A Proud and Soaring Thing
With all the brash starchitect-designed buildings that have sprouted up in NoHo and the East Village over the past decade or so — 40 Bond Street, the ‘Sculpture for Living‘ at Astor Place, and 41 Cooper Square come to mind — we thought we’d take a historical look at the work of one of America’s original ‘starchitects.’ Chicago-based Louis Sullivan is generally regarded as father of the American skyscraper, but he designed only one building in skyscraper-friendly New York, and it’s tucked away on Bleecker Street in NoHo.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the neighborhood around Broadway and Lafayette Street near Houston Street was already filled with many six to twelve-story loft and office buildings. In 1897, the United Loan and Investment Company bought the property at 65-69 Bleecker Street (at Crosby Street) from the Bank for Savings and sought to raze the bank building on the site and construct a twelve-story commercial building. Along with New York-based Lyndon P. Smith as the associate architect, United Loan hired Louis Sullivan, who had recently completed the Guaranty Building in Buffalo.
Louis Sullivan was one of the primary leaders of the new “Chicago School” of commercial architecture that developed at the turn of the century. The movement, whose proponents were largely based in Chicago, experimented with the new building technologies of the time–cast and wrought iron and later, steel–to create a new form for office and commercial architecture that did not rely on classical styles of the past and maximized open floor-space. Sullivan is renowned for his Chicago buildings like the The Carson, Pirie, Scott building, the Auditorium Building, the Chicago Stock Exchange (demolished 1971), and the Wainwright Building in St. Louis among others.
Sullivan wrote about the nature of the new thought in design in an 1896 essay, The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered. In it he asserts, “…what is the chief characteristic of the tall office building? And at once we answer, it is lofty. This loftiness is to the artist nature its thrilling aspect. It is the very open organ tone in its appeal. It must be in turn the dominant chard in his expression of it, the true excitant of his imagination. It must be tall, every inch of it tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it, the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line–that it is the new, the unexpected, the eloquent peroration of most bald, most sinister, most forbidding conditions.”
With the Bayard-Condict building (it was originally named the Bayard Building, but due to ownership changes the name changed), Sullivan put these thoughts about building tall into practice. Unlike the stolid Romanesque revival Archives building on Christopher Street or DeVinne Press Building on Lafayette Street or the gothic Schermerhorn Building also on Lafayette, the Bayard-Condict design features sinewy vertical columns that soar upward. The narrower of the vertical columns within the window bays do not even stretch all the way to the ground and instead stop at the second floor, reinforcing the light, decorative character of the building’s skin.
Clad in light terracotta, the building is covered with intricate designs of no particular historic period, many of which are found at the first and second stories, which house retail spaces. Architectural historian Andrew Dolkart notes about the facade design, “It is not traditional. You cannot look at this ornament and say, oh it is Romanesque, or Renaissance, or it is gothic, or classical. Sullivan invented a new ornamental aesthetic for his skyscrapers, a kind of organic design that was often based on natural forms, some that you would see with your eyes, some that were visible only with a microscope.”
Many of these oranaments on the first and second stories were stripped away by the late 1960s in a effort to modernize the storefronts. It was not until 2002 that the building’s owner embarked on a remarkable restoration program. In addition to restoring the original designs for the retail spaces, the entire terracotta building facade was painstakingly restored by removing, repairing and reinstalling 1,300 of the 7,000 pieces of terracotta (instead of the usual method of replacing worn panels with copies). Only 30 pieces were replaced. In the cornice, the 15 foot tall angels and delicate foliate swirls across the façade were restored to their original splendor. In 2003 GVSHP recognized the amazing job with a Village Award for the restoration.
The building was designated a New York City landmark on November 25, 1975.