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Columbia University Digital Knowledge Ventures The Architecture and Development of New York City with Andrew S. Dolkart
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Sullivan in New York
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Sullivan in New York
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The New York-style skyscraper—with its Queen Anne or Romanesque or Greek or Renaissance ornament—contrasts dramatically with the skyscrapers that were being built in Chicago by architects like Louis Sullivan, who were determined to use a new style of ornament on the new building type and who also wanted to emphasize the vertical structure of the building. And you can make an interesting comparison between the New York style and the Chicago style here in New York, because one of Sullivan's most important buildings is on Bleecker Street in New York, the building known as the Bayard-Condict building, which was built from 1897 to 1899 and was an office and loft building. It is almost entirely clad in white terra-cotta; that is, it is a steel-frame building with very ornate clay detail on the façade.

Sullivan thought the building should reflect the structure, and you can actually read the very strong verticals where the steel-structural frame is located on the façade. There are the wide vertical members marked where the structure of the building is and the narrow, spindly little verticals do not go all the way down to the base. They stop above the second floor windows, so it is very evident that those are not structural. Only the wider verticals are structural. The building is white and very bright, so that the building would be very visible. It is actually slightly askew of the New York City grid, so there is a vista to this building.

You can see how ornate it was, done entirely in terra-cotta but very expensive terra-cotta. The clay was both molded and hand carved to give it a very deep ornamental detail.

It is not traditional. You cannot look at this ornament and say, oh it is Romanesque, or Renaissance, or it is gothic, or classical. Sullivan invented a new ornamental aesthetic for his skyscrapers, a kind of organic design that was often based on natural forms, some that you would see with your eyes, some that were visible only with a microscope. The very dense intertwining forms characterized the type of ornament he used on his buildings in Chicago, Buffalo, St. Louis, and elsewhere in the Midwest, and they characterize his one New York building.

The second floor would also be ornate. It is a transitional story. Somebody walking by on the street could look into the windows on the second floor and might then go into a shop that was on that floor by just going into the lobby and walking up a flight of stairs. And Sullivan designed this very subtly so that your eye focuses on the second story windows. The plane of the windows is recessed and the soffit of the window frame, the underside of the top of the window frame, is very ornate so that it stops your eye as you are looking up, so you will actually focus on these windows. Then, above that, every single floor is exactly the same, just as Sullivan would have wanted. And it is very vertical in its emphasis so that your eye is going vertically up the building until you reach the cornice, which is very deep, and also has an ornamental soffit, of which the underside is very ornate. And here it is being supported by wonderful winged angels.

This idea of designing buildings using a new style of ornament was very different from what was usually done in New York. It is not any better or any worse, it is just a different aesthetic idea of what a skyscraper should be. Now, of course, Sullivan's work is in a category by itself and it is spectacularly beautiful, but the idea of using a new type of ornament was just a different idea of how you could design a skyscraper.


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