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Master Building | by Emilio Guerra
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Master Building

Riverside Park, Manhattan

  

The Master Building, erected in 1928-29 to house an apartment hotel and museum, is an innovative and significant example of the work of Harvey Wiley Corbett, an architect influential in skyscraper design, and expresses his successful employment of sculptural massing, vertical emphasis, and the minimal, yet elegant, use of surface ornamentation and historically-inspired detailing. The design of the building includes many strong and well-integrated features representative of the best of New York City's Art Deco style skyscrapers, including patterned brickwork which varies in color from dark at the base to light at the tower, setbacks, irregular and faceted massing of the upper stories, and an ornamental cap.

 

The use of comer windows, influenced by modem European architecture, was the most innovative feature of the building and was cited in contemporary accounts as the first appearance of this feature in a skyscraper in New York City and particularly appropriate for a building with views of Riverside Park and the Hudson River. The Master Building was commissioned by Louis L. and Nettie Horch, followers and patrons of the Russian artist and mystic Nicholas Roerich, to whom the museum was dedicated and from whom the building derives its name; this unusual combination of uses is masterfully reflected in the design. The building has played an important cultural role in New York City, housing first the Roerich Museum and later the Riverside Museum, as well as an art school, the Master Institute of United Arts, and most recently the Equity Library Theater. The Master Building continues to be a distinctive feature in the Upper West Side skyline as one of the most prominent structures along Riverside Drive.

 

"Art Rears a Skyscraper"

 

The Master Building, a skyscraper planned with the unusual dual function of housing both an art museum ami an apartment hotel, brought together three men influential in the arts in New York City. Designed by prominent skyscraper architect Harvey Wiley Corbett, the building was commissioned by foreign exchange broker Louis L. Horch, a wealthy patron of the Russian artist and mystic Nicholas Roerich. A combined venture in real estate development and artistic patronage, the project incorporated a museum dedicated to Roerich's work and facilities for public education in the arts, fulfilling the artist's ideal of uniting the arts with daily life. Innovative in its program, the scheme nonetheless reflected several cultural and architectural trends of the era, and, as described by Corbett in the spirit of the project, ushered in a "new era in art as the first living home of art, [a place] where art and human beings will grow and develop side by side.

 

Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947), who arrived in New York in 1920, fostered a combination of aesthetic and theosophist philosophies, including the tenet that art should be incorporated into everyday life. Roerich, who advanced the theosophist belief in ancient masters who could relay messages and wisdom to modem man, considered himself a master and advised his followers in that role. The activities of the Russian artist, who worked in a neo-primitivist style and is perhaps best remembered today as the set designer for Igor Stravinsky's ballet, "Le Sacre du Printemps" (1920), included exploration of the Himalayan region and advocacy of world peace through the promotion of the Roerich Peace Banner and Pact, a movement to protect cultural monuments during war. The charismatic artist attracted the interest of a large group of New Yorkers who supported him and the institutions he founded: the Roerich Museum where the artist's paintings were exhibited? the Master Institute of United Arts which sought to provide instruction in all of the arts; and the Corona Mundi International Art Center which was devoted to widening the appreciation of art through exhibitions and publishing projects.

 

Chief among Roerich's New York supporters were Louis Horch and his wife, Nettie, who shared Roerich's interests in art and religion. Mrs. Horch was an ardent patron of the arts and considered art education to be a form of public service; the Horches devoted considerable energy and funding to the Master Institute of United Arts and had been instrumental in the backing and management of the Roerich Museum since its founding in 1923. As president of the museum, Horch purchased several hundred paintings from the artist and provided exhibition space in an apartment house he owned at 310 Riverside Drive on West 103rd Street which was the future site of the Master Building. While the artist was trekking through the Himalayan region from 1925 to 1928, Horch and the Friends of the Roerich Museum furthered plans for the Master Building, Horch's property having been deeded to the Master Institute of United Arts.

 

The re-opening of the Roerich Museum in the lower stories of the Master Building in November 1929, the high point of Roerich's influence in New York, introduced the artist's work to a broader audience and garnered widespread publicity for the building's programs. The exhibition of over 1,000 paintings produced during Roerich's forty-year career as an artist, as well as collections of Tibetan art and artifacts, impressed one critic at The New Yorker as constituting a major museum that had sprung up overnight. The affiliated Master Institute of United Arts offered classes in a wide range of subjects, including painting, sculpture, architecture, interior design, ami the performing arts. Residents of the Master Building apartments, privileged to live in a "home of art and culture, were entitled to membership in the Friends of the Roerich Museum, which afforded access to all lectures and events presented in the museum's three-hundred seat auditorium, use of the library, and the borrowing of artworks through the Corona Mundi International Art Center.

