New York City 1

A view of the city and the Empire State Building.

New York City, United States

New York has engendered many legends about itself and many of these are tied up with its being a global megalopolis. With a population of approximately 23 million people in its greater metropolitan area it is the largest city in the United States. When you think of tall buildings and concrete jungles New York soon comes to mind. For most of the twentieth century it had the tallest buildings in the world. The raw, physical reality of its tremendous rippling pin cushion of massive skyscrapers takes your breath away. It has a lot of Art Deco buildings and some of these were constructed on such a huge scale that they have become world famous.

New York Art Deco Building 1: Empire State Building

For many years the tallest building in the world.

An undisputed star of New York since being featured in the original King Kong film first shown in 1933, the Empire State Building was constructed from 1930 to 1931 on the site previously occupied by the 1893 Waldorf–Astoria Hotel. This iconic, 102-storey, Art Deco Manhattan skyscraper was designed by the architectural firm of Shreve, Lamb & Harmon to be the tallest in the world at 1,454 feet (443.2 metres) tall, up to the top of its antenna.

This was an accolade it held for nearly forty years, until the World Trade Centre was built in 1970. The Empire State Building still offers breath-taking views from its two open air observatories on the 86th and 102nd floors. Given its immense size it is not too surprising that there is little in the way of exterior decoration beyond the first five floors which make up the entrance block. There is some in the interior, in particular the lobby which has a large plaque with a relief in aluminium showing the outline of the skyscraper. Coming down from the top are golden sunrays that gild the tower as if it was an altarpiece.

Art Deco panel in the lobby.
Art Deco decor around the entrance.

New York Art Deco Building 2: Chrysler Building

The Chrysler Building.

Located at 405 Lexington Avenue, on the East Side of Manhattan, the Chrysler Building may be a little shorter than the Empire State Building but its exterior decoration exceeds it considerably. The Chrysler Building stands at 1,046 feet (318.9 m), and was in fact the tallest building in the world for the 11 months before the Empire State Building was completed in 1931.

Constructed for Walter Chrysler, head of the eponymous automobile manufacturer, the Chrysler Building was created to act as the corporation’s headquarters. This it did from the building’s completion in 1930 up until the mid-1950s. The strong economy of the 1920s in America saw success for the Chrysler automotive company, becoming the third-largest car maker there in 1927.

Like an Art Deco spaceship with projecting eagle’s heads.

The architect William Van Alen designed the Chrysler Building, incidentally striving to make it very modern as well as the tallest building on the planet. Van Alen rose to these challenges and created the stylish tower we know today with gargoyles on the 31st floor and the spectacular eagles on the 61st floor. The fact that it was Chrysler’s headquarters was referenced by the presence of sculptures of automobile hood ornaments on a lower floor.

The top of the tower is its most distinctive feature, being a setback dome comprised of arcs whose curves are punctuated by triangular windows. This distinctive Art Deco top gives the effect of set design from a period Broadway play or Hollywood film. The Chrysler Building has been a designated New York City landmark since 1978, and listed on the American National Register of Historic Places as a National Historic Landmark since 1976.

Entrance to the Chrysler Building.
Part of the dramatic landscape of New York.

New York Art Deco Buildings: Rockefeller Center

In Midtown Manhattan there is a complex which has a high density of Art Deco. Of the 19 commercial buildings that comprise the Rockefeller Center 14 of these are Art Deco buildings. The Rockefeller Center covers a total of 22 acres (89,000 square metres) and is located within the area of 48th Street and 51st Street. John D. Rockefeller Jr, son of the great oil baron John D. Rockefeller, leased the land in 1928 and was the leader of the enterprise, whose construction commenced in 1931. The towers themselves are unadorned, though they possess stylish setbacks. There is, however, a great deal of Art Deco art on and around their bases. The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the Rockefeller Center a landmark in 1985, and it became a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1987.

New York Art Deco Building 3: Rockefeller Center, 636 Fifth Avenue, also known as the International Building

The large statue of Atlas in front of 636 Fifth Avenue.

Rising 41-storeys into the sky above Manhattan, 636 Fifth Avenue is also known as the International Building. A component of the Rockefeller Center and completed in 1935, it features two lower wings in front of the tower. The south wing is the Palazzo d’Italia and the north wing is called International Building North. The space between them forms a plaza which has enough room for the large sculpture of Atlas holding the World. Sculptors Rene Paul Chambellan and Lee Lawrie teamed up to create the 2-ton sculpture.

