OMG, it's Friday the 13th on a Wednesday, and Postcard Thursday on a Friday!
Ernest Flagg's late, lamented Singer Building
(No, the loss wasn't recent, but you see --)
(No, the loss wasn't recent, but you see --)
Nevertheless, Michelle and James Nevius, authors of Inside the Apple: A Streewise History of New York City and Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers, and keepers of the Inside the Apple blog, were apologetic when it happened yesterday. "Astute readers will note," they began, "that today is Friday, but sometimes (as the late, great Douglas Adams once said), it can be hard to get the hang of Thursdays."
Which was a perfect setup for talking about the late, great Singer Building, or Tower. "And speaking of late, great," they went on, "the image above depicts the Singer Tower, Ernest Flagg's 1908 skyscraper in the Financial District."
This was the second building Flagg completed for the Singer Manufacturing Corporation, America's premiere sewing machine company. The first, a 12-story manufacturing and retail space in SoHo, still stands at 561 Broadway, and is where Flagg tried out his unusual red-and-green color scheme. Before that tower was finished in 1904, he'd already received the commission to build Singer an office tower downtown -- and to make it the tallest in the world. The new skyscraper held that title for just two years (1908-1909) before being dethroned by the Metropolitan Life tower on Madison Square.One Liberty Plaza, aka the U.S. Steel Building, which was built on the site occupied by the Singer Building and the adjacent (also demolished) City Investing Building, took its current name from Liberty Plaza Park, across the street to the south, which was created in 1968, in exchange for a height bonus, when the U.S. Steel Building was built in 1968. The park, adjacent to the World Trade Center site, is now called Zuccotti Park, aka the site of the late, great Occupy Wall Street occupation.
The Singer Tower, an increasingly unique structure among the uniformity of postwar design, stood until 1968, when it earned the dubious honor of being the tallest building in the world ever to be intentionally demolished. As James wrote in a piece for Curbed this past week:
Having been acquired by US Steel [in the mid-1960s], plans were underway to demolish the tower to build the company's new headquarters, today known as One Liberty Plaza. Though preservationists rallied to have the Singer Tower designated a landmark, the LPC hesitated. Having been unable to find an appropriate buyer for the Jerome mansion, the LPC was leery of designating the Singer Tower only to have to find a new buyer willing to move in and preserve it. Instead, the commission declined to save it and it fell to the wrecking ball in 1968.
Now, there must have been a zillion significant buildings in town whose acquaintance I hadn't made by 1968. The difference is that after 1968, of course, it was no longer possible to make the acquaintance of the Singer Building, and it's now a building I really wish I had some memory of.
I feel bad in much the same sort of way about our dearly departed Penn Station. How regrettable and inexcusable it is of me to have so little personal remembrance, and yet of it, unlike the Singer Building, I have at least some, even though we coexisted for a far shorter time, barely two years prior to its demolition. But at least I have some memory of the place. I know I was in it. I atcually do remember seeing my grandparents off on their annual fall snowbird departure for Florida. (They always took the train because my grandmother didn't fly.) I can't say I have any actual recall of the place, beyond having been there and sort of hurrying to make the train (a lot of my memories seem to involve hurrying), but at least I have that.
Whereas the Singer Building? Granted, it's not a part of town I spent much time in in those years, and for several of its last years I was away at college much of the time. Still, it seems likely that in all that time we shared the metropolis, as it were, I must have seen it and walked past it -- without being in any way aware of it. But then, even for decades after, I suffered the curious New Yorker's affliction of seeing most of the city strictly from ground level. Sure, we know our famous buildings, the Empire State and the Chrysler, maybe even the Woolworth, but the streets of Manhattan in particular are lined with almost nothing but buildings, and we walk past them, for the most part, without looking up, as if their street faces are all there is to them.
