A Centenarian With Starkly Youthful Looks
Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times; New-York Historical Society; New-York Historical Society
The old General Motors Building, on the southeast corner of 57th Street and Broadway, was put up
in 1909 by the Demarest and Peerless automobile manufacturers and is now owned by Hearst.
It was given a decorative facade to complement the neo-Gothic Broadway Tabernacle, right.
Its surface of terra-cotta tiles recently received a brilliant white coating.
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY
January 14, 2007
Streetscapes | 57th Street and Broadway
The old General Motors Building, at the southeast corner of 57th Street and Broadway, was recently wash-water gray but is now suddenly gleaming white, as it was when it was put up in 1909 in the heart of Automobile Row for the Demarest and Peerless auto manufacturers.
But even with its bright new coating, the neo-Gothic facade seems a bit out of place amid the traffic at one of the busiest intersections in Midtown. That’s because it was built to complement a 1905 church, now long gone.
In the mid- to late 19th century, Times Square was a center of carriage manufacture. After 1900, workshops and showrooms for Ford, Buick, Renault, Benz and other makers worked their way up Broadway.
In 1904, The Real Estate Record & Guide reported that Broadway in the 50s was “on the eve of a building boom”: the Hearst publishing empire had offices there, and apartments, hotels and commercial buildings were going up.
They were joined the next year by the spectacular Broadway Tabernacle, at the northeast corner of 56th and Broadway, designed by Barney & Chapman. The church, laden with Gothic-style ornament, had three towers, including a huge fat square one that appears to have been 10 stories high.
In 1909, the Peerless Motor Car Company and A. T. Demarest & Company, which manufactured cars as well as carriages, built two nine-story buildings at the southeast corner of 57th and Broadway, adjacent to the church. It is not clear whether their joint effort was coincidental or on purpose. In gleaming white terra cotta, they looked at first glance like a single structure, but were divided internally, the Demarest building at the corner, the Peerless building wrapping around, on an L-shaped plot.
The architect for both, Francis H. Kimball, designed them to complement the church, and gave the side wall of the Peerless building, which directly flanked the Broadway Tabernacle, extensive ornament.
Jay Shockley of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, in his landmark designation report on the structure in 2000, quoted a 1909 issue of Architect’s and Builder’s Magazine, which said that Mr. Kimball’s effort “makes a bond between the business structure and the house of worship, which would hardly seem a possibility were it not before our eyes.”
The Peerless and Demarest buildings were not just showrooms. A 1910 Peerless brochure indicated that 250 employees worked there, and a cross section showed a double-height marble-paneled salesroom on the ground floor, with floors above for new cars, used cars, inspection, upholstery, repair, painting and, at the top, blacksmithing.
The new buildings did not work out for Demarest and Peerless. By 1915, they had moved on to other sites. Within four years, the General Motors Corporation, organized in 1908, had bought and combined them, in an alteration designed by J. V. Phelan.
On the L-shaped Peerless building, the architect replaced the vehicle entrance facing 57th Street with the present lobby, converting most of the other floors to offices. Later accounts indicate that at least the second floor was still a showroom, and in the Demarest building Mr. Phelan left the big vehicle elevator, which still opens onto 57th Street. He turned the old blacksmithing shop into a corporate dining room.
By 1927, General Motors, now thriving, moved into a new 24-story building on the northwest corner of the intersection, cater-corner to the 1909 structures. But the company held on to the combined buildings and soon renamed them the Argonaut Building, after G.M.’s real estate holding company.
In the 1940s, the Office of War Information and then the Voice of America had space in the Argonaut Building. And in 1960 there remained at least one automobile dealership.
By the end of the decade, the Broadway Tabernacle congregation moved uptown, and its majestic church was demolished.
In the 1970s, the Hearst Corporation bought the Peerless-Demarest complex. The original L-shaped structure had the word “Peerless” set into the north face of a tower set back from the street, but that was removed at some point. On the west face of the same tower, G.M. installed large tiles reading “General Motors Corporation” when it moved in. But sometime before landmark designation in 2000, half the tiles were removed when the wall was cut down. Only “Corporation” is visible now, from the west side of Broadway between 57th and 58th Streets.
Late last year, workers repaired some of the terra cotta on the facade and applied a white latex-based coating to the entire surface. Building conservators generally reject coating terra cotta, but this work had the blessing of the Landmarks Commission.
Lisi deBourbon, a spokeswoman, said that the terra cotta had already been coated, perhaps because of prior damage, and that removing the earlier coats would have caused even greater injury.
The flat white coating lends a starkly new appearance to a century-old structure, concealing the natural variation of the terra cotta — each individual panel would normally reflect sunlight in its own way, revealing cracks, chips and character.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company