 

The Architects of the Master Building

 

The Master Building was designed by Harvey Wiley Corbett of the firm of Helmle, Corbett & Harrison in association with Sugarman & Berger; these firms had recently collaborated on the design of another apartment hotel, One Fifth Avenue (1926, within the Greenwich Village Historic District).

 

The firm of Helmle & Corbett was active in Brooklyn and Manhattan during the 1910s and 1920s and gained prominence in tall building design during the 1920s. Frank J. Helmle (1869-1937), who began working in Brooklyn around 1890, and Harvey Wiley Corbett (1873-1954), who had earned an engineering degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1895 before entering the Parisian Ecole des Beaux-Arts the next year, opened a practice in Brooklyn in 1912. Wallace K. Harrison (1895-1982), a former student of Corbett's, joined the firm in 1927, a year before Helmle retired. Usually the principal designer of the firm's commissions, Corbett was acknowledged as the architect of the Master Building in contemporary accounts.

 

This commission came during the peak years of Corbett's career as a designer of tall buildings and an advocate for the skyscraper as the most important American contribution to the field of architecture. His reputation as an architect of the set-back skyscraper was advanced by his early use of the stepped form in the Bush Tower (1916-18, 130-132 West 42nd Street, a designated New York City Landmark) and his writing and lecturing on skyscraper design, particularly as it was influenced by the New York City Zoning Resolution.

 

Corbett's tall building designs of the 1920s and 1930s became increasingly influenced by the trend toward streamlined form that characterized stripped European modernism, and include One Fifth Avenue (1926), the Pennsylvania Power and Light Building in Allentown, Pa. (1928-29), the Master Building (1928-29), the National Title Guaranty Company (1929-30, 185 Montague Street, Brooklyn), 10 Park Avenue (1930), the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company North Building (11-25 Park Avenue, 1931-32 with D. E. Waide), and the Criminal Courts Building (100 Center Street, 1939 with Charles B. Meyers). Wallace K. Harrison worked with Corbett on several other prominent commissions, including the Bushnell Memorial Building (1930) in Hartford, Connecticut and Rockefeller Center (1931-1939, with Associated Architects). After Harrison left the firm in 1935, Corbett practiced with William H. MacMurray (1868-1941), who managed the firm's business affairs. Corbett remained active through the mid-1940s as a planner and designer; among his many honors was the 1954 annual award of the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects which acknowledged his long and distinguished career.

 

Among their duties on the Master Building project, the firm of Sugarman & Berger had an advisory role in the design, supervised interior construction work, and filed for the Certificate of Occupancy. Henry Sugarman (1889-1946) was a graduate of the National Academy of Design and the School of Architecture, Columbia University, and studied in England and France. After working in the southern United States, he moved to New York in 1917 and formed the partnership of Bloodgood & Sugarman. In 1923 the firm of Sugarman, Hess & Berger was established; from 1926 until Berger's death in 1940 the firm was known as Sugarman & Berger. Albert G. Berger (1879-1940), a native of Hungary who was educated at the University of Budapest, emigrated to New York in 1904 and worked for other firms before joining Sugarman. Examples of the firm's apartment buildings include several on the Upper West Side.

 

The Design of the Master Building

 

The Master Building was constructed near the end of a period of redevelopment of Riverside Drive and West End Avenue between the World Wars, when large-scale apartment buildings replaced rowhouses, mansions, and flats. At the time it was erected, the building towered above neighboring apartment buildings, and to this day it is the tallest residential structure on Riverside Drive; only the Riverside Church, twenty blocks to the north, is taller.

 

The Master Building was designed as an apartment hotel, a building type popular in New York City between the 1880s and 1930, which was not subject to the height restrictions on residential buildings imposed by the tenement house laws. Hotel-type amenities, such as maid service and a restaurant, as well as minimal kitchens as required by law (euphemistically called pantries) in the apartments satisfied the tenants' needs. The units in the Master Building were one to three rooms in size, each with a private bath and a service pantry with refrigeration.

