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Columbia University Digital Knowledge Ventures The Architecture and Development of New York City with Andrew S. Dolkart
image The Birth of the Skyscraper The First U.S. Zoning Law
The Barclay-Vesey Building
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The First U.S. Zoning Law
The Barclay-Vesey Building
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The first office building to be really influenced by Saarinen's design was begun in 1923, the year after the competition, and it is called the Barclay-Vesey Building because it is on Barclay and Vesey Streets. It was the headquarters for the New York Telephone Company. It is an entire square block in a section of the city that was not part of the grid of streets. So it is not a rectangular block, it is on an oddly shaped trapezoidal block. It was designed by the architectural firm of McKenzie, Voorhees & Gmelin. This firm had been designing telephone company buildings since the nineteenth century and although the firm had different names, it was actually the same firm. So when this commission came to the firm, it was no big deal. They gave it to an associate named Ralph Walker, a very talented young associate, to design this building. Walker was very influenced by Saarinen's design and was interested in how to turn the zoning law to his advantage, and how to design buildings with dramatic setback massings that would make the buildings an important and dynamic part of the skyline of New York.

And so Ralph Walker designs one of the great buildings of the 1920s. It has a solid horizontal base and then it has the soaring verticals with window bays between vertical piers just as on Saarinen's design. It has very dramatic setbacks marked by buttresses and sculpture until you reach the top with its limestone detailing and its sculptural work. This building was widely published and it captured the imagination of New Yorkers. It was also very influential in getting other designers to use these kinds of forms on the city's architecture. It was so successful that Ralph Walker became a partner in the firm, which became known as Voorhees, Gmelin & Walker. And Walker designed several other very important skyscrapers in the 1920s.

The top of the building, as you can see, is very dramatic. You were supposed to be able to enjoy this building and experience its drama from both close up and from far away. This building, which, when it was completed in 1926, was right on the waterfront, now cannot be seen from the water because of Battery Park City. It was in an area of relatively low-rise commercial buildings, so this building towered over all the nearby buildings in order to be visible both from the water and from the land. Its top would capture your attention, and on the lower floors the ornament was very complex so you could also enjoy this building from close up. Walker, like Sullivan before him, wanted to use an ornamental vocabulary that was not historically based, and he actually invented his own style of ornament, which has this very complex foliate design in which are interspersed little babies and animal heads. And even in the center, above the door, there is a bell, the symbol of the telephone company.


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