Union Square contains several landmark buildings. One of these is Tammany Hall, built in 1929 on the site of the seven-story Westmoreland Hotel, across 17th Street from the twenty-story Mansard-roofed Germania Life Insurance Company. Tammany Hall, the former abode of the Boss Tweed Ring, was originally located on East 14th Street, before being replaced by the Con Edison building. The party built its base through assistance to newly arrived immigrants, and helped establish the Free Academy, the forerunner of City College.
The 1929 building, at the southeast corner of 17th Street and Fourth Avenue, was designed by architects Thompson, Holmes and Converse, and Charles B. Myers, who had recently completed the Commerce Building for City (now Baruch) College on East 23rd Street. Within a few years of its completion, Tammany became mired in corruption, leading to the resignation of Mayor Jimmy Walker and the reforms initiated by Fiorello LaGuardia with the assistance of Governor Alfred Lehman and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was sold in 1943 to the International Ladies Garment Workers Union .
Tammany Hall was designed in a neo-Federal style inspired by the former Federal Hall built in 1700 and demolished in 1812. Tammany’s new home was referred to by a contemporary critic as “exceptionally charming and a real adornment to the neighborhood.” Yet it is more of a pseudo-Federal style with a pastiche of theatrical classical details that lack any relevance to the early 20th Century, although perhaps appropriate for its current use as a theater. While some impassioned preservationists laud its “Mansard” roof, the Landmarks Preservation Commission in its 2013 Designation Report refers to it as a “slate covered hipped attic roof largely screened from view by a brick and stone balustrade.” In fact, it is merely a screen to hide the utilities resting on the building’s flat roof.
The Mansard roof was originally developed by Francois Mansart in Paris as a way of getting around building wall height restrictions, by sloping the upper illegal wall extensions, cladding them in slates and calling them roofs. Artists who tended to live in these attics where they painted the more gritty edges of the city were known as “mansards.” New York City builders did the same to get around building height restrictions, which related maximum building height to the width of the street. Tammany Hall, only a modest four stories, had no need of this subterfuge of a false Mansard roof.
In next month’s issue, Part Two will continue the story, ending with an update from the current architects.