|In 1900 the Broadway Chambers Building towered above Broadway.|
Before Cass Gilbert would design early 20th century Manhattan structures like the Gothic-inspired Woolworth Building or the monumental U. S. Customs House, he would turn heads with a colorful early skyscraper—the Broadway Chambers Building.
Construction of new office buildings was booming along lower Broadway in the last years of the 19th century. The land at the corner of Broadway and Chambers Street was owned by the Andrews family of Boston when, in 1896, Edward R. Andrews expressed interest in improving the corner with an office building.
Ohio-born architect Gilbert was living in Minnesota at the time and had already made a name for himself in the Midwest. But that particular year one of his designs, the Second Brazer Building, was just being completed on State Street in Boston. One of the building’s financial backers, attorney Alexander S. Porter, was impressed by it and introduced the architect to Edward Andrews.
After three years of talking, the pair signed a contract in March 1899 for what would be known as the Broadway Chambers Building.
Gilbert knew what he wanted for the soaring new office building—a richly-ornamented structure in the Beaux Arts style made madly popular by the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The Exposition was responsible for an sudden profusion of monumental marble or limestone buildings dripping with wreaths, fruited garlands and classical figures that would last for over a decade. Such was the building Gilbert presented to Andrews.
But, perhaps to the architect’s surprise, Andrews had his own ideas about what he wanted in an office building: color.
Andrews stressed the use of terra cotta and brick, along with stone; Gilbert had envisioned the more expected monochromatic façade for his Beaux Arts design. Their correspondences politely dueled about the issue, Andrews pointedly writing at one point “…personally I am strongly in favor of color.”
Before the first spade of dirt had been tossed, The New York Times said that visiting foreigners were already talking about the 18-story building. In announcing the signing of the contracts for the $700,000 building, the newspaper said the “character” of it “has so impressed Li Hung Chang and other foreigners upon their first visits to new York.”
Construction by the George A. Fuller Company began in May 1899, only to be plagued by a frustrating series of setbacks. But despite difficulties with laying the foundation, deliveries of the copper for the roof and even a fire at the mill that supplied the interior woodwork, the building was finished within four months. The astonishing speed with which Fuller constructed the building boggled Cass Gilbert who called it a “triumph of organization.”
|Gilbert defined the three sections of the building through color -- photo by Alice Lum|
|photo by Alice Lum|
|Carved rams' heads hold .ribboned wreaths at the corners -- photo by Alice Lum|
Using terra cotta elements created by the Perth Amboy Terra Cotta Company of New Jersey, Gilbert encircled the 15th floor with a foliate band. The upper floors were lavished with colorful garlands of flowers, and below the cornice were enormous heads of Mercury, lion heads at the corners, and hanging fruit.
|Lions' heads guard the corners, sharing space below the cornice with heads of Mercury -- photo by Alice Lum|
|Unseen from street level, ornamental cast iron torches decorate the arched window openings. Green and red discs alternate along the fruit garland and deep red inset panels line the arches. -- photo by Alice Lum|
Tenants began arriving in April 1900, lured by up-to-date amenities not found elsewhere. Every floor had a mail-chute, almost every office had a sink with running water for washing hands and cleaning up, and there was an independent electrical lighting plant when the reliability of electrical service was unreliable at beset.
Several insurance companies were among the first tenants, including The Peoples Security Company in 1901, and Frank F. Eagles, an agent for the Aetna Life Insurance Company who occupied room 1106 in 1907.
On August 1, 1904 a freak summer lightning storm ravaged lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. Scores of buildings were struck by lightning, rain fell in torrents flooding the streets, and ferocious winds ripped away awnings and signs. Boats in the harbor sought shelter and fires, sparked by lightning strikes, erupted throughout the area. The Times reported that “On the roof of the…Broadway-Chambers Building…was a flagpole about ninety feet in height and weighing almost a ton. When one of the flashes hit that pole it turned a good part of the wood into fragments like toothpicks and left the rest in a dangerous condition.”
|Lush groups of pineapples, melons and other fruits hang against the colorful panels -- photo by Alice Lum|
|The lovely copper cheneau was gone after 1925. The building to the left is the Shoe and Leather Bank Building. -- photo NYPL Collection|
The Broadway Chambers Building was designated a New York City landmark in 1992.