 

The dual function of the building is expressed on the exterior by the articulation of the brick curtain wall. Four unencumbered facades, ensured by a one-bay setback from the eastern lot line above the second story and the three-story wing on the north side, provide exterior exposure for all residential units. While the window arrangement of the apartment tower reveals its residential use, the design of the lower two stories of the building, with fewer windows and variation in the brick patterning, provides a solid base for the building and reflects the use of the lower floors of the building by the museum. The dramatic overscale entrances on both street facades further denote the public character of the lower stories.

 

The design of the Master Building incorporates several aspects of the Art Deco style as it was applied to skyscrapers in New York City during the 1920s.

 

The Art Deco style became popular after the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modemes, an exhibition celebrating a new approach to ornament based on various sources and its contribution to "modem" design. In New York City the Art Deco style was applied to all types of buildings, often relying on vertical emphasis, polychromy, patterned brick, rectilinear compositions, and terra-cotta ornament using abstracted forms and the repetition of motifs. Another major influence on skyscraper design was Eliel Saarinen's 1923 second-prize winning competition entry for the Chicago Tribune Building, in which the verticality of the steel-frame skeleton was boldly emphasized. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, an American skyscraper design evolved which emphasized the vertical, made inventive use of setback massing as required by the 1916 New York City Zoning Resolution, employed ornamentation evocative of the modem machine age, and frequently incorporated color as an integral aspect of the design.

 

Harvey Wiley Corbett, as demonstrated by his building designs and numerous articles on the design of tall buildings, seems to have been influenced by Saarinen's use of piers to emphasize the verticality of tall buildings, as well as by the work of the experimental European modernists who sought to eliminate historical references from their designs in favor of reflecting industrial age technology and engineering. In writing about American skyscrapers in the 1920s, Corbett stressed the need for vertical emphasis in skyscraper design and the suitability of expressing the underlying steel skeleton. He preferred the "natural beauty of silhouette and color, "9 rather than surface ornamentation, and considered the architect, above all, a sculptor of masses.

 

He generalized in 1929 that the best American work has a real "lift" that carries the eye upward in each line of construction, by emphasizing everywhere the vertical, by subordinating the aesthetically less pleasing horizontal, and by pyramiding the masses that support the central tower. Such designing assures suitable facing for the skeleton, and the minimum of wasted material and space. ^

 

The complex massing of the Master Building is very similar to the nearly contemporary One Fifth Avenue, an apartment hotel designed by Helmle & Corbett in association with Sugarman & Berger. Both buildings terminate in a short tower rising from a series of irregularly massed forms creating the setbacks. Hugh Ferriss, the prominent architectural delineator who often worked for Corbett, described this massing plan as tripartite — the main body, the transitional stage where the mass breaks, recedes, and diversifies, and the tower. The faceted massing in the upper portions of the Master Building, with angled bays and a building-block appearance, was similar in concept to the work of the German Expressionist architects in the 1920s. Other architects in New York were exploring similar massing strategies, including Ralph Walker, in the New York Telephone Company Building (also known as the Barclay-Vesey Building) of 1923 where a central tower rises above the base, and Ely Jacques Kahn, in the angled forms of the setbacks of the Bricken-Casino Building of 1930-31.

 

The brick facade of the Master Building reflects another trend in Art Deco style architecture of the late 1920s, the integral use of color in the design and surface patterning of the curtain vail. The overall color of the brick changes from dark purple at the base to light gray at the tower, a design element Corbett chose "to create the effect of a growing thing, " The ornamentation of the building is limited to brick patterning at the base, entrance trim, and spandrel panels, and terra-cotta cresting at the edges of the terrace parapets.

 

The design of the brickwork also echoes the strong massing of the building with opening enframements narrowed to be the width of a header, corbelling at the lower end of the major piers which are edged with projecting bricks, and vertical patterns in the spandrels. When writing about the Master Building, Corbett emphasized hew the structure boldly followed the outline of the steel skeleton, and drew attention to the use of the gradation of color; he probably was pleased when the New York Times noted that there was not one unnecessary detail on the Master Building. Corbett often experimented with several solutions for a given project and continued to revise elements of his designs after the plans had been made public. His final design for the Master Building exhibited refinements in the detailing from what had appeared in the rendering published in 1928.14 The stepped pyramidal cap with a Buddhist stupa terminating the tower proposed in the original design was replaced with a much simpler octagonal form containing chimneys with stepped vertical articulation. The original rendering illustrated a regularly-spaced single window and pier system, whereas the windows in the final design were arranged in pairs separated by piers of varying width, creating a rhythmic pattern of wide and narrow ribs which furthered the vertical emphasis of the facade.

