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The Newcomer on Spruce Street: Frank Gehry's Contribution to the New York Skyline

While walking the Brooklyn Esplanade or strolling downtown these days it's easy to notice the glimmering newcomer in the lower Manhattan skyline. That shimmering steel tower below the Brooklyn Bridge is a skyscraper previously known as "Beekman Tower" or "The Beekman," designed by Gehry Partners, and at 876 feet and 76 floors, it's now the tallest residential building in New York. According to a recent article on the building and interview with the architect in The Wall Street Journal, the builders, Forest City Ratner Companies, plan to market the tower by the name of "New York by Gehry at Eight Spruce Street." Okay. Hey man, whatever works. I think they, the builders and marketing people, want to get out the notion that the proud and soaring thing, to borrow Louis Sullivan's phrase, isn't just a Frank Gehry building anywhere, but an artistic statement about the city, the architect's interpretation of New York's visual identity. It also signals, in a practical way, that the building's more important front faces Spruce Street, as opposed to the "back" side on Beekman Street.


Architecture fans may recognize a signature Gehry style in the tower's waves of undulating stainless steel (his Guggenheim Bilbao is cloaked in titanium), but the architect specifically addresses the New York context in his design for the building. In the WSJ interview, he explained that the most noticeable features of the classic New York skyline are the step-backs. When passage of the city's 1916 Zoning Resolution put a stop to the construction of massive buildings that plunged the streets in darkness, the resulting step-backed skyscrapers, especially of the Art Deco era, helped define the metropolis. Gehry says, "So I decided to work with that. I also saw a lot of modernist mistakes like putting glass at the corner of towers. It sort of weakens the form of the building. In the best buildings the corners are solid." In terms of its neighbors, Gehry says, "I think it talks to the Woolworth Building." See "Gehry on New Gehry Building" by Peter Grant in the WSJ, Oct. 5, 2010. Link




To listen to these architectural conversations up close, travel down to the dense and dark, but not frightening, streets of the area known as Broadway-Nassau. That's off of Park Row, just south of the great Municipal Building and Brooklyn Bridge, down there with City Hall Park and J & R, the place where many New Yorkers buy their electronics. Near Pace University's modern building and a statue of Benjamin Franklin, look for Spruce Street and walk toward Eight Spruce. The new building before you is a wonder to behold from below, although the brick base, which will house a public elementary school, is a little underwhelming. Yet, craning the neck produces some visual stimulation, especially imagining the kind of views the residents will enjoy looking out their fanciful modernist bay windows. Wander behind the building to Beekman Street and see the flattened south side of the building, a nice contrast to the many red brick arches of 12 Beekman, its adjacent neighbor built in 1878-1880.

Morse Building, now 12 Beekman, on left; south side of Eight Spruce Street on right.
Temple Building, Potter Building, Morse Building. Beekman and Nassau Streets.

Wander around Park Row, Nassau and William Streets, too, to look at other late nineteenth century buildings such as the Potter Building, Temple Court and the old home for The New York Times. The statue of Benjamin Franklin is here to commemorate Printing House Square, the historic neighborhood that once served as home to all the great New York newspapers. The streets are narrow, still capable of producing romance and mystery, even if the sound of newspaper presses has long been silenced here, and sadly, increasingly in other places as well. Presumably, many of the new residents of Eight Spruce Street will learn of the news of the day via wireless waves floating invisibly way up to their rooms, high above the masses on the ground.

The Woolworth Building is listening.

The Woolworth Building at 233 Broadway. Designed by Cass Gilbert. 1913.


Word on the street is that lots of people like the newcomer's looks. Eight Spruce Street shows some respect, acknowledging the city's classic skyscraper tradition with just the right amount of flash.

If you happen to be strolling along the Brooklyn Esplanade on the other side of the river, the building appears just to the right of the Woolworth Building and to the left of the Brooklyn Bridge. You can't miss it.

click to enlarge

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple from October 22, 2010. The skyline map above (be sure to click and enlarge) was stitched together from two images taken on same day as the Literary Walk in Brooklyn Heights.

Oh, and a map.


View New to Broadway-Nassau: 8 Spruce Street in a larger map

Read a follow-up piece, Lower Manhattan: The Changing Skyline and the Challenges of Community (February 11, 2011).









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