New Kid on the Block
Though nineteenth and early twentieth century townhouses and tenements seem to dominate the East and West Villages, the neighborhoods do house their share of Modern architecture. Mid-century creations like Silver Towers, the O’Toole Building, and the Burger-Klein building, among others, brashly distinguish themselves from the surrounding neighborhood via their materials, scale, and unique design. Some of these twentieth century creations, however, retain their distinctly Modern character but somehow seem to blend in with their historic surroundings.
Once such building is the residential co-op Butterfield House, designed in 1959 by William Conklin and James Rossant of Mayer, Whittlesey & Glass, and completed in 1961. Butterfield House actually consists of two buildings on two adjacent lots that cut through the block — one fronting West 12th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues and one directly to the north facing West 13th Street (see plan to the left). The buildings frame an interior garden/plaza space and are connected by a glassed arcade.
Though modernist in their design predilections (Rossant and later Conklin would play major roles of in the design of the new town of Reston in Virginia, among many other projects), William Conklin notes that he looked for inspiration in the surrounding neighborhood and found it in a building slated to be demolished near Sixth Avenue and West 12th Street.
The five story building that served as inspiration was clad in almost undulating glass panes and black cast iron, but more importantly according to Conklin, it maintained a human scale. With this sense of approachable scale, the architects found a way to respond to the low-rise historic buildings around the Butterfield site, and distinguish it from the many other residential glazed-brick behemoths popping up in the neighborhood. Conklin and Rossant clad the building in muted brown brick and glass and built up only seven stories along 12th Street, where the site shares the block with low-scale historic townhouses, and up to 12-stories along West 13th Street, where the surrounding larger commercial buildings share similar profiles.
New residents, who paid $18,000 to $60,000 for one, two, or three bedroom suites could choose from many floor-through apartments meant to evoke the townhouse living available in the surrounding neighborhood, and could also enjoy amenities like the courtyard garden and air conditioned kitchens featuring au courant Formica countertops and Tappan appliances (and fill their space with then-new Eames lounge chairs, which figure prominently in the original 1962 marketing brochures above).
And as you can see form the 1963 advertisement featured at the right, the owners recognized that they had created a distinctly new building that uniquely responded to its historic surroundings—though we can’t agree that it makes losing Penn Station any easier.
When the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (which was created in 1965 in part because of the tragic loss of Penn Station) designated the Greenwich Village Historic District in 1969, Butterfield House was included, but only its southern portion that runs along West 12th Street. The Greenwich Village Historic District designation report for the building notes that, “This later apartment house, displaying both bay windows and balconies, harmonizes in scale and general design remarkably well with the older buildings on the street. Contemporary architecture in such cases as this apartment house, where scale and form harmonize with their surroundings, need not necessarily introduce a note of discord into the street scene.”
It’s clear that when this building was completed in the early 1960s it was a thoroughly modern addition to the neighborhood, but somehow it managed to fit in soon-to-be-landmarked Greenwich Village. Creating new buildings in historic neighborhoods or officially landmarked historic districts is always a delicate balancing act for those architects looking to positively respond to the historic character and scale already present. When they don’t, we can get things like this or this.
As Butterfield House shows, that positive response need not come in the form of a faux-historical tribute, but through a well-planned design. Just last year GVSHP held a series of ‘Architect Talks’ (see more info about these here) with architects that had just completed new buildings or additions to buildings in our historic neighborhoods. They explored the issues with which they had to grapple and how they responded in an innovative way.
We’d also like to know what you think of some of the new architectural additions to our neighborhoods — not the ones that make your stomach turn, but ones that you think do a good job of being new but neighborly. Join the discussion over at our Public Square post!