Published: August 22, 2000
The Architecture of Cass Gilbert at The New-York Historical Society
NEW YORK CITY – The New-York Historical Society will open “: The Architecture of Cass Gilbert” on September 12. The exhibit taps the rich architecture collection of the society to examine some of the most celebrated structures of this American architect (1859-1934), from conceptual sketches through completion, including the Woolworth Building, the US Custom House at Bowling Green and the US Army Supply Base in Brooklyn.
The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue, : The Architecture of Cass Gilbert (Columbia University Press), edited by exhibition curator Margaret Heilbrun, director of the society’s library. “,” which runs through January 21, is dedicated to author and pioneer preservationist Henry Hope Reed, who rescued the Gilbert archives from oblivion and secured their donation to the society in the 1950s.
Gilbert, a product of the Midwest, was born in Ohio in 1859 and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota. After training in the St. Paul office of architect Abraham M. Radcliffe, Gilbert enrolled in the architectural drafting program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1878. He left after a year and after working as a surveyor and traveling in Europe, he was employed in the New York office of McKim, Mead & White for $20 per week. On 1882, Gilbert returned to St. Paul. Initially, he was to open a western office for McKim, Mead & White, but that plan fell through, and he established his own practice.
In 1895, the Minnesota State Legislature held a competition for the design of a new statehouse. By this time, Gilbert was president of the Minnesota chapter of the American Institute of Architects. He submitted his entry and the Board of the State Capitol Commission awarded him the commission for the Minnesota State Capitol. The Minnesota State Capitol proved to be a pivotal project for Gilbert, as the commission established his national reputation. It also provided him with experience constructing a complex building and the opportunity to implement City Beautiful ideals, both recurring themes throughout his career.
U.S Custom House
In 1899, the US Treasury Department invited a group of architects to submit plans for a new US Custom House. Located at the foot of Broadway, south of Bowling Green and conveniently near the docks, the proposed seven-story granite building would supplant the old Custom House on Merchant’s Exchange, Wall Street, which had become too small for the rapidly growing international commerce of Manhattan. In the specifications for this architectural competition, the Treasury Department called for a structure that would not only emphasize the importance of New York City as the center of US foreign trade, but would also symbolize the emerging pre-eminence of the U.S. on the world stage. Although Cass Gilbert eventually came to believe the extravagant ornamentation he had insisted upon was excessive (noted architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable called his Custom House “that fruitcake of Maine granite”), it remains a fine example of the style of both the French L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the Italian Renaissance.
One key reason for Gilbert’s success in winning the Custom House competition was his insistence upon the consistent implementation of conservative design ideals. In order to achieve stylistic uniformity in his presentation, Gilbert hired employees trained by L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Although the Treasury Department specifications called for a ground floor entrance, Gilbert insisted on a second floor exterior entrance – a piano nobile – above an elevated basement. The extra height and exterior staircase would add grandeur to a site that was cramped and inappropriately situated for standard monumental treatment, such as a dome or a pediment.
Or serious concern to Gilbert and his team of designers was the integration of the ceremonial role of a public building with the practical requirements of record storage. Inspired by the successful Library of Congress design, the rotunda is modeled on the reading room of the library, with records, or “stacks” surrounding it. The offices were located around the periphery, forming an outer circle. Gilbert wrote, “I want the thing BIG and GRANDIOSE.” In addition to specifying the existence and location of proposed sculptures, Gilbert gave the building a mansard roof and elaborately ornamented second floor windows, the placement of which defined the public space of the Custom House.
The Woolworth Building
IN 1910, F.W. Woolworth, merchant tycoon of five-and-ten-cent stores, approached Gilbert to work on an office venture. The Woolworth Company would be the lynchpin of a luxury office building, one which eventually rose 55 storied above City Hall Park, an outstanding monument to the ambition of Cass Gilbert, the ego of F.W. Woolworth, and the power of commerce. The tallest building in the world from 1913 until 1930, the “Cathedral of Commerce” generated an enormous amount of press and prestige for its architect. The commission for the Woolworth Building is seen by many as the pinnacle of Gilbert’s career, an opinion which frustrated the architect, as expressed in this letter to a fellow architect written in 1920: ” I sometimes wish I had never built the Woolworth Building because I fear it may be regarded as my only work and…whatever it may be in dimension and in certain lines it is after all only a skyscraper.”
