Various buildings, 1927–1933

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

Lower Manhattan has many superb Art Deco buildings. Introduced in the mid-1920s, this popular architectural style fused various current European and American trends, blending modern industrial materials with geometric forms. It was also strongly shaped by the passage of the 1916 zoning ordinance that required building facades to step back as they rise, allowing more natural light and air to circulate through the canyons of an increasingly congested city. John Street, especially in the blocks between Dutch and Pearl Streets, contains many representative examples – speculative office structures that were commissioned to house small to mid-sized insurance companies following the First World War. While none of these structures are New York City Landmarks, this unique enclave reflects one decade’s distinctive approach to ornament and massing.

Two of John Street’s finer buildings were designed by Buchman & Kahn. Ely Jacques Kahn, who joined the firm in 1917, was one of this era’s most prolific and gifted architects. Working for mostly speculative developers, he produced a body of work that is celebrated for its innovative use of abstract ornament. Kahn was responsible for 80 John Street, at the corner of Gold Street, which dates to 1927. Originally known as the Insurance Center Building, the facade is embellished with decorative brickwork and geometric reliefs, including, most notably, a jagged cast-stone frieze that draws attention to the various setbacks. While such tiered setbacks were mandatory, the rules were written to encourage a great variety of solutions. Kahn later designed 111 John Street (1930), a tan brick building with lively brass details that occupies a full block between Cliff and Pearl Streets.

John Street also contains a number of Art Deco buildings by lesser-known-yet-prolific firms. These include, from west to east, 60 John Street (1928-31), designed for the New Amsterdam Causality Company by the architects Clinton & Russell and Holton & George, 90-100 John Street (1930) by Springsteen & Goldhammer, and 116 John Street (1931) by Charles Glaser and Louis Allen Abramson. The last building is faced with white brick; it has an especially elegant T-shaped lobby with polished black marble walls punctuated by silver elevator doors embellished with cast metal reliefs.

At 99 John Street, between Cliff and Gold Streets, stands the former Insurance Company of North America Building. Converted to apartments in 1999, this 1933 “Streamlined Modern” structure was designed by Shreve Lamb & Harmon, architect of the Empire State Building, which features a similar striped limestone facade. Compared to the earlier buildings found on John Street, there is hardly any ornament to speak of. This stylistic break anticipates the ascendancy of modern architecture, but the use of simpler forms may also reflect the wallet-tightening spirit of the early Depression years.

– Matthew A. Postal