A Stroll Down West 14th Street: Commerce and Industry
West 14th Street has a multilayered history, preserved in its architecture, which reflects the development of the surrounding area as well as New York City itself. West 14th Street is also a border street, separating Greenwich Village to the south from Chelsea to the north. Save Chelsea’s President Laurence Frommer and I teamed up for a walking tour of this thoroughfare earlier this month entitled Planning and Preservation on West 14th Street, one of the MAS Janes Walk tours. Our tour only spanned from Sixth Avenue to Ninth Avenue, but nonetheless featured a variety of different building types, styles and periods. In this series, A Stroll Down West 14th Street, we will look at the three types of buildings we saw: residential, commercial/manufacturing, and religious. Today, we’re showcasing the commercial and industrial buildings.
As the well-to-do residents who originally lived on West 14th Street in the mid-19th century moved out of their row houses to new locations north, houses were transformed into boarding houses or became home to commercial enterprises, typically with stores on the first and/or second floor. This arrangement is one that continues to this day, and there are numerous examples retaining their 19th-century architectural fabric. One excellent example is 242 West 14th Street. The original building, a brick Italianate rowhouse built in 1853, was altered in 1897 to accommodate its new commercial usage with a store on the ground floor and offices at the stories above. For this purpose, architect Franklin Bayliss added the imposing cast-iron storefront to its basement, first and second floors, as well as new show windows and a stoop. This cast iron storefront exemplifies 14th Street’s character at the time — no longer the site of single-family residences, but rather a bustling, commercial hub.
By 1881 the Sixth Avenue Elevated Railroad had a stop at West 14th Street which further increased the thoroughfare’s commercial traffic. The elevated train was a very popular means of transportation. Its height above the ground (approximately fifteen feet) allowed for uninterrupted pedestrian traffic on the streets and sidewalks, but caused pollution and drastically affected the way buildings were viewed. One building on our tour was designed in response to the Sixth Avenue El. 527 Sixth Avenue, at the southwest corner of West 14th Street, is a purpose-built commercial building commissioned by Albert Wyckoff and built in 1896. It was designed by Theo Thompson in the Romanesque Revival style. Responding to the massive amounts of noise and vibration created by the El, this building, meant for stores and offices, rests on a heavily reinforced foundation. Architect Theo Thomson designed the building’s two street facades to be viewed both from the ground and from the elevated train. From the ground level, pedestrians would see the main entry surrounded by Corinthian columns, and the heavily ornamented doors and windows capped by the first-level stringcourse. From the Elevated tracks, viewers could look up and see the corner tower with its turret, rising above the second level stringcourse and solidly articulated in buff-colored brick and heavily rusticated details.
Bank buildings have a large presence on West 14th Street and reflect the heavy presence of industry and commerce on this major crosstown artery by the late 19th and into the 20th centuries. Three monumental bank buildings dominate the intersection of West 14th Street and Eighth Avenue and illustrate the evolution of bank architecture at the beginning of the 20th century. The New York Savings Bank at 81 Eighth Avenue was built in two sections in 1896-97, was designed by R.H. Robertson employing Academic Classicism popularized by the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1893). The Neo-Classical two-story classical temple front design is meant to convey wealth and security and was almost universal in savings bank design at this time.
The New York Savings Bank was formed in 1854 and moved to 81 Eighth Avenue in 1857. It prospered at this location, particularly after the Civil War, as 14th Street became a significant commercial thoroughfare. It demolished its first building in 1896-97 to make way for a new and more conspicuous headquarters on the same location. This building is a New York City landmark, a New York City interior landmark, and is listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places.
Located just across West 14th Street is the Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company Building at 77-79 Eighth Avenue, built in 1907 also in the Neo-Classical style. TheManufacturers Hanover Trust Company Building is even more opulent in its expression and monumentality, thus slightly upstaging its competitor and neighbor to the north across the street. Constructed for the New York National Bank (founded in 1855), it was designed by De Lemos & Cordes, and its well-proportioned composition incorporates Beaux-Arts ornamental motifs, classical symbols, and naturalistic elements. It is a designated New York City landmark.
Towering over both of these buildings and on the northeast corner of Eighth Avenue and 14th Street is the Bankers’ Trust Company Building at 259-265 West 14th Street. Completed in 1929, it’s 20 stories high and a great illustrative example of the “setback” mode of building construction that dominated New York’s skyline after passage of the 1916 zoning law, which restricted a building’s height and bulk based on street width and lot size. Relying on the monumentality of the new skyscraper form, this building showcases the change in the banking industry between the two world wars. Designed by William Whitehill, it was commissioned by Vincent Astor for his investment banking firm, and served the meat and poultry dealers in the nearby Meatmarket District.
Towards the turn of the 20th century, as Union Square and 14th Street changed from a privileged residential enclave to a commercial center, loft buildings appeared along the inland portions of 14th street and supplied many of the goods sold in the area’s burgeoning department stores. 314 West 14th Street is one of the earliest examples of the wave of manufacturing loft development that transformed 14th Street. Built in 1907 by retail druggists Daggett and Ramsdell, the three-story loft building is one of the few remaining single-bay loft buildings constructed on a twenty five-foot-wide lot on 14th Street. The narrow width of these structures allowed a completely uninterrupted floor plan since the floor joists could span the entire distance without the need for additional support columns. This also meant that the front of the building could be opened almost entirely to windows, providing much-needed light and ventilation.
Arguably the most spectacular industrial loft building on the tour is at 154-160 West 14th Street. This steel-frame, 12-story loft building was constructed in 1912 by architect Herman Lee Meader for developer Leslie R. Palmer. The building’s terra cotta was manufactured by the New York Architectural Terra Cotta Co., the city’s only major producer of architectural terra cotta, of which Palmer was a long-time director, and the building is a virtual advertisement for the material’s exterior use and, specifically, for the products of the firm. Employing the latest technology in loft construction, the building was designed for maximum light to the loft spaces, as well as for automotive delivery. It housed a variety of manufacturing companies including manufacturers and distributors of paper, soap dispensers, and electrical equipment, and is one of the few buildings in New York which incorporates Secessionist, Art Nouveau, Arts & Crafts, and Mission Revival style motifs. The building is also a designated New York City landmark.
In our next post, we will explore the buildings on West 14th Street which served the institutions in the area. Stay tuned!