The World’s First Art Deco Skyscraper

It’s not often that a company has a product everybody wants yet many don’t have. And a near-monopoly as well? That’s what happened with the telephone.

In 1923, when ground was broken at 140 West Street, NYC, there were 13.1 phones per 100 Americans. Business usage had been climbing and in those days customers rented the “instrument” feeding the phone company steady income. Increased capacity was needed so New York Telephone began building a string of new facilities, the first at the intersection of Barclay and Vesey streets.  These would be mighty buildings, no expense spared, and many (fortunately for us) were exemplars of Art Deco.

Barclay Vesey -1a-Edit-60070

Where it all began. #140 West Street. Magnificently restored by Verizon, a descendant of New York Telephone.

The architect chosen for “West Street” (phone company parlance) was Ralph Walker of McKenzie, Voorhees & Gmelin.  Walker designed in his usual highly detailed and elegant fashion and went on to build three more phone facilities in Manhattan, then over in Newark, then upstate in Syracuse and one for Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone in Washington, D.C.

Walker also designed the Genessee Valley Trust (aka “Wings of Progress) building in Rochester.  Back in Manhattan, he gave us Western Union, Irving Trust and the Salvation Army–all very much Art Deco.  Considering the short timespan of pre-Depression Deco, this output is amazing.  (More about Ralph Walker in future posts).

#140 West Street was notable for a lot more than just being first.  For instance, due to on oddly shaped parcel of land, the base is angled in a different direction than the tower.  Something that has always interested me is that perhaps because of its early date, the building seems transitional–a bit less than entirely Art Deco.  Some details might be Art Deco but just as easily might not.  For example, the mailbox:

A lovely letterbox. But rather early for Art Deco.

Now, compare the mailbox above with what Walker produced for New Jersey Bell:

NJ Bell mailbox 67-Edit-Edit-Edit-Edit-Edit-60070

Now, this is an Art Deco mailbox.

 

Even Hugo H.B. Neuman’s mural, depicting the history of communication, has panels that could be from an earlier era.

NY Bell ceiling-NX-Edit-60070

The history of communication.

until we get to…The Telephone.

NY Bell Chandelier-60070

 

Now, that’s Art Deco, no argument there.   My point–and this is just an opinion–is that this spectacular building shows a transition from a more classical style to Art Deco. Like the mural, the past, present and future, all on display.

 

Barclay-Vesey-for-Blog-60070

Footnote:  You may know, the history of 140 West Street has a sad chapter.  It sits just 60 feet from the site of #7 World Trade Center, which collapsed on 9/11.  Damage to 140 was extensive and led to a $1.4 billion dollar restoration, taking 3 years. Today, the building is meticulously restored but off-limits to the public.  (If its any consolation, it was off-limits when I was in there in the 1980s but I was working on a book and New York Bell Telephone graciously allowed me in the building one evening.  In those days the lobby was quite dark and when we pointed our floodlights at the golden sunburst, it was a sight I will never forget).

For more information on Ralph Walker, see the beautifully printed Ralph Walker, Architect of the Century.  

For more on #140 West Street and New York City’s Art Deco, see Skyscraper Style by Cervin Robinson & Rosmarie Haag Bletter.

Equipment used:  Cambo 4×5 camera / Rodenstock 65mm Grandagon lens / Calumet 120 roll film holder / Kodak 120 color neg film/ 4×5 Tri-X film / Olympus OM-2n camera / Olympus 70-200mm lens / Kodachrome 25 film.

 

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