If the Alwyn Court apartment building in New York was a wedding cake, you might look at it and say, “Somebody went nuts with the icing.” Is it beautiful or it is too much? The creators of this 12-story confection of a building, constructed from 1907-1909 at the corner of West 58th Street and Seventh Avenue, used terra cotta to decorate nearly every inch of the exterior. New York Times writer Christopher Gray called Alwyn Court “the most intricate apartment facade in New York.” Seen through our 21st century eyes, in an age where sleek glass in buildings is king, this place inspires awe, if not always a sense that it’s eye-pleasing.
If you’re walking in this part of Midtown Manhattan, it’s hard to not stop to look at 180 West 58th St.: The building is covered, from top to bottom, with varied Renaissance and Gothic shapes and figures such as urns, floral motifs, vines, mythical animal figures, grotesque human faces, archways, medallions, and much more rendered in terra cotta. Close up, it’s like those children’s puzzles where you suddenly find certain objects within a dense picture.
If you take time, you’ll also notice how flexible and delicate the terra cotta ornamentation is: Paired cherubs have soft fingers and little bellies as if you could touch baby skin, curved leaves are rounded like nature’s live forms. All of the terra cotta makes the Alwyn Court apartments very expressive, even animated.
Cherubs, in terra cotta, on the facade of Alwyn Court
Pitching Apartment Life
Alwyn Court opened up just over 100 years ago, and its flair and style speak of that time period – an Old New York of the early 20th century when apartment buildings were billed as the new lavish housing choice for the rich. The idea was simple: A wealthy person could get as much luxury in a spacious apartment co-op as a palatial single home. The area just south of Central Park contained a considerable number of these apartment houses.
Terra cotta became a prime material of choice for these buildings to conjure up a high-class, dignified appearance and one harkening back to the glory of the past. It was a “smart” construction option of the time, too, because builders could mold and make it into many patterns at a far lower cost than other high-grade materials.
This palace of glazed terra cotta ornament is another of Mindfulwalker.com’s “Terra Cotta Tales.” You can tour a group of these buildings with distinctive – and amazingly varied – personalities in a small section of Midtown Manhattan: Besides the Alwyn Court apartments check out the Rodin Studios, at 200 West 57th St., at the southwest corner of Seventh Avenue, and the Church For All Nations, the former Catholic Apostolic Church, at 417-419 West 57th St.
The Rodin Studios, in my view, has a staid appearance that upon closer inspection reveals its quirkiness, a quality that matches the art world of its inhabitants. In the Catholic Apostolic Church, the terra cotta forms express reverence. At the Alwyn Court, it’s just over-the-top embellishment that says nothing was too much for its rich occupants.
The creators behind Alwyn Court were an artist who became a developer, Walter Russell, and another developer, Alwyn Ball Jr. They hired architects Herbert Harde and R. Thomas Short – Harde & Short – a team that to this day remains somewhat of a mystery, in the view of Times writer Gray, because they split up shortly after designing several extremely unique, opulent buildings. Russell dropped out of the Alwyn Court project, and Ball, working with Harde & Short, fashioned one of the era’s most sumptuous buildings. (It’s Ball’s first name on the building.) The Atlanta-based Atlantic Terra Cotta Co. produced the terra cotta.
Richer Taste, Less Costly
If only we could know how some architects such as Harde & Short settled on the exact style and influences for their buildings. For Alwyn Court, the architects chose the French Renaissance style of the age of Francis I, King of France from 1515 until his death in 1547, which combines Renaissance and Gothic ornamental forms. They even decided on figures of crowned salamanders breathing fire, the symbol that Francis I selected for his emblem. Throughout the ages, many thought that salamanders had protective powers. Many of these creatures decorate the structure.
The salamander with flames shooting out of its mouth and a crown, photographed during a recent snowfall
This is where the architects took advantage of the economy of terra cotta, since a single mold could be used many times to create figures such as the salamanders. A New York Times story of May 14, 1911 about how architectural terra cotta was becoming the rage noted that Alwyn Court would have cost three times as much if the building’s sponsors had employed any other high-grade material.
The rich like their economies, too: Those who sought to woo the wealthy to luxury apartment houses instead of single-home living – seeking to overcome a definite stigma at the time – pointed out that residents would need half as many servants to run a household smoothly, according to an article on Alwyn Court in The Cooperator.
But oh what spaces to draw the well-to-do. Each of Alwyn Court’s floors had only two apartments, each with 14 rooms and 5 bathrooms! The apartments rented for $10,000 a year, the Times reported. (See a rendering of a typical floor plan.) Alwyn Court’s developers matched the opulent exterior with a plush interior: marble fireplaces, gold moldings, parquet floors, glittering chandeliers, and carriage turnabouts.
A Survivor’s Tale
Often when looking at New York architecture, I’m reminded that booms and busts haven’t just happened in mining towns or California subdivisions. They occur on parts of city blocks, too. After an initial fire that fortunately left no one seriously hurt, Alwyn Court became fully occupied in its first decade and throughout the 1920s. However, by the 1930s, wrote the Times’ Gray, Seventh Avenue was no longer an address with cachet and the apartment house fell on harder times. By 1937, Alwyn Court was vacant.
The Dry Dock Savings Institution foreclosed and gutted the interior. The bank and its architect, Louis S. Weeks, reconfigured the Alwyn Court into 75 apartments instead of the two-dozen existing before, though still aimed at the high-income market. Ultimately, the rental numbers rebounded to 100 percent. In 1980, the building went through a conversation to co-ops for purchase and the architects Beyer Blinder Belle oversaw a $500,000 facade restoration.
Through such economic vicissitudes and various owners, buildings go through plenty of change. In the 1938 remodeling, Alwyn Court lost its grand cornice and balustrade crowning the building, which can be seen in the 1911 New York Times article. But until 1966, when it was designated as a New York City landmark, nothing had officially protected its illustrious, ornate exterior, and still for the most part it has survived.
Today the terra cotta décor remains. It’s a slice of Paris’ Renaissance opulence alive and well in 21st century Manhattan. Is it a feast for the eyes? You be the judge.
View the slide show larger in Flickr.
To complete a walking tour of buildings with fascinating terra cotta ornamentation in close proximity in Midtown Manhattan, also see: