A few days ago I posted on the forthcoming exhibition, Preservation on the Edge, at the Urban Center in New York. As an accompaniment to that exhibition, this Tuesday, June 27, the Municipal Art Society is presenting A Eulogy to the East River's Industrial Waterfront. Various excellent speakers, including the Municipal Art Society's Frank Sanchis and historian Jeffrey Kroessler, will "eulogize" six buildings that have either recently disappeared or are in imminent danger of disappearing. Yours truly will present historical background on the six buildings. The event lasts from 6:30 to 8:30 and there will be wine. (That's what usually tips me toward attending an event.)
The buildings are: the Sohmer Piano factory in Astoria, Queens (endangered); the Long Island City Power Plant in Long Island City (altered); the Greenpoint Terminal Market ("mysteriously" immolated) in Greenpoint, Brooklyn; Cass Gilbert's Austin, Nichols warehouse (not gone but a goner) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn; the Domino Sugar Refinery in Williamsburg; and the Waterside power plant in Manhattan (gone).
Cass Gilbert's "Egyptian"-style Austin, Nichols warehouse from 1913, the same year as his Woolworth Building. Its well-deserved designation as a New York City landmark was overturned by the city council. Its stretch of Williamsburg waterfront has been rezoned for high-rise residential construction.
Brooklyn's Domino Sugar Refinery, a vast complex including several 1880s Romanesque revival buildings reminding us that sugar refining was one of the principal industries that made New York great. With the plant's closing in 2004, the following year was the first year in 275 years that there was not a working sugar refinery within the present boundaries of the five boroughs.
The Waterside generating plant in Manhattan, the one that made it into Henry Hope Reed's Beaux-Arts Architecture in New York, as it looked then...
...and as it looks now.
A lot of our industrial architecture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, even some of what has been considered proto-"modern," was in fact designed in traditional, including classical, styles that had, dating back to Roman times, been considered apposite for utilitarian buildings. Each of these buildings was or is beautiful, and an object lesson for today's and tomorrow's architects in how to design utilitarian buildings that embody such time-honored precepts as that the eye should be allowed to come to rest naturally upon some well-proportioned formal feature, or that, indeed, proportion, overall, as defined by the ancient tenets of the Greeks and Romans, matters, no matter the purpose of the building. Each of these buildings, whatever its rugged simplicity, ennobled the heavy labor of the legions who toiled in the often noisome industries that once defined--more than did finance, or the law, or media, or advertising--New York as a great city. We eulogize these buildings for two reasons. First, each might admirably have been adaptively reused, indeed perhaps spectacularly so, yet has fallen prey to a real-estate megalomania of historic dimensions. Second, some of these buildings remind us that though contemporary classicism has succeeded in the realm of residential design, it truly will have vanquished its doubters when once again it becomes the lingua franca of the most utilitarian of urban buildings. And unless we keep the best examples--and each of these buildings is a best example--around, we won't have the study cases we may one day need if we are to succeed in the long-term mission of restoring an elemental humanity to our urban environments.
So please join us in this eulogy.