Skip links

Not Really Hidden

The 1915 Equitable Building at 120 Broadway is famous for its demonstration of why zoning for bulk is needed. Its 1870 predecessor, which burned down in 1912, is less famous, mostly because of distance in time. No matter how interesting an old building in New Yok may have been, if it’s been gone for over a hundred years, it’s not going to be well-remembered. As the photo of the lobby above shows, it was far from sedate architecturally, even if it was an office building with an insurance company occupancy. (If you can’t read the motto between the stair and elevator corridor, it’s “Vigilance and Strength Guard the Defenseless.”) And now for a non-sequitur: interior pictures of this building give a nice example of reading structure in ornately-finished spaces. Here’s some general office space:

If your first reaction is the looks like a set in an old movie, there’s a reason for that. This is the kind of space that wealthy companies like Equitable built for themselves in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, so it’s what filmmakers in the 1920s and 30s thought of when they wanted to portray a large company. Also, both the old and new buildings occupy the entire block, so it’s possible to have an uninterrupted interior space running from Broadway to Nassau Street. Looking at this picture in the light of engineering, there is a lot of vertical structure here. We have those two rows of fairly closely-spaced round columns (given the pre-1900 date, probably cast iron, although some of the extensions of the building had built-up wrought-iron columns that could have been embedded in round terra-cotta enclosures) as well as the two masonry arcades.

It could be that all those arches were built for show, but here’s why I’m sure they were not: they represent an enormous cost in time, money, and materials during construction and they interrupt the space. Architects in the pre-skeleton-frame era were skilled at making the required walls look good, but the fact that they got rid of those walls as soon as it was structurally feasible tells us how they felt about the topic. (See The Structure of Skyscrapers for more.) All that vertical structure – columns and walls – is there because the wrought-iron beams of 1870 were more limited in span than their successors, and the fireproof floors of 1870 were heavier than their successors. This theme carries through the less grand spaces. Here’s the library of the Lawyer’s Club, a tenant in the building:

That’s a lot of columns for a not very large space. Also, as cultural artifacts of the era, we have inkwells on the tables, a coat and umbrella rack, and a spittoon, to go with what appears to be some new-fangled electric lighting. Electric lights came early to the Financial District, but were a retrofit in this building, constructed well before they existed.