 14 stories away, down in the street. There’s a lot of structural steel supporting those big cornices because they would not be otherwise feasible.

So, yes, this is a picture of two pretty buildings not far away. But it’s also, whether by accident or design, showing how big the small details of big buildings are.

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