Midtown High-Rise, Flight Plans Included
Museum of the City of New York............................................. .Andrea Mohin/The New York Timesin about 1915, when it stood apart from its
FLIGHTS OF FANCY The World's Tower Building......... The World's Tower Building at it appears today.
neighbors and above them.
Edward W. Browning, its developer, proposed
that planes use the roof for mock bombing runs.
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY
January 4, 2009
Streetscapes | 110 West 40th Street
How about a little aerial bombing practice in Midtown? That’s what Edward W. Browning wanted to do from his 1913 World’s Tower Building at 110 West 40th Street, where he planned a runway on the roof for airplanes.
That idea never took off, but his white terra-cotta tower is gleaming after a renovation last summer.
Born in 1874, Edward West Browning wanted to be a builder from childhood, when he made designs for fantasy houses. He began investing in real estate in the late 1890s, and in 1908 put up a narrow but otherwise unexceptional loft building at 11 West 17th Street, 27 feet wide.
Five years later, he erected the 25-story World’s Tower Building, at 110 West 40th Street between Sixth Avenue and Broadway. For its outsize name, this project was narrow at 50 feet wide, but Browning had taken care to protect the light on all sides by controlling the flanking parcels.
This permitted his architects, Buchman & Fox, to address a matter plaguing the skyline since the first tall buildings went up in the 1880s: the typical high-rise rose in decorous civility from its street frontage, but the side exposures were usually just rude blank walls. The architects gave the World’s Tower Building no secondary facades — all were equally developed.
Buchman & Fox worked in the new mode of a Gothic-style skin in glazed terra cotta, made by the Federal Terra Cotta Company. This newly developed material offered great promise: lightweight compared with stone, easy to produce and covered with a soot-resistant glaze.
Andrea Mohin/The New York Times
The terra-cotta building was intricately modeled on all four sides,
an unusual extravagance; a detail is above.
In 1913, Real Estate Magazine reported that Browning’s idea for the project was “location plus light equals leases,” and that his control of adjacent properties gave it daylight all four sides. The windows were “set in golden frames,” apparently a light polished bronze.
Three years later, as war raged in Europe, The New York Times reported that Browning, an “enthusiast for preparedness,” planned to use airplanes, stationed on the roof of the 40th Street building, to drop “dummy bombs” over Midtown to demonstrate the threat of aerial bombardment.
Browning did not address the technical aspects of such flights, like how to get aircraft on and off a roof crowded with mechanical equipment and parapet walls. No provisions for aircraft landing are shown in the original drawings. And he did not elaborate on what kind of demonstration bombs he proposed to drop on Midtown.
Browning also said he would begin commuting to work by airplane from his rooftop apartment at 35 West 81st Street to the World’s Tower Building, yet another idea that did not come to fruition. In 1919 Midtown did get bombing practice, of a sort: lightning fractured the cornice of the World’s Tower Building, raining debris onto the street.
Browning seems to have liked the narrow midblock formula: in 1915 he built three nearly identical apartment houses, also designed by Buchman & Fox: 42 West 72nd Street, 118 West 72nd Street and 126 West 73rd Street. Each rose 13 stories on a 25-foot-wide lot, with Gothic-style facades in white terra cotta and windows all around — although with these later buildings he did not get control of adjacent lots.
Soon Browning gave up property development for another hobby: girls. With his first wife, Adele, he had advertised to adopt children — girls only, apparently — offering their parents the knowledge that their children would be brought up in luxurious circumstances.
After adopting two girls, the Brownings divorced. Even so, the entrepreneur continued his search, settling in 1925 on Mary Louise Spas, who claimed to be 16, but was found to be 21, after which the adoption was annulled.
His next selection was 15-year-old Frances Heenan, known in the tabloids as “Peaches.” They married, with her mother’s consent, but separated within a year. He brought suit and she made sensational charges that some newspapers blushingly declined to print; he was found blameless. Edward Browning died in 1934, barely known for real estate but world famous as “Daddy.”
The World’s Tower Building was renovated last summer, in this case with an opaque cream-colored sealant to hide the cracks and defects common to century-old terra cotta. Preservationists have long been cautious about masonry sealants of any kind, especially opaque ones, out of concern that they may trap moisture, conceal decay and hide the actual material.
But there are new generations of sealants that are considered benign, and what is noteworthy about the work on the World’s Tower Building is how new the facade now looks. Even from a few feet away, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune — often writ large on fragile terra cotta — seem to have melted away.
The cracks, chips and dings one would expect to see are invisible, and the effect on Daddy Browning’s chef-d’oeuvre is unexpectedly pleasing.
Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company