The commission for the Woolworth Building enabled Gilbert to pursue his dream to create a truly skyline-altering structure. By combining the ornamental vocabulary of medieval towers, churches, and town halls, with modern aesthetic of unadorned vertical elevations, Gilbert achieved a complementary relationship between structure and cladding previously unknown in a skyscraper. Not only was the Woolworth building a testimony to the mercantile value of the Woolworth Company, but also its extraordinary graceful height became an emblem of the burgeoning metropolis of New York.
In Woolworth, Gilbert had a client whose ambition to create a symbol for his commercial empire was matched by vast financial resources. The construction of the Woolworth Building, originally estimated at $5 million, eventually cost more than $13 million, the bulk of which Woolworth paid in cash. This vase discrepancy was due to Woolworth’s evolving aspirations for the building. Originally conceived as a corporate office building with ample room to rent for profit, Woolworth’s desire to alter the skyline eventually led Gilbert, who dreamed of building a tower 150 stories high, to ask just how tall Woolworth was willing to go. Woolworth’s answer, inspired by the competitive heights to other office buildings, was “50-feet taller than the Metropolitan Tower,” the newly erected corporate symbol of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, which soared 700 feet above the streets of Manhattan.
The fusion of public and private space within the building was without precedent in the corporate culture of the day. The lobby was the first such grand public space within a private office building. Functioning as the main entrance to the building, the vestibule for the offices of Irving National Bank located on the ground floor, as well as a shopping arcade, the lobby was laid out like a cross, with barrel vaults and a domed mosaic ceiling. The grand marble staircase augmented the visitor’s sense of the splendor of the building. From F.W. Woolworth’s private swimming pool in the basement, to the tea room and observatory at the top of the tower, the Woolworth Building pioneered the concept that an office complex ought to provide luxury facilities for its tenants.
The US Army Supply Base in Brooklyn
With the onset of the United States war effort in April 1917, Gilbert’s patriotic zeal manifested itself when he volunteered his services – gratis – towards the construction of any war-related projects. Nine months passed before he had the opportunity to act on this offer. In conjunction with the Henry C. Turner Company, a contractor specializing in construction using a recently-patented method of pouring reinforced concrete, Gilbert submitted a plan for the construction of an army supply base and warehouse compound on the South Brooklyn waterfront. Constructed at a cost of $35 million, the pier was in use within six months; the entire complex was completed within one year.
The US Army Supply Base is the most utilitarian of Cass Gilbert’s structures. It exhibits neither the gothic extravagance of the Woolworth Building, nor the vaguely pretentious classicism of his state capitols and monumental buildings. Indeed, even those of Gilbert’s later contemporaries who held his work to be the embodiment of staid, reactionary, monumental architecture looked with favor upon the US Army Supply Base as a testament to a profoundly modern aesthetic.
Consisting of two warehouses, a system of piers, and direct rail lines to almost all major centers of manufacturing and commerce in the Northeast, the supply terminal was conceived as a state-of-the-art facility. The warehouses – eight stories, two-tiered steel structures of reinforced concrete with timber roofs and vertically moveable doors – were the largest concrete structures in the world in 1919. Although the decision to build with reinforced concrete was a practical one, Gilbert believed the stark, functional aspect of the warehouses to be aesthetically appropriate, as “ornament of any kind would seem flippant and trivial.” Located in the largest port in the United States, near a number of important rail lines and readily accessible by ferry and lighter, the primary purpose of the Brooklyn base was to provide for efficient transport of goods and men to aid the war effort in Europe. Gilbert’s design was inspired by the newly automated Ford Motor Company, where the assembly line was revolutionizing industrial production.
On Tuesday, October 10 at 6:30 pm, architect Hugh Hardy will lead a panel that explores the way that partnership between public land and private development can create enhanced public spaces in the city. Adrian Benepe, Manhattan Borough Parks Commissioner; Joel Kissen, president of the recently opened Guastovino development at Bridgemarket and others will join the discussion.
On Saturday, October 14 at 10 am, authors of the catalogue (printed by Columbia University Press) for the Historical Society exhibition about American architect Cass Gilbert will lead a discussion. Moderated by Peg Breen, president of the New York City Landmarks Conservancy, the discussion includes Mary Beth Betts, Gail Fenske, Margaret Heilbrun, Sharon Lee Irish.
The New-York Historical Society, Two West 77th Street at Central Park West, is open Tuesday to Sunday, 11 am to 5 pm. For information, call 212/873-3400.
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