Atlasa in the plaza of the International Building.

Atop an entrance to the International Building at 25 West 50th Street is a clock which sits above a Babylonian inspired work, brightly coloured and making use of pierced stone, though why it includes a three-masted sailing ship is unclear. This relief was also created by Lee Lawrie.

Another work is visible above one of the main entrances, the large relief ‘Youth Leading Industry’. This was created by sculptor Attilio Piccirilli in May, 1936 for the International Building. It was made from individually cast blocks of Pyrex glass and depicts a confident youth leading the rearing horses of a chariot against a rising sun.

Youth Leading Industry.

New York Art Deco Building 4: Rockefeller Center, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, originally the RCA Building

Lee Lawrie’s huge painted carvings: ‘Sound’, ‘Wisdom’ and ‘Light’.

Originally opened as the RCA Building in 1933, it later changed names in 1988 to the GE Building, and in 2015 became the Comcast Building. You can also call it 30 Rock, and while popular television comedies may come and go, the building will retain this name forever. Three impressive Art Deco works stand above the entrance to the building. These are: ‘Wisdom’ in the centre, flanked on either side by ‘Sound’ and ‘Light’. All three were carved from Indiana limestone in 1933 by Lee Lawrie. ‘Wisdom’ features a commanding figure accompanied by a quote from the Old Testament Book of Isaiah: “Wisdom and Knowledge shall be the stability of thy times.”

‘Wisdom’ and a quote from Isaiah.

New York Art Deco Building 5: Rockefeller Center, 1270 Avenue of the Americas, originally the RKO Building

Flying with a flying horse.

Originally the RKO building, its first tenant was RCA, the Radio Corporation of America. Sculptor Robert Garrison, who had developed an excellent career in Denver, Colorado, moved to New York in 1930 and gained the first art commission for the Rockefeller Center. He carved three large – each of them 21-feet long – limestone reliefs for the RKO Building, ‘Morning’, ‘Present’, and ‘Evening’, which were modern allegories about broadcasting, each showing figures moving through the air like radio waves. This is accomplished by travel with large birds in ‘Morning’ and ‘Evening’, but ‘Present’, the centre panel, gives us a woman travelling with Pegasus the winged horse from ancient mythology.

New York Art Deco Building 6: Rockefeller Center, 610 Fifth Avenue, La Maison Française

A masterpiece by Alfred Janniot in New York.

The 6-storey building at 610 Fifth Avenue, is a part of the original Rockefeller Center which was completed in 1934. It became known as La Maison Française, or the French House, as American clients were not keen to rent retail space there, so French ones took it instead. That set the theme and complemented the similarly themed British Empire Building which was in an identical building. They are differentiated by their retailers and the artwork on them.

Friendship between France and New York.

La Maison Française, has above its entrance a magnificent gilded bronze sculpture by Alfred Janniot, the French sculptor whose work we have already encountered in Paris and Bordeaux. The subject matter is an allegorical rendering of France, holding the cathedral of Notre Dame, and New York holding hands. The figure of New York is sitting in front of an island covered with skyscrapers while France is sitting on a sailing ship. Below them is a flock of doves signifying peace between the two nations, and below this are three figures representing Poetry, Beauty, and Elegance. Placed above this great work Janniot also created a female figure symbolizing French freedom, along with the words: “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.”

Allegorical figure of Freedom for France by Janniot.

New York Art Deco Building 7: Rockefeller Center, 620 Fifth Avenue, British Empire Building

Above the entrance of the British Empire Building.

The British Empire Building, located at 620 Fifth Avenue, opened in 1934. As it is identical to La Maison Française, it possessed a similar space above the doorway for some defining art. The work that was placed their did not have the panache of Janniot’s dazzling, gilded oeuvre but rather a collection of gilded figures on a black background. Titled “Industries of the British Commonwealth” it was created by Carl Paul Jennewein and consisted of: Salt, Coal, Tobacco, Wheat, Fish, Wool, Cotton and Sugar. There is one unlabelled figure standing in front of an anchor, perhaps representing Shipping.

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