Skip links

Anatomy Of A Style

That picture shows a small piece of 568 Broadway as seen from the west, looking down Prince Street. It’s a slightly odd building: a 12-story skeleton-frame loft building constructed in 1897, a massive rectangular block, designed by a top architect (George Post), and now converted to high-end offices and retail. The structure is advanced for its age and use, and Post was involved probably only because the developer was a repeat client.

As is usually true for big buildings that use classical ornament like LEGO, the detail gets more ornate as you travel up the building. The bottom three floors are quite plain except for the deeply-recessed joints in the masonry (“rustication” for architectural-vocabulary fans). Floors 4 through 9 have slightly fancier brick and terra cotta piers; and then we get some engaged columns at floors 10 and 11 and a whole lot of terra cotta ornament at floor 12 before we get to that very large, steel-supported cornice. I took the picture because of the top:

Obviously the ornament is visible, since I was standing on the sidewalk and did not use a telephoto lens to take this picture, just my phone. From where I was, the base of the building was maybe 200 feet away, means the top (hey, I get to use the Pythagorean theorem) was about 250 feet away. In other words, unless you’re standing very close to the building, in which case you’re too close to properly see the facade design, the top isn’t really much further away than the bottom. So the increasingly-ornate design is not related to distance. The classical-column metaphor (that the building as a whole has a base, a shaft, and a capital) is blurred by the differentiation of the top floor from the two immediately below it. So, without conducting a seance and asking Post what he really meant, there are a few possibilities.

First, maybe he just through it looked good. Or his client liked it. There are far worse things an architect can do in design than to draw a facade a certain way because it looks good.

Second, there’s a whole trope about making the top of the building ornate to make it stand out against the sky, which is more or less embedded in the style.

Third – and this is both my favorite theory and completely made up – if you consider the bottom nine floors to be a very tall basement, the top three floors make an almost-traditional classically-styled building. Architects in 1897 were still still trying to reconcile the horizontal lines of most styles with the inherent vertical nature of tall buildings. In the end, a combination of newish styles (for example, those used by Louis Sullivan) and the vertically oriented gothic (for example, Cass Gilbert at 90 West Street and Woolworth) solved that problem. I can easily imagine, whether or not it’s true, Post deciding that a three-story classical building on a nine-story basement was a good enough answer for an industrial building in an industrial neighborhood.