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UNION SQUARE: "A MIXTURE OF CHELSEA, LIVERPOOL, AND PARIS"

-- Robert Louis Stevenson, 1887

 


The Bank of the Metropolis (left),
31 Union Square West.
The Union Building (right),
33 Union Square West, 1893.

The unusual collection of first-generation skyscrapers surrounding Union Square reminds us that New York played an important role in the development of this new architectural form. Many critics now believe that Chicago's role in the development of the skyscraper has been overemphasized at the the expense of New York's, and we in New York can take civic pride in Henry-Russell Hitchcock's decision that the first two buildings to justify the name of skyscraper were designed and built in New York in 1873 by George B. Post and by Richard Morris Hunt. (Both architects, by the way, had offices in the neighborhood in the 1890s -- post on Union Square in the Century Building, Hunt on Madison Square in the Metropolitan Life Building.) Those two earliest skyscrapers, built in lower Manhattan, have been destroyed, but such features of their design as arcaded windows can be seen in buildings around Union Square--for example, in R. H. Robertson's Lincoln Building (1885) and William Hume's Spingler Building (1896).

Those two earliest skyscrapers, built in lower Manhattan, have been destroyed, but such features of their design as arcaded windows can be seen in buildings around Union Square--for example, in R. H. Robertson's Lincoln Building (1885) and William Hume's Spingler Building (1896).


A more recent picture of the Bank
of the Metropolis (left), 31 Union Square West.
The Union Building (right),
33 Union Square West.

An early skyscraper which shows the influence of the American Renaissance sensibility celebrated at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 is the Bank of the Metropolis, by Bruce Price. Price's designs for houses in Tuxedo Park were an influence on Frank Lloyd Wright, and his Knickerbocker Hotel (on Broadway at 42nd Street) and American Surety Building (now the Bank of Tokyo) still stand. The board of directors of the Bank of the Metropolis included Tiffany, the founder of Tiffany's, Steinway the piano maker, Sloane of Sloane's, and Arnold of Arnold Constable, all local businessmen.

Price, who was the father of Emily Post, once told a reporter, "If your convictions are strong, they will bring to you a certainty of belief in the adaptability of a particular thing in a particular style to a particular size, " thus defining the architectural etiquette at the turn of the century, an etiquette contrasting with so much contemporary practice, in which the particular site is often treated as irrelevant.


The west side of Broadway
between 17th and 18th Streets
has changed little since 1911.

One of the Square's most elaborate cast-iron facades. Tiffany's, was designed by John Kellum to resemble a Venetian palace. When it opened (on the southwest corner of 15th Street and Union Square West) in 1870, the New York Times called it "A Jewel Palace" and described its elevator as "a dummy engine which hoists goods and people from one floor to another on a sliding platform."

Unfortunately, this worldly palace has been modernized and resurfaced in white brick.

 


A more recent picture of the west side
of Broadway.


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