1969–1970

This site is included in LMCC’s Creative Insider’s Guide to Lower Manhattan, sponsored by Launch LM.

Developer Melvyn Kaufman built two unusual office buildings on Water Street during the early 1970s: 127 John Street (now 200 Water Street) and 77 Water Street. Both were designed by Emery Roth & Sons in a conventional modern style with gridded facades of aluminum and glass. At the base, however, these buildings were memorably unconventional, with spacious open-air lobbies that also functioned as public spaces. Though the neon-lit entrance tunnel at 127 John Street is long gone, the arcaded plaza at 77 Water Street retains many original features.

Corchia-de Harak Associates, headed by graphic designer Rudolf de Harak, were responsible for the plaza’s offbeat design. Though the elevator banks and reception desk are now enclosed behind a wall of curved glass, overall it remains a curious and unique environment. Completed in circa 1970, one finds shallow pools (now filled with small rocks) and bridges, as well as a light-hearted display of mostly abstract art that suggests an urban sculpture garden. SoHo resident William Tarr created the metal blocks displayed near Old Slip. Made from aluminum panels that were discarded during the building’s construction, these crushed rectangular pieces recall the work of John Chamberlain. Other abstract works include George Adamy’s colorful Month of June and de Harak’s Helix. Perhaps the most surprising feature is the old-timey candy store. Not only is it the only retail business on the block, but the store also occupies a free-standing one-story frame building. Somewhat hidden by the recessed mezzanine, it often goes unnoticed but this nostalgic interloper is pure Kaufman, providing a strange and refreshing break from the sleek corporate facades that generally define Water Street.

One really delightful aspect of 77 Water, oddly enough, is almost impossible to view. Following the Second World War, the great majority of Manhattan buildings were constructed with flat roofs that generally contain mechanical equipment. While such equipment is present at 77 Water Street, so is a full-size steel replica of a World War I airplane. Designed by de Harak and fabricated by Tarr, it sits at the end of a green artificial turf tarmac, complete with landing lights. Visible on satellite images and from neighboring office buildings, perhaps this rusting replica can be interpreted as a sly commentary about the unrealized promise of urban aviation. Though the recently completed Pan Am Building had a much-publicized helipad, it proved unprofitable and was only in operation briefly, closing (for the first time) in February 1968, a year before this mystifying aero-sculpture was lifted to the roof.

Matthew A. Postal