Wednesday, September 21, 2011

October 16, 1869, Real Estate Record and Builders' Guide, Vol. 4, No. 5, Page 3,

"The Equitable Life Insurance Buiilding"

THE EQUITABLE LIFE INSURANCE BUILDING. This large and imposing granite edifice, for some time past in course of erection at the corner of Cedar street and Broadway, is now sufficiently developed to warrant a few words of notice. We allude only to the exterior, for, while the interior is already enough advanced to satisfy the visitor that, with its ponderous walls from 5 feet to 8 feet thick, and arched brick and iron floors from basement to roof, it will be one of the most massive and secure edifices ever reared in this city, it is altogether too unfinished to come at present within the range of artistic criticism. The building covers a space of 88 feet on Broadway, by 130 feet on Cedar street. Some idea of its colossal proportions may be gleaned from the fact that the whole length of the facade on Broadway is occupied by only five, and that on Cedar street by only nine openings—where, in ordinarily constructed buildings, half as many more if not double the number of openings would have been introduced. To produce this effect—a very telling, but really false one—recourse has been had to a sort of architectural legerdemain, not without example among the best standards of classical architecture, by which two distinct stories in height assume the treatment and appearance of only one. The building may be described as being divided vertically into three bold and distinct parts: the first floor comprising one, the second and third floors another, and the fourth and fifth floors another; the whole having the appearance of a gigantic three-story building, with basement and attic. On the first floor on Broadway is the large central door-way, formed of two clustered Doric columns on each side, surmounted by a plain pediment of good proportions, and innocent of all decoration, except a sickly-looking urn at each end. On each side of tho door-way are two very large windows, separated by massive and handsome rusticated piers. Under these windows light and access are had to the basements below. The second vertical compartment, comprising the second and third floors, has five windows, separated by attached double Ionic columns; and the third compartment, comprising the fourth and fifth floors, is treated in the same way, but with Corinthian' or rather Composite Columns. We use the names of these Classical orders as the nearest approximation, although it is hardly fair where such liberties have been taken with them. The windows are divided in their length by wooden transoms, which mark the intersection of the floors; the lower portion of a window lighting one story and the upper portion another. The upper story is crowned by a heavy cornice, very simple in detail, but bold and well-proportioned, and the whole is surmounted by a lofty attic, also of granite, with circular-headed pediment over its central window, and circular-headed dormers emerging from the steep Mansard roof covered with cut slates. The roof is very artistically managed, and from a distance, ascending or descending Broadway, presents a rich and splendid outline. The Cedar street front is treated in the same manner as that of Broadway. There are sundry vagaries of detail—apparently just now an epidemic among our architects—which mar this building, as they do pre-eminently that of the new Young Men's Christian Association, and others we could mention. We mean the poor conceit of cutting columns in two by unmeaning bands, breaking the plain abacus of capitals uncouthly into circles, for the mere sake of introducing useless rosettes and other petty ornaments, &c. —Louis Quatorze abortions that are good enough, perhaps, for a black-walnut bed-post, but are altogether too trivial for enduring granite. These defects are, however, apparent only to the more exacting eye of a rigid architectural student, and are altogether lost in the general effect of the building, which is grand and excellent. Indeed we know of no edifice hitherto erected in New York which so boldly rests its claim to admiration upon the simple dignity of large and true proportions, without the aid of ornamentation, and which, in this respect, is so completely successful. By this prevailing characteristic of overpowering proportions, it dwarfs all surrounding objects— a feature in itself sufficient to impart a certain majesty, for the absence of which no amount of mere decoration can compensate in civic architecture. Precisely as the previously much-lauded Herald Building was, on the erection of the Park Bank, by the force of contrast instantaneously transformed into a dull conglomeration of little marble pigeon-holes, so this granite giant of the Equitable Insurance Company has made the adjoining New York Life Insurance Building, with its infinity of vertical lines and invisible narrow little openings, so utterly insignificant that, from a short distance up or down street, it presents no more artistic appearance than a blank sheet of ruled foolscap paper. But dignity and intrinsic excellence combined, however overshadowed, can never be destroyed by contrast with mere surpassing size. Nothing proves this better than the beautiful American Exchange Bank on the opposite corner of Cedar street, which, although much smaller than the Equitable Insurance Building, instinctively draws the artistic eye to its manifold beauties of form and richness of invention, and would do so, though its overshadowing neighbor were of twice its colossal dimensions.

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