ART DECO – BUILDING FOR BEAUTY AND POWER: PART ONE

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As my readers know I believe that fun experiences can be found not only by going far, far away, but often by just opening your eyes in your own backyard.  I am also fortunate to live in a city that offers a seeming unending supply of these intriguing points of interest.

Sometimes, however trying to arrange a new adventure is as difficult locally as it is out of the country. In a truly WTDGAP moment, the day I was originally going to take this tour this happened:

 

Blizzard Jonas blanketed our area with 30 inches of snow and all activities except shoveling were curtailed.  My tracker posted a 5.2 miles equivalent as I worked for over two hours to free my car – great cardio!

Luckily, the Art Deco tour was rescheduled and it was wondrous. For those of you who haven’t read my previous post on an Art Deco exteriors tour – let me provide a brief repost of the history and elements of this art form:

BACKGROUND AND HISTORY OF ART DECO – There are several opinions on the origin of this style, and after some research I think this make the most sense: The term Art Deco was coined during the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs Industriels et Modernes, which was held in Paris. This exposition was organized by a group of French artists known as The Societe des Artistes Decorateurs and some of these artists had been involved with a similar style known as Art Nouveau. However the term Art Deco was not widely used until the 60’s when a retrospective was mounted. Architects and designers around the world adopted this grand style in force during the “Roaring Twenties” and the Great Depression of the ’30’s, and a major impetus for this was the advancement of building materials, particularly metal alloys that were relatively lightweight and easily workable: aluminum, stainless steel and bronze. Also, the Art Deco style was not only about shape – color played a big part in both the exteriors and interiors of private and public buildings. Art Deco was created simply for decorative purposes.

An eclectic array of previous art styles contributed to the Art Deco style, going as far back in time to the pyramids of the Aztecs and Egyptians and the ziggurat (temple tower consisting of a lofty pyramid structure built in successive terraced stages) of ancient Babylonia, Assyria and Mesopotamia:

 

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Now back to the present to recap this recent city walk.  This tour covers well-known Art Deco structures in Manhattan.  You might think, why look at buildings that are so familiar?  Surprises.  And these buildings did not disappoint.  We visited 5 addresses  but there is so much detail from the history of the construction to the stunning edifices themselves that I am going to break this up into multiple posts.

Today’s Designated Landmark selection is the General Electric Building located at 570 Lexington Avenue.  Why?  I have passed this building innumerable times and somehow never noticed the staggering beauty.  First, a brief history.

BACKGROUND – The site was originally known as the RCA Victor Building which was being constructed by architect John W. Cross at a time during the early 1930’s  known as the Great Skyscraper Competition. While building tall was not new (Pyramids, Eiffel Tower etc) the need to show  power and wealth or just to push the limits of what is possible reached a fevered pitch in the 1930’s.  In a can-you-top this race the early Manhattan skyscrapers vied to be the tallest. The Woolworth Building (792 feet) held the title 1913-1930 until the ornate Chrysler Building (future post subject!) arose to 1046 feet to wrestle the title away in 1930, only to be bested by the Empire State Building which reached 1250 feet.  The ESB managed to keep its crown for over 41 years until 1972 when the World Trade Towers touched the sky at 1368 feet. And so the battle rages on, with title of “World’s Largest Artificial Structure” going to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (2,722 feet) since 2010.

The General Electric Building at 740 feet is not near the top of the skyscraper list but it is considered one of the finest examples of Art Deco architectural design.  Architect John W, Cross was hired originally to build a structure for RCA Victor who in 1930 transferred the deed to GE as it moved to Rockefeller Center (another Art Deco beauty).  Interestingly this transfer did not affect the final design of the building which had two major themes:

ST. BARTHOLOMEW’S CHURCH –  Since the building site is adjacent a concerted effort was made to compliment the church by using a similar salmon and terra-cotta brick color. The bottom of the building uses rose-colored granite as well as intricate masonry to provide a well-coordinated backdrop for the church:

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RADIO POWER – At the time,  RCA Victor was a leader in the radio and communications industry. To create a highly visible image for the company,  the architects were tasked with creating symbolism that would embody the power of radio (how quaint that seems now). They chose to use the Gothic mode of the Art Deco style to represent that power by incorporating, among other designs,  bolts of lightning and “electric spirit-faces,” directly into the facade:

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Above the main entrance is a conspicuous corner clock which was originally designed to house the RCA victor logo; instead the GE logo now holds the place on honor.  Note again the lightning motif above the clock:

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Much attention was also given to the design of the lobby. The entrance lobby has an aluminum-plated ceiling with sunburst motifs and walls of rippled pink marble.  Directionally all designs, even on the postal tube point upwards in elegant movement:

 

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The piece de resistance, the crowning glory at the top is what most astounded me as I had never before looked high enough to see it – and it is breathtaking. The tower’s glazed tan brick and the crown’s limestone spires and brickwork are magnificent symbols of radio waves and lightning bolts.  Thanks to my mighty zoom lens you can share the view:

 

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This next one is from the internet – I wanted to show one pic of the tower in full sunshine as the day we viewed it was quite overcast:

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They surely don’t make them like this anymore.  But no worries, there are more spectacular art deco designs to come next week!

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2 thoughts on “ART DECO – BUILDING FOR BEAUTY AND POWER: PART ONE

    • Thanks Ginny- it floored me that I was looking at these designs and symbols for the first time after passing this structure for years and years. Our eyes may be open but we don’t always see!

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