Ithiel Town: It’s All Greek (and Gothic) to Him
Ithiel Town, born on October 3, 1784, transformed American architecture, as well as the landscape of our neighborhoods. A significant figure in beginning the Greek and Gothic Revivals in this country, he was among the first professional architects here and started the first architectural firm, later joined by Alexander Jackson Davis, another seminal figure in 19th-century American architecture. His work was executed around the country at a time when the young nation was growing exponentially and establishing its own identity in a number of ways including, its architecture. Many of his great works, here and nationally, survive to this day, while others, in spite of their significance, have succumbed to the wrecking ball.
Town was born in Connecticut and studied with Boston architect Asher Benjamin, who published several builders’ guides. In 1820 Town patented his lattice truss system for bridge construction, which would earn him national fame and a considerable fortune. This fortune lent well to his passion for collecting architectural and art books and engravings which he amassed largely over the course of his travels in Europe. One source said this library included some 11,000 volumes as well as thousands of loose engravings.
Town established a practice in New York in 1826 and took Martin Thompson as his partner; later, in 1829, he partnered with Alexander Jackson Davis. Town was one of the founders of the National Academy of Design and encouraged the study of art and architecture through European traditions found in his library, which was virtually open to the public at the firm’s New York office. The firm would be responsible for many buildings around the country employing the Greek and Gothic Revival styles. Here are a few those that were built in and around our neighborhoods:
Tower and Steeple at St. Mark’s-in-the-Bowery 131 East 10th Street – St. Mark’s-in-the-Bowery was constructed 1795-99 and designed by John McComb. In 1807 the tower designed by Town was added, consisting of four massive elegant pedestals with minimal Greek detail. The top pedestal has a clock face on each facet. In 1828 the crowning jewel was added in the form of a pyramid spire, designed by Town and Martin Thompson which terminates in a ball and cross finial.
Church of the Ascension (demolished in 1839 following a fire) Canal Street near Broadway – Built between 1828 and 1829, this Greek Revival style temple front church was designed by Town and Martin. Six Doric columns spanned the front facade supporting an entablature adorned with triglyphs and supporting a classical pediment. It was referred to by another renowned 19th-century architect, Minard Lefever as the finest piece of Greek work in New York and Lefever included it in his 1830 Young Builder’s Builder’s General Instructor.
University Building (demolished 1894) formerly at the northeast corner of Washington Square – This building was erected 1833-36 and designed by James Dakin with assistance from Ithiel Town and Alexander Jackson Davis for the University of the City of New York, now New York University. It was built of white marble in the English Collegiate Gothic style and featured a large central temple. It has been credited with being the first Greenwich Village artists’ enclave since from the beginning the upper stories were set aside as artist’s studios.
Colonnade Row aka La Grange Terrace, 418-434 Lafayette Street (then Lafayette Place) — These houses are now four remaining of an original group of nine which are unified in appearance by a striking two-story Corinthian colonnade. Talbot Hamlin, the architectural historian, described the buildings as “New York’s most extravagant as well as most original attempt to build dignified, gracious and elegant houses for wealthy tenants, and it achieved instantaneous fame. This idea of unifying many townhouses behind one great facade was a bold architectural concept, and planning of this type might well have set a precedent for the beautification of our City had it been more widely followed.” The buildings are rich in historical associations; the wife of President Tyler lived there before their marriage; President Franklin Roosevelt’s grandfather was another resident; John Jacob Astor, Jr. and Edwin D. Morgan,
a Governor of New York, also lived there. Five of the nine houses were demolished in 1902. The design is often attributed to Town, Davis, and Dakin, though some attribute it solely to Davis.
Carmine Street Church, Carmine Street and 6th Avenue — This church was designed in 1832 by Town & Davis in the Greek Revival style, of brick plastered to resemble white stone. When dedicated on May 27, 1832 with Rev. David R. Downer as pastor, it had only 32 members. By the time Downer died (of tuberculosis, age 33) in 1841, the membership was several hundred. The church was known for regular “Boys’ Meetings” or religious services held for the city’s thousands of indigent or homeless boys. The program’s success inspired nine other New York City groups to establish similar programs. In 1853, leaders of these programs founded the Children’s Aid Society, with Charles Loring Brace, of the Carmine Street Church, as secretary. The building was demolished over a hundred years ago.
US Customs House (Federal Hall) 28 Wall Street – Designed in 1834 and completed in 1842, this structure is one of the finest existing examples of Greek Revival architecture in New York City. Two temple front facades are at either end of the building with eight Doric columns supporting a classical entablature and pediment and modeled after the Parthenon in Greece. At the center of the interior is a rotunda supported by Corinthian columns and modeled after the Pantheon in Rome. This building served as the city’s first customs house at a time when New York and the nation’s economic activity were expanding rapidly. From 1862 to 1920 it served as the New York office of the United States Sub-Treasury, and in 1939 it became a National Historic Site. It was one of the first buildings designated a New York City Landmark in 1965. While not located in our neighborhood, it has a special connection. It was erected to commemorate the swearing in of George Washington as our first President on this site. The centennial of that event was marked by the construction of Washington Square Arch.
Town eventually moved all of his libraries to his home in New Haven Connecticut where he died in 1844, and much of his collection was donated to Yale University.