In October of 1929, a New York Times headline announced: “Odd-Type Buildings to Overlook Church.” Those odd-type buildings would’ve been New York’s first glass skyscrapers, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright to surround St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bouwerie. Starting Monday, a meticulously restored model of his East Village towers will be exhibited for the first time in over 50 years, as part of a new retrospective at MoMA.
For “Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive,” about a dozen scholars were each asked to single out a theme from the Frank Lloyd Wright archive, which MoMA and Columbia University acquired from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation in 2012. Areas of the exhibit focus on Wright’s ornamentalism, landscaping, use of Native American motifs, the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, the “mile-high” skyscraper he wanted to bring to Chicago, and so on. Arguably, the showstopper is a massive model of the Guggenheim, placed near an early sketch of what was to be a pink-colored museum. Near that model, in the section dedicated to Wright’s urbanism, is the one that will fascinate residents of the East Village.
Wright started designing the St. Mark’s towers in 1927, after his friend William Norman Guthrie, the iconoclastic pastor of St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bouwerie, asked him to create apartment buildings that would generate income for the house of worship. Then 128 years old, the church was located in an area that had become somewhat undesirable as New Yorkers sought apartments uptown, and Guthrie hoped that buildings designed by America’s most celebrated architect could lure tenants to the church’s swathe of property on East 10th and 11th Streets. At the time, a St. Mark’s representative told the Times that they were “interested in surrounding the church with as much beauty and charm as possible.” Wright responded by proposing a cluster of four identical buildings that became slightly wider as they rose 18 stories, making them appear like “inverted cones.” He described them as “modern, not modernistic.”
Wight famously despised the “futile sentimental taste” that caused urban planners to endlessly mimic traditional styles like Beaux Arts. In his autobiography, he wrote that he hoped that the St. Mark’s towers would offer “a glimpse of the new machine age, where the man himself is more healthful and happy because of his machine.”
But while the building was intended to be modern, it stood in contrast to the minimalist, rectilinear glass boxes of the International Style, which was then coming into vogue. While speaking at a press preview yesterday, curator Barry Bergdoll noted that Wright, who is the most frequently featured architect in the museum’s history, was “infuriated” when, in 1932, MoMA first showed his work alongside the Internationalists—“those upstarts from Europe.”
One of Wright’s rivals was Mies van der Rohe. During the German architect’s Chicago debut, Wright famously introduced him by saying, “But for me there would have been no Mies.” Bergdoll described the St. Mark’s towers as partly “a reaction to Mies’s fame.” Their design, Bergdoll said, aimed to send a message: “I have my own system, it’s based on a taproot, it’s much more spatially complex.”
Wright’s so-called “taproot system” for building skyscrapers was a continuation of his philosophy of organic architecture. He described the St. Mark’s tower as “the first expression of a tree-like mast structure.” Like a tree trunk, the building’s concrete core was anchored deep in the ground. The cantilevered concrete floors were the equivalent of tree branches, while the metal-and-glass “wall screens,” as Wright called the curtain walls, were the leaves.
Then there was the actual greenery: The towers rose from a triangular park, and plants cascaded from the balconies. Copper louvers allowed tenants to control the amount of sunlight flooding into the building, thereby reducing the costs of air-conditioning (Wright was not a fan of modern AC, and believed it compromised one’s natural ability to adapt to changing temperatures).
Architectural Record praised the project’s design, saying that it “realizes some of the most advanced aims professed by European architects, without attendant anomalies. The uninterrupted, glass window is achieved without either unprotected steel or rooms cluttered with interior posts.” Drawings displayed in “Unpacking the Archive” show the funkiness of these duplexes, which were arranged like pinwheels, four to a floor. Balconied bedrooms were lofted above the first floor, which, true to Wright’s Usonian style, featured a combined living-dining room and a kitchenette. The units had fireplaces, terraces, and built-in furniture designed by Wright himself.
It’s clear the towers would have had their charm, but one can’t help but imagine the outrage that would erupt if even an architect of Wright’s stature tried to plunk them down today. The area around St. Mark’s Church is now a historic district, where the East Village’s low-rise landscape is preserved by law. No doubt words like “hideous” and “monstrosity” would be thrown around in community board meetings.
Wright, however, pitched the buildings as an asset to their surroundings. He said their cost—estimated at $400,000 each— was half that of the traditional tower of “stuffy cavern” apartments. “Imagine the money thus saved put into ground to free the city of demoralizing congestion,” he wrote in his autobiography, “to enable it to live and let live by spreading out into the country.”
Clearly, Wright was trying to have his cake and eat it, too. He favored horizontal structures that blended in with their landscape, and hated New York—“a great monument to the power of money and greed”— because of its density. “What does the guy want?” Bergdoll asked. “He wants no density or he wants total density?” In the curator’s opinion, there’s no easy explanation of Wright’s contradictions, but they can be attributed in part to the architect’s experimentalism.
While corresponding with Wright, Guthrie expressed reservations about everything from his friend’s infamous arrogance, which was unlikely to fly with the church’s purse keepers, to the possibility that tenants would experience vertigo due to the building’s light, glass construction and outdoor terraces. (#WrightPeopleProblems.) Finally, the pastor decided that the towers would be better suited if they were placed in nature. In June of 1930, Guthrie wrote to Wright: “You ridicule the cave, but I suspect that in Manhattan each has to have a cave in which he can escape sight and sound and the new detective systems by which privacy is abolished, and one dreams of a primal cave very much in the heart of a mountain.”
In the end, that letter was prophetic. In the wake of the Depression, the St. Mark’s tower was deemed financially unfeasible. In 1956, Wright ended up building a version of it not in Manhattan, but in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, for a pipeline company operated by Harold C. Price.Standing at 6’5″ (a good two feet higher than the St. Mark’s one), the impressive model of the H.C. Price Company Tower is also displayed in “Unpacking the Archive.” It’s interesting to compare it to its predecessor, though they’re sadly not located side-by-side.
Although Wright never did get to build a Manhattan skyscraper, he eventually used his taproot system for the SC Johnson Wax Research Tower in Racine, Wisconsin, a building that in turn inspired the Dime tower, currently going up in South Williamsburg. And so the legacy of the St. Mark’s tower lives on, right here in New York.