Often times the story of the New York Art Deco skyscraper ends with the Empire State Building. It was the tallest of its era, and it ranks well among a lavish group. Though it set records for construction speed, it nonetheless languished without tenants for years after its opening. “The Empty State Building,” some called it, emphasizing the Depression economics that followed the jazz age extravagance and optimism.
What if the Irwin Trust at 1 Wall Street were considered the end of the era instead? In a way, it makes a better bookend, and Ralph Walker, its chief designer, a better protagonist for the era.
Walker had arguably begun the era of Art Deco (an anachronistic term, applied post facto) skyscrapers when he designed the Barclay Vesey Building for the New York Telephone Company. He began in 1921, and completed the building in 1926.
A newly gargantuan structure for one of the era’s most definitively modern and growing corporations, the phone company, Walker’s skyscraper was a harbinger. It derived much of its distinctive shape from the New York Zoning Ordinance of 1916, which said essentially that the higher tall buildings rose, the narrower they had to be. The building owed a bit of its distinctive setback shape to these rules and most of it to Walker’s artful sense of composition.
Likewise, Walker had a relatively novel and very timely approach to architectural ornament. Instead of the highly sculptural columns and cornices or finials and buttresses of traditional building (which numerous architects struggled to update), he liked to express ornament as shallow reliefs molded into cast stone. His images were not historic, but rather animal and vegetable. They became more geometric and abstract with advancing years.
The abandonment of historical forms was something that historians would later identify in Paris’s International Decorative Arts Exposition of 1925. In fact Walker began the Barclay Vesey designs before that fair took place. He was a singular talent whose design sensibilities did not reveal obvious sources.
The Barclay Vesey Building was a hit, so impressive and popular that architectural revolutionary Le Corbusier used it as the frontispiece of the 1927 American edition of his perennial classic Towards a New Architecture. Le Corbusier was actually coming out against the sort of architecture that Walker produced, advocating instead for box-like volumes and ornament-free surfaces. But the power and originality of Walker’s building could not be denied.
Should Barclay Vesey be the building of the day? Perhaps.
Except that Walker produced a series of similar structures, often for AT&T, in which he honed his capacity for heroic, sculptural setback massing. He refined his ability to make a brick curtain wall seem as though it were folded and crenelated with the elegance of a Japanese fan. Finally, with the help of decorators and crafts people, he developed programs of ornamental sculpture, mosaics, and furniture that epitomized the luxury of the era.
His last, best building of the skyscraper style was Irving Trust at 1 Wall Street, executed between 1928 and 1931. The building, which is currently the home of BNY Mellon, was always the home of an investment bank, though they occupied abut a third of it and leased the rent to high prestige professional firms.
Instead of brick, this structure is clad in limestone, which is detailed for an absolutely smooth surface. The enclosure on such steel frame structures is called curtain wall, because it does not support the building. In this case, the stone is articulated with a stunning vocabulary of pleats, flutes, and scallops that might be compared to an actual curtain. But this is no jokey reference. Walker’s walls perfectly synthesize the otherwise contradictory senses rock solid permanence and soaring, streamlined motion. The sculpted steps of the Barclay-Vesey Building from just a few years earlier seem clunky by comparison, as Irving Trust seems to telescope upward with a fluid mechanical ease. The assured consistency of its beautiful limestone sheathing makes the black, white, and metal histrionics of the Chrysler Building (my favorite yesterday and tomorrow), seem brash and uncontrolled by comparison. Chrysler is a better top. This is a better building.
The inside is full of lavish corporate offices and lobbies, among which the “Red Room” is the most remarkable. A collaboration among Walker, interior designer P.C. Smith and mosaicist Hildreth Meière, it is an expressionist explosion of tesserae in gold figures against a red background. The color of flames notwithstanding, it is a heavenly masterwork of saturated color and line.
The building opened in 1931 with the poor timing of befuddled plutocrats who couldn’t believe that their own extravagance was not relieving the economic disasters that they created. You could hardly blame social and economic egalitarians for hating overwrought banking buildings.
But you have to love the scrappy contractor’s son from Providence who invented America’s secular cathedral. And you can’t ignore that Frank Lloyd Wright, another architect whose work looked nothing like Walker’s, called him “the only other honest architect in America.”
The Europeans who grabbed the rudder of America’s architectural tastes in the next generation did everyone a disservice when they disdained Walker and his generation in favor of Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Mies van der Rohe as if the exuberant American and dour European approaches couldn’t coexist. (Hint: they did for a very short moment at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair).
Questionable financial institutions will come and go, but ideally, they will leave behind the Irving Trust Building and its ability to speak to talent and artistry in architecture more than any financial shenanigans.
Likewise, generations of ornament-free buildings killed the ability of American industry or craft to create work like Walker’s. Now though, digital fabrication techniques are making anything possible. The need to restore and maintain buildings of this kind will surely feed a resurgence in their popularity.