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The Scholastic Building: A Newcomer Steeped in History

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Welcome back to Curbed Classics, a column in which writer Lisa Santoro traces the history of a classic New York City building. Have a building to nominate for a future installment? Please suggest it to the tipline.

It might seem blasphemous to write about 557 Broadway's Scholastic Building for Curbed Classics, given that this post-modern structure was completed in 2001. But new as it is, the building fits seamlessly within its historic environment, playing keenly off its neighbors. It embraces the history of its surroundings and uses that history as the foundation for its own design scheme. The result is a building that is unique and striking but also maintains the sensibility of Soho's historic past.

Scholastic is not new to the area. With its original headquarters located in a former dry goods store on Broadway, Scholastic has been a presence for decades. Seeking to expand during the mid 1990s, the company purchased the site directly adjacent to its existing building. On that site sat a non-historic one-story garage dating from 1954. Foreseeing some resistance from those within the community, Scholastic enlisted Gensler and Associates, an architecture firm with a reputation for problem solving, to design the publisher's new headquarters. Gensler chose Italian architect Aldo Rossi to come up with a proposal?and, reportedly, "it took [Rossi] only five minutes to come up with the solution" to design problems. The Gensler-Rossi team was chosen in 1994 to design a building that would have to stand out as Scholastic's new headquarters within the confines of a well-known historic district. As the first new building within that district, designated in 1973, the Scholastic Building needed to be nearly perfect.

Known universally for his buildings in Europe and Japan, Rossi was a Pritzker Architecture Prize winner who had never designed a building within New York City. Still, Rossi understood that the building's surroundings were essential to his design and incorporated them. That was one of the principal reasons the Landmarks Preservation Commission unanimously approved his original design within only an hour of deliberation. In fact, in order for the building to remain in context with its neighbors, the LPC and the Board of Standards and Appeals allowed the building to contain nearly twice the floor area permitted by the underlying zoning. Neighbors and local preservationists were displeased, but the extra floor area seemed necessary to ensure that the Broadway street wall be uniform in height and scale to its existing neighbors.

The street wall is not the only way in which this building nods to its surroundings. Preservation consultant William Higgins explains that "the building's columnar Broadway façade, in steel, terra-cotta, and stone, echoes the scale and the formal, Classical character of its commercial neighbors." Design elements such as cylindrical columns, expansive windows and bolted horizontal steel beams are contemporary interpretations of design elements found on the cast-iron commercial structures that had first gained prominence during the 1850s. Rossi also planned the building's public spaces, including a "lobby sheathed in metal, terra cotta and stucco, drawing the exterior themes indoors, a basement theatre modeled on Palladio's 16th century Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza and a café." Even the building's rear façade along Mercer Street (right) is evocative of the rear entrances of the former commercial and manufacturing structures of Soho's past. Although this façade is utilitarian and secondary, it is still an interesting specimen due in part to its monumental red arches and how well it relates to the Broadway façade.

Even the fabrication of the existing structures was taken into consideration when designing the Scholastic Building. Rossi's building was designed and assembled using a "kit of parts" methodology, paying homage to the method by which the facades of Soho's renowned cast-iron buildings were once assembled. Builders would select the façade of their choosing through such publications as Daniel Badger's 1865 illustrated catalogs of cast-iron architecture. After selecting a design, the machine-made interchangeable parts would be delivered to the site and bolted onto the existing façade. This method allowed the builder to erect a highly stylized building at an affordable price, offering an alternative to the more costly and time consuming brick and stone construction. In addition, cast-iron was a preferred material as it was durable, strong, could be painted, and was allegedly fireproof.

Rossi's steadfast dedication to this method can be seen in the Broadway façade's bolted horizontal beams, which evoke the sense that these pieces were ordered and installed on site, just as they would have been during the heyday of cast-iron architecture. The façade colors of red, green and white recall the vast array of colors that cast-iron buildings were often painted; these colors also mimic the color palette of the neighboring Little Singer Building (1904), adding to its contextual aesthetic. The building is noticeable but not jarring?archicritic Paul Goldberger, for one, has described the building as one that "will teach generations of architects the proper way to respond to historic contexts."

Rossi was unable to enjoy the success of his design?he died as a result of his injuries following an automobile accident near his home in Italy in 1997. Rossi's former student and partner Morris Adjmi oversaw the building's completion from this time until its opening in 2001. Despite Adjmi having to refine certain aspects of the design, this building is still considered Rossi's masterpiece. Although its architectural merits are highly acclaimed, it is also important to step back and appreciate this building for what it is to the everyday observer's eye?a building whose cartoonish and playful exterior is fitting for the headquarters of a prominent children's book publisher. It is hard to imagine this building having any other use.
?Lisa Santoro

Further Reading:
· Scholastic Building by Aldo Rossi [Wired New York]
· A Building Fits in By Standing Out [NYT]
· The House That Harry Potter Built [The Independent]
· Endangered Cast-Iron Buildings in NYC []
· Scholastic Building coverage [Curbed]
· Curbed Classics archive [Curbed]