Honored Village Architect James Polshek Dies at 92

-By Brian J Pape, AIA, LEED-AP

James Stewart Polshek, FAIA,has lived most of his life in Greenwich Village, plus his work at architectural studios first overlooking Union Square, later at 2 Gansevoort Street. Polshek, perhaps influenced by his upbringing and our Village ethos, chose design commissions that were consistent with his politics. He died on September 9, 2022, at his home in Greenwich Village.

Polshek had always considered architecture a “healing art.” “[It] aspires to restore, renew, make whole, reconcile, and harmonize,” he wrote in the introduction to his 2014 book  Build, Memory  (Monacelli Press).

In Polshek’s first book, Context and Responsibility  (1986, Rizzoli), he wrote: “The true importance of architecture lies in its ability to solve human problems, not stylistic ones. A building is too permanent and too influential on public life and personal comfort to be created primarily as ‘public art.’ Modern abstractions or nostalgia cannot themselves generate ideas for structures of lasting value. Only buildings that serve broadly defined social, political or cultural objectives can achieve this.”

Born on February 11, 1930, and raised in Akron, Ohio, Polshek had a life-changing event while he was a teenager, when a new Usonian-style house was built in his parents’ leafy upper-middle-class neighborhood. “But to me, it was an epiphany. It showed that architecture could act as a social critique. The house was a radical statement that the status quo was not satisfactory.”

After graduating from Yale in 1955, studying under the late Louis Kahn, and a Fulbright Scholarship in Copenhagen, he worked as apprentice to architects and the I. M. Pei firm briefly, until he opened his own office in 1963. 

Historic preservation or the respectful repurposing of older buildings was a part of Polshek’s goal from early in his career, something that was not mainstream yet. He was also a long-standing member of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, even serving on its board of directors.

In 1970, the NY Bar Association opened their headquarters in a set of historic Albany townhouses that Polshek had restored and expanded into their courtyard. “Jim was one of the first architects to show that it was possible to bring a modern aesthetic to an existing building,” says David Burney, FAIA, associate professor of planning and placemaking at the Pratt Institute. 

Another early preservation effort was transforming the former Friends Meeting House into the Brotherhood Synagogue, at 28 Gramercy Park South.

In June of 2018, an exhibit was mounted at the Center for Architecture that explored the life and work of Polshek, the 2018 American Institute of Architects Gold Medal winner, ‘because he makes architecture for people, not to satisfy his ego.’ The AIANY website stated “As founding design partner of the Polshek Partnership, as Dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, (from 1972 to 1987), and as civic advocate, Polshek has advanced a singular vision, based on his core belief in the sustaining power of an architecture that synthesizes ethics and aesthetics. The exhibition presents the tapestry of Polshek’s experience: inspirations and education, academia and activism, and an unwavering commitment to the social and political dimensions of the profession are interwoven in a studio culture of collaboration and an architecture of optimism, restraint, and relevance, informed by values of social responsibility and environmental stewardship.”

When Polshek got the commission to design the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock Arkansas (2004), he insisted that the decrepit railroad bridge adjacent to the library be repurposed as a pedestrian crossing, connecting it to the low-income community across the river.

The Rose Center for Earth and Space (2000), iwass a stunning glass and space frame planetarium addition to the heavy masonry Museum of Natural History in New York, that managed to take nothing away from the venerable institution.

Carnegie Hall was renovated by Polshek in a careful manner to appear seamless with the historic structure. 

The historic Brooklyn Museum was given a new front entrance by Polshek that also organized interior spaces to elevate the museum experience.

Other new buildings by Polshek include The Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Astoria and a $4.5 billion masterplan for Newtown Creek (Sanitation Works) in Brooklyn, New York.

For the  Standard Hotel in the Meat Packing district,  Polshek Partnership Architects designed the 20-story concrete building reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s works, standing over The Highline. 

Closer Also close to home, Polshek designed apartment blocks in Battery Park City, and on 6thth Avenue. Washington Court at 360-374 6thth Avenue was called “brilliantly conceived, designed, detailed, and executed” over a subway line.

In 2005, and with the firm name change to Ennead (Greek for ‘the nine’ partners who carried on the work), Polshek retained the title of Partner Emeritus at Ennead from 2010 until his death. The one change at Ennead is Ennead Lab, an in-house research and advocacy arm that will also provide pro bono services. “For years we have preached about a non-profit practice, and now we can actually have one,” said Polshek.

Polshek said his firm and all those who worked for it realized…”they were making a contribution bigger than themselves.”

After 2005,  Polshek got appointed to the Art Commission of the City of New York, now called the  Public Design Commission, and also began working on Four Freedoms Park, Louis Kahn’s memorial to F. D. Roosevelt on Roosevelt Island. 

Polshek married Ellyn Margolis in 1952, and they had two children, Peter and Jennifer, all who survive him. Polshek suffered from  kidney disease before his death. He will be greatly missed.

Brian J. Pape is a citizen architect in  private practice, serving on the  Manhattan District 2 Community  Board Landmarks Committee and  Quality of Life Committee (speaking solely in a personal, and  not an official capacity), Co-chair  of the American Institute of  Architects NY Design for Aging  Committee, is a member of AIANY  Historic Buildings and Housing  Committees, is LEED-AP “Green”  certified, and is a journalist  specializing in architecture subjects.

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