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Columbia University Digital Knowledge Ventures The Architecture and Development of New York City with Andrew S. Dolkart
image The Birth of the Skyscraper Why Skyscrapers?
The Corbin Building
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Why Skyscrapers?
The Corbin Building
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R. H. Robertson was not the only prestigious architect to design early skyscrapers. Another example of this is Francis Kimball's Corbin Building. Francis Kimball was one of the most talented and most prolific architects in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He not only was a pioneer in the design of skyscrapers—like the Corbin Building, which was one of his earliest skyscrapers—but he also designed residential buildings. Probably his most famous building is the Montauk Club, a private club in Park Slope in Brooklyn, and he also designed a number of very important churches. But in the late 1880s, he became involved in the design of commercial skyscrapers and was responsible for a significant number of early skyscrapers in lower Manhattan.

His great early skyscraper is the Corbin Building, on the corner of Broadway and John Street. And this does not seem like much of a skyscraper to us today, since it is only eight stories high, but when it was designed in 1888, it was a building that towered over all of its four- and five-story neighbors.

The building is only 20 feet wide, but it extends for over 160 feet along John Street. Kimball devised an extraordinarily beautiful fašade design for the building. It has a stone base, and then above that it is a beautiful tawny-colored brick with extensive terra-cotta ornament. So it has this rich use of ornamental terra-cotta, including scalloped arches around the windows, plus the windows are highlighted with cast iron. So you have a use of many different materials. And then at the corners were pyramidal towers, unfortunately now gone.

The building has been very badly neglected today and it is very dirty. And you have to look very carefully to see what an absolutely spectacular building this is. Unfortunately the building is also endangered. One of the unfortunate things that has occurred post-9/11 is that a number of important buildings downtown—some of which were damaged on 9/11—are being threatened by the new plans for downtown. And the Corbin Building stands on the site where a transit hub is planned. It is very important to people involved in historic preservation to try to save this very significant early building.


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Update on the Corbin Building, October 2003.
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