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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Elegance And Respect: The Crossroads Building Reconsidered

 In 1965 architect Ely Jacques Kahn retired after having spent the past six decades devoted to the craft of architecture. One of the "three little men" - along with Ralph Walker and Raymond Hood, a triumvirate of Ecole des Beaux-Arts-trained New York architects whose diminutive physical statures belied their immense talent and influence and who were known to meet regularly to discuss the issues of their profession, often leaving behind tables of sketched-on napkins - Kahn's "frozen fountains" shaped the look of depression-era Manhattan.

A famous photo from the Society of Beaux-Arts Architects annual ball of 1931 shows Kahn (left of center), Ralph  Walker (dressed as One Wall Street, right of center), William Van Alen (architect of the Chrysler Building, center) and others dressed as their most famous buildings. In this case, Mr. Kahn was dressed as the building he regarded as one of his best designs, the Squibb Building.

Kahn's work from this era was often distinguished by the opulently "moderne" detailing of the buildings' lobbies and the dignified massing of the exteriors that he attempted to make lively and engaging while staying within the confines of the 1916 New York zoning law.


Kahn's "man made mountains" can be found throughout the island of Manhattan, with the more famous examples being:

The Squibb Building (1930) - featured in the opening of TV's The Odd Couple

120 Wall Street (1930)

Two Park Avenue (1928)

 Bricken Casino Building (1931)

Kahn was forced to adjust how he designed buildings following the end of World War II due to an economic and architectural shift in taste from the ornamental and "moderne" look of the 1920's and 1930's towards an "international" style of architecture being created and promoted by expatriate European architects. 

This new style featured a "functional" aesthetic stripped of all applied ornament, often employing the latest in prefabricated glass, aluminum and concrete facade panels in place of masonry or stone.

The adoption of this type of facade programming by the modern architects left no doubt that the exterior walls of a building were no longer load bearing, thus "revealing" the modern nature of the building's steel skeleton "rigid frame" structure.

Kahn never became a devoted follower of the international style and often incorporated  the Beaux-Arts elements of traditional materials and ornamental texture and delight - such as the projecting white piers of terracotta and the entrance mosaic by artist Max Spivak (pictured) at  the Union Dime Bank (1958) - in his "modern" buildings. Still, he could not afford to resist the rising tide of corporate modernism in New York real estate and took on Le Corbusier protege Allan Jacobs as a partner in 1941.

The influence on Mr. Jacobs by Corbusier is apparent in one of the early projects of the partnership: the Municipal Asphalt Plant along East River Drive in New York City (1941).

For the next three decades the firm of Kahn and Jacobs would go on to become one of the most prolific "corporate modern" architecture firms in New York City.

However, the firm's artistic stature amongst the critics and laypeople would deteriorate during the 1960's as it found more and more success in gaining corporate commissions and began to put out mediocre versions of the gridded glass spandrel-metal mullion aesthetic popularized by a building Kahn and Jacobs were associate architects for: Mies van der Rohe's iconic Seagram Building (1958).

As the firm designed more and more "corporate moderns" along Park Avenue and throughout Manhattan it came to be somewhat deservedly lumped together with other "corporate" firms like Emery Roth and Sons and Bien and Bien as examples of a cheap, copycat form of the international style run amok.

The result of Kahn's reluctant, hybrid modernism is best illustrated by one of his final office tower projects, the 39 story 330 Madison Avenue Building (1963).

The use of black brick on the load bearing columns in contrast with the lighter colored window bays was an honest attempt to express the structure that was in line with the philosophy of the modernists. However, Kahn rarely, if ever, employed a complete glass curtain wall in his designs and as a result his masonry and aluminum facades have not aged as well as their glass walled contemporaries.

 In fact, many of the firm's most prominent modern buildings in New York were considered outdated by the late 1990's and have been re skinned by the firm Moed de Armas and Shannon Architects in recent years. The new facades tend to feature smooth glass walls and are done in a post-millennial version of the "glass box".

100 Park Avenue, a high rise designed by Kahn and completed in 1950, was re-clad and had its infrastructure updated in 2008 at a cost of $72 million.

330 Madison Avenue has itself been subject to plans by the same firm to be re-skinned as a transparent jewel box.
The fact that companies would invest millions to reuse the structures are a testament to Mr. Kahn's talent for designing buildings that were well laid out, well built and very flexible to satisfy a changing set of tenants.

