This site is included in LMCC’s Creative Insider’s Guide to Lower Manhattan, sponsored by Launch LM.
Following the Second World War, commercial airplanes began to link New York City with Europe. Prior to this time, the Cunard Steamship Company played a leading role in global transit, operating ships throughout the world. Founded by the Canadian entrepreneur Samuel Cunard in 1839, his company developed a reputation for fast and reliable service. Though now famous for operating a fleet of cruise ships, earlier steamships carried goods and mail and thousands of third-class passengers immigrating to this country. In 1917, the same year construction began on this building, Cunard opened a similarly monumental neo-Renaissance headquarters in Liverpool, England.
When Lower Manhattan’s Cunard Building was completed in 1921, many shipping firms were located on the west side of Broadway, including the International Mercantile Marine Company Building at the northwest corner of Battery Place. Cunard, the largest structure on the block, was designed by Benjamin Wistar Morris, who collaborated with Carrere & Hastings, the architectural firm where he began his career. Twenty-two stories tall, the restrained neo-classical elevations work well in this location and feature a rusticated base punctuated by deeply-recessed archways with brass-framed doors and windows. The elevations incorporate modest nautical images, including ship medallions, a cornice with alternating images of shells, tritons and sea horses, as well as at the corners of the first setback, a pair of free-stranding marine horsemen by the architectural sculptors Rochette & Parzini.
From stairs on Broadway, the three center arches lead to a large, wide vestibule that adjoins the ticketing hall, a vast space where passengers once came to arrange their travels. Among Manhattan’s most memorable interior landmarks, it is now leased to the Cipriani company which plans to operate a special events venue here, much like at 55 Wall Street, the former National City Bank Building. Inspired by the Italian Renaissance villas and the ancient Roman Baths of Caracalla, this mostly travertine marble room features arches, groin vaults, and a particularly impressive central dome. These surfaces are handsomely decorated with murals that connect the Cunard company to early explorers and travel destinations. At the center of the hall is an octagonal space with colorful paintings by Ezra Winter. The corner pendentives display large images of early sailing vessels, each representing a transatlantic voyage led by Lief Ericsson, Christopher Columbus, John and Sebastian Cabot, and Francis Drake. Likewise, some side walls feature large decorative maps by mural painter Barry Faulkner documenting major seaports and sea routes. According to a Cunard brochure, these charts were meant to “stimulate the sense of adventure and minister to the love of travel.”
Cunard’s ticketing hall closed in 1968. Following the sale of the building in 1971, the interior was converted into one of Manhattan’s most memorable U.S. post offices, which remained in service until about 2000.
– Matthew A. Postal