By Brian J. Pape, AIA, LEED-AP
Louis Sullivan’s 1897 Bayard-Condict Building was New York’s first fully steel-framed skyscraper, overcoming official suspicions.
A Pioneering Creation for America
Louis Henri Sullivan (1856-1924) was already an internationally-acclaimed architectural pioneer of the modern skyscraper when the Bayard-Condict Building was built from 1897 to 99 at 65 Bleecker Street.
The Landmarks Preservation Commission’s (LPC) findings from November 25, 1975, stated that among its important qualities, it frankly expressed its structural components in the manner of the Chicago School; that the vertical design was a poetic expression of Sullivan’s theory of the skyscraper as a “proud and soaring thing;” that it was distinguished by Sullivan’s exuberant ornament of an organic foliate nature which complements the structural innovations of the building; and that the terra-cotta curtain wall was unique at that time in New York.
How did such an unusual choice of architect come about?
Robert Avery, a lawyer and director of several small Eastern railroads, created the United Loan and Investment Company in 1895. Newspaper accounts hint that Avery hired an unidentified Chicago real estate consultant to give him financial advice, who also recommended an architect, Louis Sullivan. Sullivan’s partnership with architect Dankmar Adler, which included apprentice Frank Lloyd Wright, ended in 1895, but some records indicate the Bayard Building’s design may have begun in 1893.
Right after Avery closed the property purchase in 1897, final plans for the Bayard Building were drawn by Sullivan and the associate architect Lyndon P. Smith (Sullivan and Smith became close life-long friends). Oddly, despite the Bayard name, none of the illustrious Bayard family were financially involved.
The 12-story building filled most of the lot back to Jones Alley on the north side; the top two stories served as an internal gallery surrounding an open room two stories in height and sky-lighted from above. A typical floor plan provided light-filled, loft-type rooms that could be readily partitioned for office space (they were initially industrial lofts). Sullivan designed the second floor as subtly ornate and transitional, accessible by entering the lobby and ascending a flight of stairs.
The Gray structural framing of the building, successfully used by Adler & Sullivan for the Guaranty Building in Buffalo (1894-5), relied on 14-inch square columns connected by a special arrangement of plates and angle seats; it was an entirely independent vertical steel structure without partitions, yet capable of supporting all the other materials.
However, the restrictive policies of the New York Building Department caused the Gray column system to be compromised: the diameter of the columns increased to 24 inches on the ground floor, and the wall thicknesses had to be changed from the planned 12-inch thickness to 20 inches thick up to the fifth floor, and 16 inches to the ninth floor.
When architects used classical historical principles developed for low horizontal buildings, the result for tall buildings was fragmented. Sullivan’s answer for tall buildings was “lofty… rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line… A building must be organic, have life and unity; a building must also express intellectual, emotional, and spiritual realities.” The cornice powerfully terminates the soaring verticality with an angel motif which Sullivan had used in his Transportation Building at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, and his1890 St. Louis Wainwright building (despite Silas Condict’s assertion that the angels were Condict’s idea).
The Enduring Legacy in New York
LPC’s Noho Historic District Designation Report of June 29, 1999, describes a major retail and wholesale dry goods center in the latter quarter of the nineteenth century. The scene was a post-Civil War economic boom; streetcars coming to Broadway in 1885; the 1896-1899 northward extension of Elm Street to accommodate the 1903 opening of New York’s first subway line under the newly-named Lafayette Street, cutting through four long blocks of buildings (including part of the Puck Building) from Houston Street (widened in 1920) to Great Jones Street; and the 1898 consolidation of the five boroughs of New York.
Bleecker Street had run uninterrupted from Broadway to Bowery, and was filled with rowhouses until larger commercial buildings and stores replaced them. The earliest extant James Roosevelt House, 58 Bleecker Street at Crosby Street, was built in 1822-23. Next door, an eight-story warehouse, built between 1895-57, and 644-646 Broadway, an extant eight-story bank & industrial loft (now dwellings) was built between 1889-91 with a rusticated stone base. Many industrial loft buildings abounded, and despite dramatic events in the city, the Noho district remains remarkably intact.
Location is paramount in real estate, and Bleecker is an industrial side street backwater. Perhaps due to the chaos of the subway digging nearby, Avery’s company lost their building in foreclosure, and the property passed into the hands of Emmeline and Silas Condict in June 1899, who renamed it. The building was finished in December 1899, and in May 1900 the Condicts sold their interest to Charles T. Wills, the builder, who owned it until 1920.
Marvin Shulsky’s family took over the property from 1956, and in 1964, Sullivan’s storefronts were changed and stripped of the ornate column capitals. Despite the owner’s opposition and these alterations, the LPC designated 65 Bleecker Street as a landmark in 1975, almost nine years after hearings began. Then in 1996, architect Wank Adams Slavin Associates and Stephen Gottlieb, director of preservation for the firm (WASA/Studio A), began a restoration campaign for the 7,000-piece terra-cotta facade, beautifully reintroducing the lost ornate column capitals (only one original had survived, in the basement of the Brooklyn Museum) and storefronts. Today, a Le Pain Quotidien and office tenants occupy the landmark.
This is still one of the most significant commercial buildings utilizing tall building structural techniques in the city. Sullivan’s work is in a category by itself—it is spectacularly beautiful, and it introduced a modern style that celebrated the verticality of tall buildings in a new, organic way.