Cross Streets: Centre Street and Chambers Streets
This site is included in LMCC’s Creative Insider’s Guide to Lower Manhattan, sponsored by Launch LM.
Mckim, Mead and White designed relatively few skyscrapers. Founded in the early 1880s, even in its heyday this prominent architectural firm tended to concentrate on low-rise designs, especially private residences, schools and museums. The partner in charge of the Municipal Building was William Mitchell Kendall. At the time, the recently consolidated five boroughs known as “Greater New York” was still new and this 40-story (580 foot) office building gave the city a prominent place on the ascendant skyline. Kendall, a devoted classicist who also designed the concurrent main branch of the U.S. General Post Office on Eighth Avenue at 31st Street, created a soaring civic symbol. Of particular interest is how this almost three-block-long concave structure responded to, but did not disrupt, the surrounding street pattern. Though long-closed to vehicular traffic, the base incorporates an unusual barrel-vaulted passage that, like a Roman triumphal arch, originally functioned as part of Chambers Street, linking the emerging civic center with points east.
At the top of the tower stands Civic Fame, a gold-leafed copper statue that is visible from Brooklyn and various points throughout Manhattan. The 25-foot-tall robed figure was created by the German-born sculptor Adolph Alexander Weinman. Despite its size, the details are quite difficult to appreciate from the street. Possibly modeled on the Statue of Liberty, in one hand she presents a crown with five turrets, representing the boroughs, and in the other, a laurel branch, an attribute of triumph or victory. Weinman was also responsible for the often-overlooked granite bas-reliefs that embellish the exterior of the lowest floors. While the figures in the larger rectangular panels personify civic duty and progress, and civic pride and prudence, among other themes, the small shields represent various government agencies. Today, the Municipal Building houses the offices of the Manhattan Borough President, as well as the Public Advocate, the City Comptroller, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Tucked beneath the tower’s south end, is an elegant subway entrance. Enclosed by tall arches on three sides, the Municipal Building was one of Manhattan’s first structures to contain this amenity and it features a gleaming white scalloped ceiling fabricated by the Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company of Massachusetts. Rafael Guastavino came to New York from Spain in the 1880s with the hope of becoming a successful architect. Though he did produce impressive architectural works, including a group of fine row houses on West 78th Street, he struggled professionally and founded the company that manufactured the tiles and vaulting for countless American structures, including the domed rotunda of the National Museum of the American Indian on Bowling Green and the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Terminal. Often called “subway tiles” by interior designers, the Municipal Building’s glazed canopy reflects light and helps illuminate the broad stairs that descend to various subterranean passages and train platforms.
– Matthew A. Postal