Downtown Manhattan Art Deco

Back in June, the Art Deco Society of New York offered a walking tour of lower Manhattan, highlighting the great Art Deco buildings of the financial district. It was a chilly evening but it was worth a few shivers as it was a very interesting and informative tour. I want to highlight the two tallest buildings that we were taken to that night.

 

City Bank-Farmers Trust Building

City Bank-Farmers Trust Building 20 Exchange Place

City Bank-Farmers Trust Building
20 Exchange Place

Construction began on the new home of the recently merged National City Bank of New York and the Farmers’ Loan and Trust Company in 1930 and was completed in a remarkably fast 364 days.

 

City Bank-Farmers Trust Building under construction in 1930

City Bank-Farmers Trust Building under construction in 1930

The original 1929 design, by the architectural firm of Cross & Cross,  was for a 846 foot tower topped by a pyramid, which would have made it the tallest building in the world at the time. However, the onset of the depression the following year resulted in a scaled back design that eliminated the pyramidal roof reducing the height to 741 feet, which when completed made it the fourth tallest building in world. Cross & Cross described the style as “modern-classic”, but with no particular style, today of course it is considered Art Deco. One of the best decorative motifs of the building are stylized “Giants of Finance” that look down from the first setback. These “Giants” also conceal air vents.

The "Giants of Finance"

The “Giants of Finance”

Close up detail of the The "Giants of Finance"

Close up detail of the The “Giants of Finance”

 

Unfortunately while we were not allowed inside to see the lobby rotunda, we could see a bit of it through the slit between the front doors. Here is a picture of the rotunda.

 

The lobby rotunda of the City Bank-Farmers Trust Building.

The lobby rotunda of the City Bank-Farmers Trust Building.

The building remained the company’s headquarters until 1956 and was eventually sold by them in 1979. Today it is being converted from commercial to residential use as are many of the buildings in the financial district. The new owners are restoring the building and cleaning the exterior back to its original gleaming white stonework.

Entrance at 20 Exchange Place.

Entrance at 20 Exchange Place.

The 741 foot tower of the City Bank-Farmers Trust Building.

The 741 foot tower of the City Bank-Farmers Trust Building.

 

The Cities Service Building

The apex of the Cities Service Building

The apex of the Cities Service Building

 

The building that I was most excited to see was the Cities Service Building at 70 Pine Street. I remember going into the lobby back in the early 1980’s and was very surprised and happy to see that it was never modernized. It is an excellent example of Art Deco design employing generous use of red and yellow marble, with brushed aluminum highlights.

 

The Lobby of the Cities Service Building lobby at 70 Pine Street.

The Lobby of the Cities Service Building lobby at 70 Pine Street.

 

This is another downtown building that is currently being converted to residential use and is still under re-construction. We were not able to go inside which meant we were also not allowed into the former observatory.

 

Cities Service Building, observation lounge, circa 1934

Cities Service Building, observation lounge, circa 1934

 

Designed by the firms of Clinton & Russell and Holton & George, construction began in 1931. Opening the following year the 952 foot, 67 story building was the tallest building downtown and the third tallest building in the world. The Cities Service Building dominated the lower Manhattan skyline for nearly 40 years, until the World Trade Center was topped off in 1970. I was very happy to hear that the new owners are respecting the building and like the City Bank-Farmers Trust are restoring the it inside and out.

 

The Cities Service Building looking south on Pearl Street.

The Cities Service Building looking south on Pearl Street.

 

Cities Service Building - Pearl Street facade.

Cities Service Building – Pearl Street facade.

 

 

 

With the completion of the Cities Service Building in 1932 the lower Manhattan skyline remained basically unchanged until the construction of One Chase Plaza in 1959-1960. The early 1930’s transformation of the downtown skyline was so thorough that it prompted Elmer Davis to write about it in the New Republic in 1932:

 

 “…the New York skyline is the most stupendous monument ever erected by human aspiration. People from the interior who haven’t been able to afford a trip to New York since October 1929, would never recognize it; the last great crop of buildings projected and begun before the crash, and only recently finished, has changed the skyline more in the last three years than anything that was done in two decades before . . . The New Yorker has the feeling that he is living in a great museum as he looks around him and sees cloud-piercing towers leaping skyward on every side.

 

Of course, winter evenings were cruelly reveling, for when  the sun sets before the close of daily business it was all too apparent how many of those towers stood ‘black and untenanted against the stars . . .’ With some few exceptions, the newest New York may be described as a sixty-story city unoccupied above the twentieth floor.”

 

Chris & Anthony (The Freakin’, Tiquen’ Guys)

 

If you like Art Deco architecture check out these earlier posts

RCA Building Rockefeller Plaza entrance

Rockefeller Center

Union Terminal - Cincinnati, Ohio

Union Terminal – Cincinnati, Ohio

Buffalo, New York - City Hall

Buffalo, New York – City Hall

Tejas Warrior - Fair Park, Dallas

Fair Park, Dallas

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3 thoughts on “Downtown Manhattan Art Deco

  1. JJ Lair

    I know it’s not really your focus, but were other countries in the world out to create the tallest buildings of the time also? Was the US into creating tall buildings because we were on the winning side of WWI?

    Reply
    1. freakintiquenguys@gmail.comfreakintiquenguys@gmail.com Post author

      The only building that I know of that was planned as a tallest building in the world outside of Manhattan in the 1930’s was the Palace of the Soviets in Moscow, but it never came to fruition. The skyscraper was an American creation, the Home Insurance Building (1884) in Chicago, being considered the first skyscraper. Your point about the US being on the winning side of WWI has something to do with it as well. Plus the fact that the US was not physically devastated like Europe meant we didn’t need to spend money on rebuilding infrastructure. Then came the economic boom of the 1920’s that the US experienced better than any other country in the world, so there was money to spend. All the record breaking tall buildings were in their final planning stages or already under construction when the stock market crashed. There were a some buildings planned as the world’s tallest that had designs scaled back because of the depression, most notably the Metropolitan Life insurance North Building at Madison Avenue and 24th street, the planned 100 story building only was built only to 29th floor when construction stopped in 1933.

      Reply
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