Researching for the Then & Now: Rhinelander Row feature (WestView’s June 2018 issue), stirred up memories for me. Fresh out of architecture school at Urbana Illinois, I was challenged to cope with big city life on a shoestring budget when I moved across from 30 7th Avenue, the 1962-64 Maritime Union Building (its photo was in the article).
By the way, you may remember that prior to St. Vincent’s Hospital’s insolvency in April 2010, the city approved the demolition of the Maritime Union for a new medical office skyscraper; then the Rudins bought the property out of bankruptcy, and the Maritime Union was ‘donated’ to Lenox Hill Hospital system and renovated.
On the one hand, I (and most people I talked with) hated that garish intrusion in the Village. On the other hand, I worked hard to sympathize with the client’s demands for a new headquarters. Albert Ledner, the Bronx-born, New Orleans-based architect, was hired based on his F.L.Wright-influenced contemporary residences in Louisiana; this Maritime Union Building must have been a stretch for him.
Similarly, the Port Authority hired Minoru Yamasaki, in 1962, based on his graceful, smaller building designs (I recently revisited his St. Louis Lambert Terminal), but then forced an unfathomable demand for 10,000,000 SF of floor area onto the design for the World Trade Center site. Contemporary architects seek to comply with their clients’ programs, seek to express their art in a very personal way, or seek to find a melding of the two. When it comes to beauty, the best clients make the best architecture; architects can’t do it alone.
The wanton destruction of many cherished buildings led to the adoption of NYC preservation laws in 1965, and organizations worked to help both clients and architects appreciate their cherished buildings and neighborhoods. At the time, there were no Historic Preservation courses in U.S. architecture schools, since the focus was on modern design and building materials.
So facing this monstrous Maritime Union ‘ship out of water’, and the Brutalist concrete buildings of that era, challenged my theories of architecture. My residence in one of New York’s earliest Historic Districts was a valuable indoctrination which has led to a lifetime of service for preservation and finding a way for adaptive reuse. I still struggle to appreciate a bold, jarring new structure in a historic district, so I find myself working on a community level to influence compatible design.
Now the ‘old’ Maritime Union Building is still bold and jarring, but now it’s one of our community’s quirky, unusual highlights. Are we appreciating it more, or less?
—Brian J. Pape, AIA, LEED-AP
Green Architect & Historic Specialist