1923–1927

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

In the annals of New York City architecture, the Barclay-Vesey Telephone Building is especially important. Designed by Ralph Walker as the headquarters of the New York Telephone Company, it was this gifted architect’s first major work and the first skyscraper to fully exploit the aesthetic potential of the 1916 zoning code. Located on an unusual and challenging trapezoidal block and now somewhat hidden between One and Seven World Trade Center, this 32-story building rises in stages to a central tower that features strong verticals and a richly ornamented crown. As a partner with the firm Voorhees Gmelin & Walker, he would later oversee the design of a succession of communications structures throughout New York State, including two buildings in the vicinity: the Western Union Building (1928-30) at 60 Hudson Street and the AT&T Long Distance Building (1930-32) at 32 Sixth Avenue.

Begun in 1923, this gray, gold and buff-colored brick building has multiple setbacks trimmed with limestone and, on the upper floors, cast stone. The naturalistic, low relief ornament was produced by the architectural sculptors Ulysses Ricci and John De Cesare. Fruits, vegetables, animals and twisting vines can be discerned, as well as an occasional bell, a long-time symbol of the phone company. These stylized elements sit somewhere between medieval revival and Art Deco, the style that would soon dominate American architecture and interior design. Though Walker, who studied at MIT, did not attend the legendary 1925 Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels in Paris that eventually gave the style its name, he was clearly aware of current European trends and chose features that would animate the facade without disrupting the vertical emphasis of the exterior. Widely admired for its modernity at the time of completion, the Barclay-Vesey Building appears as the frontispiece in the English translation of Le Corbusier’s Vers in Architecture, published in 1927. In retrospect, this was a peculiar choice, especially since the French architect’s American supporters generally opposed any type of decorative embellishment.

The entrance lobby, which is currently closed to the public, is particularly impressive. Like the arcade on Vesey Street, it stretches an entire block, from Washington to West Street. The elaborate ornamental program includes striking brass chandeliers, polished marble walls, extensive decorative metalwork. Brightly-colored ceiling murals by Edgar Williams, of the firm Mack, Jenney & Tyler, celebrate the progress of human communication, from the use of African drums and smoke signals to telephone and radio. This interior, as well as the south facade, was badly damaged on 9/11. Fortunately, a renovation was already planned and casts that had already been prepared, as well as careful documentation, allowed for a remarkable and rapid restoration.

Matthew A. Postal