 

The most innovative aspect of the Master Building was the use of comer windows, described in the contemporary press as the first appearance of this feature in a skyscraper in New York City. Apparently inspired by the increasing use of comer windows in Europe, Corbett added "wrap-around windows" to the final design of the Master Building whereas in the original conception there were to be wide, unadorned comer piers. The comer windows of the Master Building can be seen as an experimental, early use of such windows in New York City. An interesting comparison is the nearly contemporary use of comer windows in the Beaux-Arts Apartments (1929-30, Raymond Hood, 307 and 310 East 44th Street, designated New York City landmarks) where the windows function as part of a design based on horizontal emphasis. The comer windows of the Master Building, above the cantilevered floors, were particularly appropriate due to the location of the building which provided views of Riverside Park and the Hudson River; the apartments were fitted with interior window seats at the comers.

 

Description

 

The Master Building, a twenty-nine story apartment tower with a three-story northern wing, occupies a prominent site on the northeast comer of West 103rd Street and Riverside Drive. The steel-framed brick-clad structure, with four designed facades, rises fourteen stories to the first setback. The irregular massing of the seven-story transitional portion is composed of setbacks, seme of which have angled comers, and terraces; the two-part octagonal tower rises above this portion. The ironspot brick veneer is graded from a deep purple at the base to light gray at the top, which terminates in a geometric pinnacle (originally white), although weathering has obscured the effect of the color gradation.

 

A strong rhythmic vertical pattern on the facades is created by paired windows (with their original metal one-over-one sash) separated by alternating wide and narrow piers edged with projecting bricks. The spandrels are ornamented by brick headers in a vertical pattern. The original comer windows had metal folding casement sash and a few of the these remain; most of the comer windows have been replaced with Chicago-style windows. Parapets with corbelled brick bands are finished with terra-cotta cresting at the set-back upper stories.

 

The two lower stories of the building, where the museum was originally housed, are differentiated from the apartment tower above by over-scale entrances centered on both street facades, as well as by the omission of windows at the comers. The base, below the first-story windows, and both entrance surrounds are laid in header bond. At the lintel height of the first story windows, cantilevered metal canopies extend above the entrances; the openings above the canopies are filled with large, tripartite transom windows with blue leaded glass sidelights. The Riverside Drive entrance, approached by steps, has glass doors in the reveals of the recessed entrance alcove, perpendicular to the glass window wall at the top of the steps. Paired glass doors at the West 103rd Street entrance are framed by a glass transom and sidelights. A set of metal service doors and two pairs of paneled glass doors provide access to the theater at the eastern end of the 103rd Street facade. Original wrought-iron grillwork remains in situ at the first-story windows ami at a window above the main theater entrance. Patterned brick panels created by header coursing with projecting bricks appear above the secondary doors and a similar brickwork fills some of the second-story window openings on the 103rd Street facade. 19 The original design of the wide entrance to the three-story wing on the north (originally a restaurant) remains although metal panels cover the windows and the leaded glass sidelights that surround the central door.

 

Subsequent History

 

Financial troubles beset the Roerich Museum and the Master Building in 1931, and after protracted court proceedings control of the building was awarded to Louis Horch in 1932. The next year, Horch began to separate himself from Roerich by taking firmer control of the museum and the building, and finally, in 1938, he closed the Roerich Museum. The Horches immediately opened the Riverside Museum in the same space and continued the educational work of the Master Institute of United Arts. The Riverside Museum, dedicated to contemporary American painting and sculpture, closed in 1971 and the Horch family transferred the collection to the Brandeis University Museum in Waltham, Massachusetts. Since 1961 the Equity Library Theater, a showcase for New York actors originally sponsored by the New York Public Library, has continued the tradition of artistic endeavor in the Master Building by leasing the theater. Louis Horch owned the "The Master" until the 1970s; the building has recently undergone conversion to a cooperative.

 

- From the 1989 NYCLPC Landmark Designation Report

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Taken on November 21, 2009