My awareness of such stuff was not only late in coming but is so scattered, if not downright ass-backwards, that the first real association I had for Ernest Flagg was picked up just a few years ago, during a walking tour in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where we saw one of the last things he built: the still-handsome apartment complex Flagg Court.
Part of the interior courtyard of Flagg Court, Bay Ridge
On January 11, 2011 (yes, 1/11/11!), 7200 Ridge Blvd. was the Brooklyn blog Brownstoner's Building of the Day, and the commentary was written by much-admired architectural blogger Montrose Morris, aka Suzanne Spellen, now an immensely popular walking-tour leader, in partnership with architect Morgan Munsey, mostly in the Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights sections of Brooklyn, which she described in a February 2014 New York Times profile as places she can no longer afford to live in. (Montrose Morris, a prolific 19th-century Brooklyn architect, is a favorite of hers.) Here's what Suzanne wrote about Ernest Flagg and Flagg Court:
Ernest Flagg was one of the early 20th century’s pre-eminent architects. Born in 1857, he lived until the age of 90, dying in 1947. This apartment complex is his last major work, designed when he was 76. It shows the innovation of a man who made his fame and fortune designing mostly Beaux-Arts style buildings for the industrialists and self-made men of the Gilded Age. A cousin by marriage to Cornelius Vanderbilt II, he received his formal education at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, sponsored by Vanderbilt. Coming back to NYC, he opened a firm with several partners, and began designing the classically inspired buildings that brought him fame and fortune. Among them, the original St. Luke’s Hospital, two buildings and a mansion for Charles Scribner, book publisher, including the beautiful building at 597 5th Ave, between 48th and 49th St. He designed the Corcoran Art Gallery in Washington, DC, and designed several important buildings for the Singer (sewing machine) family, including the Singer Building, now demolished, for a while the tallest building in the world, the Little Singer building, still on Broadway in Soho, and the Towers, a huge “castle” for the Singer family on an island in the St. Lawrence, one of the 1000 Islands. Throughout his career, Flagg was an advocate for intelligent zoning restrictions. He believed that setbacks, and restrictions on height were necessary for light and air to reach all parts of a building. This concept is most excellently illustrated in Flagg Court. The six contiguous buildings in the complex are grouped around a large central court, and every apartment’s large windows either face the street or the courtyard. The apartment windows were designed with reversible fans under each window, and outside window shades that could be drawn against the heat, both long gone. He also designed the apartments with concrete ceiling slabs, now an everyday practice. The complex also had an auditorium of vaulted concrete. Today, Flagg Court is a very successful co-op, and is still a beautiful example of intelligent urban multi-family living. Flagg’s principles have been copied in countless examples since, including in public housing, but these buildings, in spite of their density and repetition, maintain a lightness that public housing, in particular, does not share. Theories?
Suzanne (aka Montrose) on a tour at the time of her NYT profile
BY THE WAY, JAMES NEVIUS IS LEADING
A PUBLIC TOUR MEMORIAL DAY MORNING
ALEXANDER HAMILTON'S NEW YORK
A Memorial Day Walking Tour
Monday, May 25, 2015 at 11:00AM
$20 per person; $30 if you'd like a signed copy of Footprints in New York
In an updated reprise of this popular walk, we will be exploring Lower Manhattan, following in the footsteps of Hamilton from his arrival in the city as a teenager to attend King's College (today's Columbia University) until his death at the hands of Vice President Aaron Burr in 1804. Along the way, we'll talk about the first rumblings of the Revolution in the 1760s, the outbreak of the war, Hamiton's derring-do during British shelling of the city, the city's role as America's first capital, and much more.
To reserve email firstname.lastname@example.org your
* number of people in your party (including how many people are $20 [tour only] or $30 [tour + book])
* a cell number to contact you if there's any last-minute changes
RESERVATIONS are limited and taken on a first-come, first-served basis.
You can pay for the tour by cash or credit card when you check in. Instructions on where to meet will be email within 24 hours of when you reserve.