Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Lions and Tigers and Walruses, Oh my!

Do you ever have the feeling that you are being watched when you stroll through downtown streets? You are probably right. Hundreds of eyes peer out from buildings tracking your actions. These observers are neither human nor electronic. Instead, a host of animals watches you. A tour of any urban core reveals a veritable Noah’s Ark’s worth of carved and molded animals stalking your every step. Since I live in Seattle, I will share some of the beasts gracing our buildings.

The Times Square building (414 Stewart) is a good place to begin a downtown wildlife safari. Built in 1916, during the height of popularity for endowing buildings with animals, the wedge shaped structure sports 61 lion’s heads and 18 eagles. You might not notice them at first glance since none are lower than the fifth story. Keep in mind that this high elevation placement of wildlife typifies many structures.

Because of their symbolism as powerful, victorious, and noble animals, lions and eagles dominate the architectural menagerie. Six massive eagles stare out from the uppermost corners of the Washington Athletic Club and another half dozen with their wings outspread grace the Eagles Auditorium. If you look carefully, you can find more lions in Seattle than on the plains of Nigeria. Sixty feline heads loom out of the Seaboard Building (Fourth and Pike) while a parking garage at 1915 Second Avenue has a lion in profile. You can even see lions toting fruit at 1221 Second Avenue and find a zoological conundrum with a pride of lion reigning 14 stories up on the Alaska Building (Second and Cherry), which was Seattle’s first steel-framed skyscraper.

Animal ornamentation peaked between 1890 and 1940 in the heyday of terra cotta cladding in Seattle. Following Seattle’s Great Fire of 1889, architects turned to terra cotta as a cheap, light-weight, fireproof medium. In addition, because terra cotta was a molded clay block or brick, animals could be mass produced easily. Only four companies dominated the local industry and many downtown beasts probably originated from the same mold.

Architects often used animals to relay information about the building’s use. Over 20 dolphins adorn architect B. Marcus Priteca’s historic Crystal Swimming Pool (now the Crystal Pool skyscraper) at Second and Lenora, while a horse head protrudes out of what was the Pike Place Market Livery Stable (2200 Western Ave.)

And, of course, the best known of these motifs is found at Third and Cherry, where a phalanx of walrus heads decorate the Arctic Building, built in 1916 by Seattle’s first round of instantly rich folk to provide a suitable locale to banter about tales of the north. (I have been told that the original walrus heads displayed ivory tusks and that city officials removed them after the 1949 earthquake when one fell. I have never been able to verify this and hoped that in sharing this story someone might reply with additional information.) The tusks were remodeled after that quake. The most recent renovation, in 1997, returned the walruses to their original splendor, with terra cotta tusks.

Other animals found downtown include a metal bison, wolf, and bighorn sheep on planters at the base of the west side of what was the WaMu tower. Two goats and one cougar, as well as a pair of sheep and lions watch you enter the old Federal Building. Priteca also decorated the Coliseum Theater (Fifth and Pine) with 47 bull heads, festooned in bucolic splendor with pomegranates and grapes.

The old Chamber of Commerce building (215 Columbia St.), constructed in 1924, houses Seattle’s most diverse collection of real and mythical beasts. Two pelicans, a duck, and the ubiquitous eagle along with a gazelle, deer, bears, dolphins, and rams share space with two griffins and two hippocamps, a mythical beast with the forelegs of a horse and the tail of a dolphin. Poseidon and his wife supposedly rode these sea horses. In regard to the griffins, supposedly back in the day, a few folks called Seattle the Venice of America. Why anybody thought that, I haven't a clue, but griffins are the symbol of Venice.

This structure was one of the final Seattle buildings elaborately embellished with wildlife. By the late 1930s, Modernism’s stark, brutish, unornamented surfaces had replaced the ornate style of terra cotta. Now, animals on Seattle buildings are only found in relict preserves. Happy hunting, no matter where you live.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Tweed Courthouse Stone

It is always fun to come across a bit of corruption and shenanigans in the stone trade. Today, I want to focus on what was one of the most famous building stones of New York City, Tuckahoe Marble. First quarried around 1820, the Tuckahoe outcrops in northern Manhattan, the Bronx, and Westchester County, home of the quarries. The dolomitic marble comes from the Inwood Marble, a 450-million-year-old stone that metamorphosed during the formation of the Appalachians.

U.S. Assay Office NYC, formerly New Branch of the Bank of U.S. (found on this web site)

One of the earliest uses for Tuckahoe was in the New York branch of the Bank of the United States. Designed by Martin E. Thompson, the building became the US Assay Office in 1853 and in the early 1900s was the oldest federal structure in NYC. Such fame, however, didn’t save it from destruction in 1915. Curiously, the Tuckahoe fa├žade was re-erected in Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Tuckahoe also achieved great fame in 1846 when Alexander T. Stewart, who would become one of New York’s wealthiest men, opened the city’s first large department store. Designed by the wonderfully named firm of Trench and Snook, the massive store was faced in Tuckahoe marble and quickly earned the moniker the “Marble Palace.”

Stewart also built a huge mansion with the marble, which unfortunately did not benefit the owner of the Tuckahoe quarry. According to the February 25, 1899 American Architect and Building News: “Mr. Stewart made a contract with the owner of the quarry, fixing a heavy penalty, amounting, practically, to the forfeiture of the quarry itself, for delay in delivery, beyond a specified time, of the marble. The delivery was delayed beyond the time, and Mr. Stewart determined to enforce the forfeiture. According to the story which was current in our younger days, the owner of the quarry went to Mr. Stewart to plead for mercy, but found him obdurate, and, overcome by grief and excitement, fell dead before him.”

Now to the corruption. Our story begins in 1861 with the construction of the county courthouse in New York City. The original budget was $250,000. As happens in many good civic projects, the builders decided to work with local stone, in this case the Tuckahoe marble. But this was the era of William "Boss" Tweed, a man who took corruption, bribery, and payouts to new heights. As he gathered more and more control over New York, Tweed made the County Courthouse into a money mill for himself and his cronies. For example, carpenter George S. Miller received $360,751 for one month of work; "Prince of Plasterers" Andrew Garvey got $2,870,464.06 for his efforts; and one company owned by Tweed charged $170,727 for chairs, all 40 of them.

In 1864, Tweed and pals purchased a marble quarry in Sheffield, Massachusetts for $3,080. Initially, the country ordered $1,200 worth of stone, which by 1867 had somehow morphed to costing $120,000. Over the years of construction, the county shelled out at least $420,000 for new, uncut marble for the courthouse. The courthouse was eventually completed in 1881, at a total cost of $12 million.

Over a century later, a decision was made to restore the courthouse. The initial study found that about 8 to 10 percent of the stone needed to be replaced. Most of the stone for restoration came from Georgia but workers also located 125 marble blocks in the Sheffield quarries. They had been slated for use in the Washington Monument (only four rows of Sheffield are in the obelisk, sandwiched between Texas and Cockeysville marbles) but after Tweed was convicted of wrong doing, no one wanted the stone. Now they are back in New York, apparently at true market cost.