A Master of the Loft Building
Gets His Day in the Spotlight
Hiroko Masuike for The New York TimesCOLOR AND PATTERN
For 2 Park Avenue, Kahn collaborated with Leon Victor Solon, the ceramist, in creating dazzling strips
and blocks of terra cotta, covering the upper floors in a tapestry of color and movement.
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY
August 27, 2006
Streetscapes | 2 Park Avenue
A new book on the architect Ely Jacques Kahn is out, a few months after the Landmarks Preservation Commission protected his signature building: the blocky, brilliantly colored 2 Park Avenue of 1928. Kahn was a master of the 1920’s loft building, introducing variety and expression into an area usually governed by the cheapest product possible.
The book, “Ely Jacques Kahn, Architect: Beaux-Arts to Modernism in New York,’’ written by Jewel Stern and John A. Stuart and published by W. W. Norton, is a model study of one of New York’s most important commercial designers.
The New York Times
Ely Jacques Kahn, above in the
1930’s, made 2 Park Avenue.
Kahn was born in 1884 to a glass and mirror importer and studied at Columbia. A fellow student was Rockwell Kent, who served with him on the board of The Jester, a student magazine. In 1907, Kahn began at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he studied alongside William Van Alen, who later designed the Chrysler Building.
After the École, Kahn returned to New York, and in 1918 took a partnership in the firm of Buchman & Fox, which became Buchman & Kahn. It specialized in loft and retail construction; its projects included the full block of elegant marble facades on Fifth Avenue from 57th to 58th Streets, built in 1927 and later combined as Bergdorf Goodman.
But it was the loft building, usually for garment-related tenants, that proved to be the bread and butter of the firm, and it was Ely Jacques Kahn who kept putting them on the table. The loft — under building laws designed for a mix of factory and office functions — had traditionally been one of the lowest forms of architecture, the barest kind of design.
But Kahn, working with developers like Louis Adler and Abe N. Adelson, aimed at companies that would pay for aesthetics. Thus, when the two developers collaborated in 1925 on a loft at 550 Seventh Avenue (39th Street), it was not surprising that Kahn recommended that the elevator doors be designed by Gaston Lachaise, who worked the signs of the zodiac in bronze.
It is typical of the painstaking research by Ms. Stern and Mr. Stuart that they have correlated Kahn’s student appreciation of Persian, Moorish and Romanesque architecture with his early loft designs. For instance, his 1925 Arsenal Building, at 463 Seventh Avenue (35th Street), has a hypnotic waterfall of tawny brick columns bracketing Persian-style spandrel panels and — easy to miss but a highlight of this building — an intricate frieze of heads and other shapes at the fifth floor.
In the mid-1920’s, Kahn began to seek other sources. Writing in The New York Times on May 5, 1925, he hailed “a new style of architecture — a New York style.” He rejected the “cluttered detail of the past” in favor of “forms allied to the rigid and powerful block of the building itself; shapes that are more a series of planes that become attractive through the play of light and shadow.”
At 2 Park Avenue, between 32nd and 33rd Streets, he put these ideas in the spotlight. In creating an envelope for one million square feet of rentable space, he collaborated with Leon Victor Solon, a ceramist. What sets 2 Park Avenue apart from mere bricklaying is the dazzling series of strips and blocks of terra cotta — magenta, ochre, black, azure — with which he covered the upper floors in a Mondrian tapestry of color and movement. They are hard to see without binoculars, but the book contains nice close-ups.
Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times
The building's entrance is notable.
Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times
In a 1928 article for The Architectural Record, Kahn wrote of the importance of making sure that architecture served the real estate engine that made it go, even if it “raises the brow of the aesthete at something which smacks of the commercial.” And Kahn was successful commercially, filing plans for four dozen big buildings in New York alone from 1925 to 1930.
Kahn’s practice shrank in the Depression. Ms. Stern and Mr. Stuart wrote that his staff of more than 100 employees had dwindled to 12 by the 1940’s.
During that period, Kahn produced some mildly interesting works, like the 1947 streamlined office building for Universal Pictures at 445 Park Avenue, at 57th Street, and some that are pretty awful, like the 1952 Klingenstein Maternity Pavilion at Mount Sinai Hospital, at Fifth Avenue and 99th Street.
Ms. Stern and Mr. Stuart gamely investigate these buildings, but one that needs no excuse is the dashingly inventive 1407 Broadway, from 38th to 39th Streets, built in 1950. Strip windows punctuate this intelligent, angular structure, and the green brick and rich red window framing make it an oasis in the near desert of early postwar architecture, including some of Kahn’s other buildings, like the dreary 100 Park Avenue (41st Street) of 1950.
Kahn continued practicing until 1965, and his firm, by then Kahn & Jacobs, continued well after that, but he never recovered the clarity of vision he had in the 1920’s. He died in 1972. Later that year, his firm merged with Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum, which dropped the name Kahn & Jacobs in 1977.
The Landmarks Preservation Commission designated 2 Park Avenue in April, singling out Kahn’s unique contributions.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company