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Great Rooflines: Broadway and 90th Street

August 13, 2012

One of the great things about Broadway that is generally underappreciated are the seating areas in the center islands that permit one to gaze up and compare rooflines diagonally across from one another.

Normally, of course, this is not too fruitful a pursuit, especially since the perspective is often difficult and the rooflines not always inspiring.

But occasionally it can be surprising and quite interesting.

Nowhere else can this be found so dramatically as at 90th Street where the Art Nouveau "vinery" atop The Cornwall apartment building on the northwest corner makes one rethink love affairs with really large cornice overhangs as can be found at the Astor Court on the southeast corner.

These buildings are meant to snag those who leap tall buildings in a single bound and swing their partners, round and round, as they say. They are show-stoppers, if not ghost-busters on fantasy islands, like Manhattan.

The Cornwall, whose address is 255 West 90th Street, is a 12-story, red-brick, cooperative apartment building that is one of the most spectacular in the city because of its very ornate and spectacular roofline, which is perforated with bold Art Nouveau style detailing. It was erected in 1909 and designed by Neville & Bagge.

The penthouse atop the southern wing of the Cornwall has a rooftop addition that is painted red and huge terraces behind the perforated roof walls that are rather plain looking from the "inside" view. The apartment was recently sold by Carson Grant to Christine Raglan for $1.75 million.

New York does not have a lot of Art Nouveau architecture unfortunately as Art Deco and the International Modern movements stripped away its organic-like extravagance in the interests of streamlining everything. As a result, minimalism runs rampant through the city's architectural veins and The Cornwall is like a chameleon dragonlady ready to pounce on the unsuspecting pedestrian or window cleaner. Look out, you Jonahs! You may be devoured by this wrinkled edifice and blinded by the rarity of its beauty.

The building, which has 35 apartments, has an elegant three-story limestone base that gives no hint of its skyward stretch. It has several decorative balconies and those on the fourth floor are decorated with squirrels.

Neville & Bagge were obviously pleased with the design as they designed three other similar buildings on the Upper West Side, the South Bennington Corners at 801 West End Avenue in 1910 at 99th Street and the North Bennington Corners at 817 West End Avenue in 1909 at 100th Streets, respectively, and The Manchester at 255 West 108th Street in 1910.

The two Bennington Corners buildings had peacocks inside the large perforations at the top that were not as organic as the Cornwall. The Manchester, sadly, lost its fabulous roofline that was similar to the others but with larger perforations.

Here, the Cornwall and the Astor Court are dueling over the heart and soul of Manhattan: sashay with vertical entanglements or precipitously or definitively lop off the top with an abrupt coup de grace: forays upwards vs. the downward guillotine.

These rooflines are an ensnarling of the elements at the precipice, a most passionate and dominant attachment to, and conquering of, the sky.

The Astor Court is a distinguished, 13-story, red-brick, apartment building that is one of the city's few grand apartment buildings erected around a large garden courtyard. The building's plan is in the shape of a "U" with the opening on its eastern facade. It has entrances on both 90th and 89th Streets and the garden is partially visible through the entrances.

The building has one of the largest cornices in the city. The cornice is missing some detailing in the middle of the building's Broadway frontage.

Built in 1915, it is a cooperative with 158 apartments. It was designed by Charles A. Platt and built by Vincent Astor.

The three other famous garden courtyard luxury apartment buildings on the Upper West Side are the Dakota at 1 West 72nd Street, the Belnord at 225 West 86th Street and the Apthorp at 2211 Broadway at 79th Street.

In 1914, Astor started the million Astor Court apartments on Broadway from 89th to 90th Streets. "Here," Mr. Gray wrote in his September 10, 2006 "Streetscapes" column in The New York Times, "working with the artist and architect Charles Platt, he erected a facade of brick and stone so carefully detailed that it might have evoked a private club, except that it was 13 stories high. Architectural critics had been complaining for years that as buildings had grown in height, their cornices had started looking puny. Platt and Astor actually did something about it. Astor Court's great copper cornice projects out eight feet and was painted in gold and red, as classical monuments once had been," the article said.

The gold and red pigments are now gone, but the cornice remains largely intact.

"By the late 1920's, Astor built two "tasteful" apartment buildings at 520 and 530 East 86th Street, also designed by Platt and then had him design the all-limestone 120 East End Avenue at 85th Street.

The building was converted to a cooperative in 1985 and has a children's playroom, a bicycle room, a laundry room, a resident manager, a roof terrace, 10-foot-high ceilings, and wood-burning fireplaces.

In "The A.I.A. Guide to New York City, Fifth Edition," Elliot Willensky, Norval White and Fran Leadon observed that "the piece de resistence" at the Astor Court "is the hovering cornice, worthy of Michelangelo," adding, in the next item on The Cornwall that "an extraordinary cornice is the place to focus: a terra-cotta diadem, modeled and perforated as if on an Indian temple."

Architects have long pondered how best to signify that their building has stopped its penetration into the heavens and perhaps the most popular means they have employed is the cornice, a protruding element that overhangs the building's facade. This element is usually not too tall so as not to seem ungainly and not too deep so as not to appear too dangerous, or cast too large a shadow.

The cornice, like most architectural elements, comes in a variety of shapes and designs, but most are quite detailed and complex and often are the most decorative element of a building's exterior as they can be seen from near and far.

Many are very elegant and impressive such as that found atop the Metropolitan Club on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue at 60th Street, but some are quite minimal.

Lately, there appears to be a resurgence of interest in cornices.

Perhaps the most interesting "modern" cornice is atop the Carnegie Hall Tower at 152 West 57th Street that was erected in 1990 and designed by Cesar Pelli & Associates. Instead of a projecting decorative cap, Pelli has protruded spokes on three of the tower's top facades that clutch at the proverbial passing clouds and passionate dreams wafting up from the concert hall in an aggressive but minimalist fashion.

More recently, Charles Gwathmey's Tower 400 on Fifth Avenue sprouts and blossoms widely, and impressively, at its illuminated top.

While cornices proliferate in pre-war residential architecture, they are much rarer in "modern" buildings, although Annabelle Selldorf's design for the building at 200 Eleventh Avenue, best known for the "garage" rooms in many of the apartments, sports an interesting, curved cornice interpretation, and the center of the top of the facade at the A Building at 425 East 13th Street, designed by Cetra/Ruddy, has a perforated overhang that is another cornice variation.

Carter B. Horsley

August 12, 2012

Also in Carter's View: