Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The Ayn Rand Code

A guide to Howard Roark's Manhattan as built in steel and dreams.

Read The Fountainhead, been to New York, bought the centennial edition? But did you ever wonder which real buildings may have inspired the steel and concrete stars of The Fountainhead?

As for that hideous Frink National Bank Building, I know of no building in New York City "on the top of which, twenty-five floors above the pavements, there burned in a miniature replica of the Hadrian Mausoleum a wind-blown torch made of glass and the best General Electric bulbs." (Lucky me.)

Yet, there is a bank building topped by a copy of what put the "Mausol" in mausoleum, the original Mausoleum of Mausolus at Halicarnassus, twenty-nine floors above the pavements. Like the Frink National Bank Building, which was apparently among the tallest buildings Downtown, the Bankers Trust Building at 14 Wall Street was among the three tallest buildings in the city when it opened in 1912. What's more, it's as eclectically Greek as the Frink National Bank Building is Roman:

"Sources for the design included the Ionic order on the Erechtheum at the Acropolis, ancient Macedonian prototypes, and reconstruction drawings of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the model for the stepped-pyramid temple which crowns the building, giving it its distinctive profile against the skyline." (Opens PDF)

That would make 14 Wall Street's architects, Trowbridge & Livingston, Francon & Heyer, right? Well, Samuel Beck Parkman Trowbridge studied at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. The Stanton Institute of Technology? Like Guy Francon, he later studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

Finally, while the tip of 14 Wall Street functions as nothing but a lowly smokestack, Trowbridge & Livingston's Gulf Tower in Pittsburgh, another replica of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus (like one copy wasn't bad enough), is topped by a locally famous beacon.

Another candidate is 26 Broadway, the old Standard Oil Building. Of course it's not a bank building, but like 14 Wall Street it is topped by a pyramid modeled on the Mausoleum of Mausolus. Plus: "At the time of construction, the pyramid was the tallest tower at the tip of Manhattan and was illuminated as a beacon for ships entering the harbor."

A little more than "[t]hree blocks east of the Frink National Bank" — in fact, more like thirty blocks north of 14 Wall Street — stands the real-life Dana Building, its lines "hard and simple, revealing, emphasizing the harmony of the steel skeleton within." It is more than just some stories lower, though. The thirteen-story Bayard-Condict Building at 65 Bleecker Street is the only building in New York by Louis Sullivan, the inspiration for Henry Cameron. Its "curtain wall of terra cotta that expresses the inner steel skeleton was a radical departure from the heavy masonry of building in this period. … With this building, Sullivan revolutionized the way architects think about tall buildings." In her Ayn Rand biography, Anne Heller concurs and adds that Rand likely named the building in honor of Frank Lloyd Wright's Dana House in Springfield, Illinois (pp. 118).

Just a few blocks away, by the way, is Stanton Street. Coincidence?

The Cosmo-Slotnick Building on Broadway, "a skyscraper to house a motion-picture theater and forty floors of offices," no doubt was Ayn Rand's take on the 1927 Paramount Building on Times Square, a 3,600-seat theater fronted by a thirty-three-floor office building in shape of a giant desk clock. Heller concurs and adds that it too was the result of a public competition (p. 119).

According to her, Roark's low-slung Stoddard Temple is based on Wright's Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois (p. 115).

For a glimpse of a very rudimentary Enright House, you can look at the 1930 Howe & Lescaze design for the Museum of Modern Art. While its individual gallery blocks attached to a service core may have given Ayn Rand the idea of "each a single house held to the other houses like a single crystal to the side of a rock," sans Roark they still look a lot like a "pile of cages." Recently, Santiago Calatrava infused the design with some Roark quality when he adapted it into an apartment tower much like the Enright House. Sadly, this Enright House at 80 South Street remains unbuilt. Another possible inspiration is Wright's equally unbuilt St. Mark's-in-the-Bouwerie Towers (model, rendering).

The Cord Building would appear to be the Chrysler Building. Both share the name of an automobile manufacturer. While in The Fountainhead, Anthony Cord has nothing to do with the Cord Corporation, it is significant that, not unlike Roark, E.L. "Cord had a philosophy to build truly different, innovative cars, believing they would also sell well and turn a profit."

Of course, the Cord Building is more than twenty stories shorter than the Chrysler Building, but Ayn Rand couldn't have Roark build the world's tallest building at that early point in his career. Nevertheless, that "tower of copper and glass" "in the center of Manhattan" sure reflects the tower with the elegant top of stainless steel and glass at Grand Central.

As for "the Aquitania Hotel on Central Park South," that's anyone's guess. If there is a real-life inspiration, and if that inspiration is on Central Park South, it's probably 240 Central Park South, completed in 1941. It's more modern than the other major prewar buildings on that street, like the Essex House or the Hampshire House, and the one that comes closest to a "study of angles and terraces."

The year Ayn Rand came to America, 1926, there was a proposal all over the news for a real Wynand Building in Hell's Kitchen. The Larkin Tower was to rise west of Eighth Avenue, between Forty-first and Forty-second Streets, where the old McGraw-Hill Building was eventually built in 1931. At 108 stories and 1,208 feet, the Larkin Tower would have been the world's tallest building, nearly as tall as the Empire State Building half a decade later.

Yet, the proposed design for the Larkin Tower decidedly lacked Roark quality. The top floors would have had room for little more than an elevator. Unless they were meant to be mere token floors for a height record, like those in the Empire State Building's dirigible mooring mast, the building badly needed to be redesigned. Maybe they should have let Roark give it a try.

Anyways, Happy Ayn Rand Day!

1 comment:

Kushal Sharma said...

Hey, it's good to finally see this in print. I remember how many ages we took and yet weren't able to do much with it in terms of publishing it on the Atlasphere.