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Columbia University Digital Knowledge Ventures The Architecture and Development of New York City with Andrew S. Dolkart
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Art Deco
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The competition was entered by a number of designers from New York and from elsewhere, some of whom were professional architects and some of whom were not. The winner of the competition was a design submitted by two architects, John McComb Jr., who was born in New York and is often said to have been the first professional architect born in New York, and a French immigrant named Joseph-François Mangin. They did not work together often, but together they put together this design, which was one of the most sophisticated public buildings in America in the early nineteenth century, a building that was very French. It was probably Mangin who had the most to do with the exterior design.

This is the competition design that was submitted. McComb's drawings still survive at the New York Historical Society, and so a lot of the early city Hall drawings are still there. The building was built very much to this design, although the cupola was changed a little bit and the sculptural detail along the roofline was never done.

But it is a very three-dimensional, very sculptural building that was meant to draw attention to itself, even though it's relatively small, to have a sense of monumentality to it.

The building has arms at either end that reach out to you, and it has a very strong vertical central emphasis, something that's very common on French buildings, and this central emphasis is then capped by the tower.

You can see the three-dimensional quality of the building, with the arms and the stairs moving out to sort of draw in the viewer. This is, after all, city Hall. It was a public building, and the public was invited to come in. So you wanted the public to feel welcome. And they're almost embraced by this building.

It also has an arcade on the first floor that continues, also a very French idea, continuing all across the façade.

And a portico that is there to shield you from the sun, shield you from the rain, and also make a transition between the park outside and the luxurious interiors.

The building actually is not the original structure that you see. The façades are not the original. The building was built out of marble from Westchester, with a rear façade that's brownstone. Now one of the great legends of New York is that the brownstone façade was done because they didn't think anybody would ever live farther north, so they thought well nobody would ever see the rear facade, and therefore they could do it in brownstone rather than marble.

This is a lovely story. It has absolutely no truth to it, because by the time city Hall was built people already lived farther north. And so people would have seen the rear façade right from the very beginning. But it was a cost-cutting measure. The brownstone costs less than the marble, so brownstone was used in the rear.

The stonework on the façade deteriorated very badly. And as New York city grew there were various proposals in the nineteenth century and in the early twentieth century to either demolish city Hall and replace it, or move it someplace else.

But none of these ever happened, and so finally in the 1950s, when the façades were so badly deteriorated, molds were taken of all of the original ornamental details and the original stonework was removed and it was replaced with marble from Georgia. And that includes the rear façade. The rear façade is now marble and no longer has that brownstone look.

The only place where original stone survives is the ceiling of the portico, and so this is where you can actually see what the color of the stone was. They did a pretty good job of imitating this, but nonetheless the walls are now from the 1950s.


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