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Yesteryear's Modern Architecture Discovered and Shared

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Kate Premo recently stumbled across a slim volume on a shelf full of travel books that turned out to be a collection of walking tours published by the Municipal Arts Society in 1961. Beginning in 1958, the Municipal Arts Society and the Museum of Modern Art conducted a series of architectural walking tours devoted to modern architecture and curated by Ada Louise Huxtable. These tours were compiled into book form titled Four Walking Tours of Modern Architecture in New York City, to acquaint visitors and natives of New York with the modernist forms springing up around the city.
"The visitor to New York, arriving with a preconceived picture of the best-publicized metropolis in the world, will find a city that is at once totally familiar and totally strange. Photographs will have led him to expect the towering skyscrapers, the canyonlike streets, the cliffs of concrete and steel; widely published postwar building have added to this the image of shimmering towers of metal and glass. No picture, however, has prepared him adequately for the city’s unparalleled concentration of building. The sheer massing of monumental construction, consisting of the largest possible building on the individual site, has made New York a city in which architecture is an insistent and overwhelming factor."
Ada Louise Huxtable's book is out of print, but Premo is sharing some of its entries on her site 5 Ws of Design. The MAS-MoMA architectural guide book is an interesting find because it's a survey of modernism published just before the birth of New York's preservationist movement. The edition that Premo found was published in 1966, two years after the destruction of Penn Station. So one finds entries that discuss the modernist architectural elements of buildings that were destroyed between printings. One such building is the American Motors showroom at the former Savoy Hotel (McKim, Meade, & White) on 58th Street at Grand Army Plaza.
The utilization of limited space for maximum effect is demonstrated with unusual clarity by this automobile showroom for small foreign cars. The exterior is particularly noteworthy for the dramatic way in which the architects have divided the rather awkward high façade into a series of horizontal bands featuring the repeated name “Volkswagon”. This well-designed lighted plastic lettering is not only singularly successful shop and product identification, but also makes a handsome esthetic pattern of the store front. The interior, white and starkly simple, gives this small, economical car a kind of stripped down jeweler’s setting.
In 1968, the destroyed Savoy was replaced with the General Motors Building, designed by Edward Durrell Stone and Emery, Roth & Sons. Stone's own home on nearby East 64th Street has an entry in the 1966 guide book. It describes a building that presents a "pierced terrazzo screen to the street, behind which the typical narrow, deep New York town house been converted for contemporary living. The white exterior screen wall protecting the glass façade has become the signature of the designer, who has used it variously for a United States Embassy in New Delhi, India, the handsome American pavilion at the Brussels World's Fair, and a number of commercial and residential structures." After his death in 1978, Stone's family actually removed the pierced terrazzo screen, revealing the floor-to-ceiling glass glass windows underneath. The Landmarks Preservation Commission objected and had them put it back.
· 5 Ws of Design [Home]
· WHY: From "Modern Architecture in New York" [5WoD]
· WHEN: 5th Avenue Motors, demolished 1964
· WHO: Edward Durrell Stone [5WoD]