August 25, 2008

Harvey Wiley Corbett and the E. 8th Street Apartments

When the scaffolding in front of the apartment buildings along E. 8th and University Place (4-26 East 8th Street) was removed recently, the restoration revealed a structure very different from the styles of other buildings around it. Standing out from its neighbors largely due to the light stucco of its facade, the brick details, the faux balconies with ironwork, and various decorative details, the apartments feature a style I would call borderline village kitsch. While pretty in its restoration, the building pushes the theatrical. The exterior reminds me of the interior design of some old movie palaces from the 1920s - the Spanish, Mediterranean, Classical, Tudor, Federal, or Whatever, that's meant to transport us into the romantic places of our imagination.

We can thank one Harvey Wiley Corbett (1873-1954) for this bit of theatricality. The original buildings date from 1834-1836, but Corbett remodeled them in 1916. Corbett was going for that Village look, a style that he thought would jive with the bohemia of the day. Max Eastman of The Masses lived here in 1917, and E.B. White lived in one of the apartments in the early 1930s. The building currently houses NYU faculty.

Corbett practically owns the whole block, design-wise, because the looming Art Deco masterpiece in the background, at the famous address of 1 Fifth Avenue (SE corner of E. 8th), is also his work. The two firms of Helmle, Corbett & Harrison and Sugarman & Berger configured this massive tower, originally designed as an apartment hotel, to utilize as much space as possible while still conforming to the city's zoning restrictions. Corbett, in helping figure out the ziggurat step-back as the best way to allow light to penetrate to the streets below, was central in shaping the New York face of Art Deco.

For residents of Greenwich Village, 1 Fifth Avenue serves as our token skyscraper. At the time of its construction in the years 1927-1929, the building's height and mass caused much consternation, and ever since then my fellow villagers will cry and gnash their teeth if anyone considers building anything too tall (or, too tall and too pink). That said, many of us enjoy the glimpse into the glories of the building via Otto, the posh pizzeria. A listing here at City Realty has some pricing information on buying an apartment in 1 Fifth Avenue, if you're interested.

Images: Above: E. 8th Street between Fifth Avenue and University Place. Below: One of the Gothic-inspired lanterns at the entrance of 1 Fifth Avenue. Corbett was said to have included design details that drew upon surrounding architecture, and in the case of the lanterns, it's most likely the Church of the Ascension at Fifth Avenue (12 W. 11th St.) At night, 1 Fifth Avenue takes on an aura of spooky modernism, Fritz Lang Metropolis-style, as documented in the last frame of my previous post. More images of the two buildings now posted at Flickr WOTBA.

1 comment:

James Gilmartin said...

Thank you for this! I absolutely love this stretch on E 8th st. and have always wondered what the story was behind the utterly unique row of buildings. I too share your sentiment that they "push the theatrical", and offer a novel and refreshing departure from the panoply of brownstones situated on the blocks off of lower fifth avenue.