Despite their negative reputation amongst the critics Kahn and Jacobs contributed to the future of urban architecture as they employed many fine up and coming architects that went on to form successful firms such as Kohn, Pederson, Fox, and the recently-deceased architect of Trump Tower and Times Square's spiky-crowned One Astor Plaza, Der Scutt.

Giant firm HOK bought out Mr. Jacobs in 1972 and dissolved the use of the name Kahn and Jacobs in 1977...

The architect(s) responsible for the design of Rochester's Crossroads Building of 1969 are as yet unknown to me.What is known is that he/they worker for K&J, was likely not E.J.Kahn (he retired a few years before this building was announced) and that the design for the building that would replace the gargoyle-ringed tower of 1879, James G. Cutler's Elwood Building, site of the first office building mail chute system, also by Cutler, was about as sensitive to the street and its neighboring buildings as a modern building could be.

Basically a flush-mullion version of the wall grid established at Seagram, to be later repeated by the German master and many others, the curtain wall of the Crossroads Building would be run of the mill modern if not for the changing shape and scale of the glass wall as one walks around


Approaching from the east along Main Street the initial view of the building is of a massive and somewhat windowless party/core wall of black brick. A hint of the glass wall is visible just beyond the wedge shaped core wall. At one time a large sign representing the Security Trust Company adorned the now blank area of the wall along Main Street.

Kahn and Jacobs often used black brick in its larger New York City buildings' exterior core walls during that period.
Their scale and massing are either thrilling, boring or intimidating when seen from the street.

At the Crossroads Building, the brick wall takes up a larger proportion of the total facade area but is better balanced and benefits from the appearance of large square windows on the northern half of the core to enliven what could be a monotonous surface.

A slender, faceted tower of glass and brick appears as one approaches the Four Corners. Twin walls of black brick thrust skyward and appear to be a type of "spiky" crown from this view. They are in fact flat topped and contain exterior "porches" for the core's staircase.
During warm months tenants can be seen on high, huddled together in their tiny balconies while smoking and fighting the winds that swirl around such man made canyons as that found at State and Main.

The building's main entrance is located within a small arcade on the Four Corners and connects with the shop-lined lobbies of adjacent buildings. The arcade on the corner features stout granite-clad columns and provides a covered walkway for those traveling this busy intersection on foot. Not a grand but non-urbane concrete plaza, but instead a one story, friendly gesture to the street and the pedestrian.

This respect for the street line continues along the State Street facade.
Again, a wedge shape is used but this time it is rendered in smoked windows and spandrels of black glass.

It is this elevation that reveals one of the inarguable strengths of the modern glass curtain wall's design.
When facing a historic structure the glass wall will act as a mirror for that building, giving the pedestrian a different and lively perspective on a well known structure


Continuing north on State Street and coming around to the building's north elevation the massing changes once more. From this vantage point the Crossroads Building resembles the run of the mill square Miesian glass box, complete with a mechanical penthouse of black brick.

Climb the steps behind the Federal Building to reach the Genesee Crossroads Plaza and approach the First Federal Building to get a final view of the ever changing facade of the Crossroads Building. The core wall extends beyond the plane of the glass-curtain north elevation, once again taking on the look of a slanted wedge.

The Crossroads Building is one of the finest modern office buildings in Rochester and was quite possibly the finest modern office tower design by a successful firm that, although often reviled for their banal and badly aging office tower designs, was once staffed with talented people who, when given the opportunity, could create a modern, glass-skinned tower that was not only functional and handsome but was also a good neighbor who did not ignore or belittle the pedestrian or the street.

It mitigates its scale and bulk through the use of a faceted and wedge shaped glass curtain that "turns the corner" of State and Main with a style and class rarely found in the structures of "corporate modernism." The core wall, with mirrored "holes" punched into half of it, is as pretty and interesting as a massive wall of black brick can get. It respects the street better than most buildings from its time and was designed to fit into its site, not define it.

In short, the Crossroads Building has stood the test of time and certainly represents the three core qualities found in all good architecture: Commodity (economically successful), Firmness (well maintained), and Delight (articulated wedge shape, use of quality materials, contextually respectful).

Image 1-11 and information on Ely Jacques Kahn/Kahn and Jacobs from the book: Ely Jacques Kahn, Architect  by Jewel Stern and John A. Stewart.
Image 14 courtesy the City of Rochester Municipal Archives.

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