Cass Gilbert and Lower Manhattan

by Don Friedman on June 15, 2016

This recent article on Curbed highlighted nine of the most famous buildings designed by architect Cass Gilbert. I want to discuss three of them, because it’s easy to overlook their cumulative effect.

The Woolworth Building, completed in 1913, was the tallest in the world for 16 years and, in part because of its gothic style, is a good illustration of what Louis Sullivan meant when he said that a tall building “must be tall, every inch of it tall.”

Woolworth in the last stages of construction. Woolworth in the last stages of construction.

The United States Customs House, completed 1907, is a low-rise but truly massive. This picture puts it in its context (before lower Broadway was completely built up with high-rises) but is taken from too far away to give a sense of its scale.

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The West Street Building (with the mansard roof, on the right), completed 1907, was badly damaged by the collapse of the World Trade Center 2 on 9/11/01, and the north facade had to be largely rebuilt.

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In the space of ten years, Gilbert was responsible for three very large buildings within a half-mile radius in lower Manhattan. It is fortunate that they have survived while some of their contemporaries (for example, the Singer Building, in the background of the third picture, and the twin Hudson Terminal Buildings, on the left of the third picture) did not, but it is even more fortunate that they are located in such prominent positions. Woolworth faces the tip of City Hall Park; the West Street Building faced the river and now, after 1970s landfill, faces one of the widest streets in Manhattan; and the Customs House faces Bowling Green, the oldest park in the city. In other words, these buildings can never be hidden.

West Street and Woolworth are gothic (or maybe gothic-ish), while the Customs House is full-blown American Renaissance. What they have in common is great design including, specifically, the ability to take center stage at their very visible locations. A building at the south end of Bowling Green, facing the end of Broadway, has to be serious and substantial, or else it will look silly. It’s possible, of course, to dislike these buildings, but they are definitely not silly.

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