To Frank Lloyd Wright, Ralph Walker was “the only other honest architect in America,” and to The New York Times, he was the “architect of the century.” Throughout his lifetime, his art deco style redefined the notion of a skyscraper thanks to his innovative detailing and ornamentation that finessed the building’s rigid structure. The 1920s and 30s witnessed Walker’s heyday—as a principal at Voorhees, Gmelin & Walker, he contributed to Manhattan’s skyline with the Barclay-Vesey Telephone Building (1926) and the Irving Trust Building at 1 Wall Street (1931). Walker was a true advocate for a new modernist architectural vision in New York and America; and starting today, an exhibition celebrating his oeuvre opens at one of the architect’s overlooked buildings at 212 West 18th Street.
Walker’s architectural legacy extended beyond New York and its skyscrapers with his work for the Chicago World’s Fair (1933) and another fair on his home turf in 1939. By the late 1940s, he was elected as head of the AIA New York, and in 1957 he received the national organization’s highest honor, the Centennial Medal of Honor.
The Walker Tower, nestled off Seventh Avenue between West 17th and 18th Streets, was once known as the Verizon Telephone Building and housed the company’s corporate headquarters for decades. (Verizon will maintain its toehold on floors one through seven; the new condos will occupy all the space from the 8th floor on up.) Designed in 1929, the building’s exterior displays the essence of Ralph Walker with its folded, curtain like brick façade and detailed ornamentation. Today the developers Michael Stern of JDS Development and Elliott Joseph of Property Markets Group, with the help of local architecture firm Cetra/Ruddy, are carefully restoring the façade. The hat trick here is to retain Walker’s early 20th-century aesthetic while gutting the interior space and refiguring the layouts of the upper floors to accommodate Manhattan’s luxury-condo-hunting population. (One thing that won’t be edited: the tower’s interior ceiling heights of 14 feet and more.)
"Ralph Walker: Architect of the Century" opens free to the public this week (by appointment only) and displays original drawings, renderings, and plans done by Walker’s hand, in addition to archival photos and details on the building’s present incarnation as luxury condominiums.
The Event: "Ralph Walker: Architect of the Century" opening party; building sneak peak inside 212 West 18th Street.
In The House: Shaun Osher and his CORE constituency, architects and architecture fans, Former R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe.
Dress Code: Dark suits and power ties on the men, lots of black dresses on the women; until Stipe shows up in a 1,000 yards of knit yarn.
Menu: Tasty! Skewered shrimp with shaved coconut, little beef tenderloins with a tiny dollop of guacamole on a cracker, Thai tuna ceviché in a wonton cone, shitake mushroom wraps.
Music: a violin and flute duet played briefly before seemingly getting the hook for being too somber for the occasion.
With plans to charge $10K a square foot for penthouse space, it's never a bad idea to dust off and polish the starchitect reputation of a building's designer well before the condo reincarnation is ready for occupancy. So for the next three months there will be a public exhibition in the ground floor public areas of the Walker Tower at 212 West 18th Street showing off the work of Art Deco architect Ralph Walker, who also built the tower at 1 Wall Street and the Barclay-Vesey Building. The crowd last night included architects, brokers, history buffs (Walker's biographer and architectural historian Kathryn E. Holliday was on hand to sign her book), and PR folk. The ground floor is still very much raw construction space, and the party's bars were placed in the building's elevators in part to deter curious guests from trying to get upstairs. The Ralph Walker exhibit is free, but by appointment only. The building should be completed within 12–16 months.
“In Manhattan real estate, there are no rules,” says Alec Baldwin’s character on the NBC sitcom “30 Rock.”
Perhaps that’s what developers Michael Stern and Elliott Joseph were thinking when they formulated an unconventional marketing strategy for Walker Tower, a newly renovated condo conversion at 212 West 18th Street.
Stern and Joseph bought the building from Verizon for $25 million in 2009. That’s when they started learning more about the building’s long-forgotten architect, Ralph Walker. Walker built a number of notable commercial buildings in the 1920s, including the Art Deco skyscraper 1 Wall Street, and Frank Lloyd Wright was reportedly a fan. But a falling-out with the American Institute of Architects made Walker a pariah, and he died in obscurity.
“We started delving into what we thought was this great untold story,” Stern said.
Armed with this compelling narrative, the developers decided on an unusual marketing strategy. Instead of “the typical, canned campaign,” Stern said, they approached architectural historian Kathryn Holliday and asked her to write a book about Walker. Building buzz about the architect, they felt, would help sell the building’s 51 condos. The book, titled “Ralph Walker: Architect of the Century,” will be published by Rizzoli in September, and last month, the developers installed a temporary exhibit honoring the architect on the ground floor of the under-construction Walker Tower.
This build-your-own-starchitect strategy is “very bold,” acknowledged Shaun Osher, head of Core, which is handling sales at the project. But at any project, he noted, “marketing and selling is about educating the consumer.”
As for Holliday, a professor at the University of Texas, Arlington, she recalls being “very surprised” when she was asked to pen the tome, and “curious about why real estate developers were interested in the history of the building.”
It may seem like a lot of trouble to go through to sell condos, even though the penthouses will have asking prices nearing $10,000 per square foot, Core said. But Stern said: “Our attitude is, if we build the right product” — starchitect and all — “the sales will take care of themselves.”
How is it possible that the man responsible for so many of the iconic buildings that make up the New York City skyline, a man credited not only for designing the first art deco skyscraper, but for designing the very first skyscraper, period, is not a household name? Ralph Walker is probably the most overlooked American architect, though the new exhibition, "Ralph Walker: Architect of the Century" seeks to finally give the man his due. Not that Walker wasn't known and respected in his time, but he has since been overshadowed by his contemporaries Raymond Hood, who designed Rockefeller Center and William van Alen, who designed the Chrysler Building.
The free exhibition is held in the lobby of the Walker Tower by appointment only, but it's worth the extra effort to reserve a private walk through. Models of the structures Walker is most famous for dot the room alongside replicas of his sculptural entries to the 1933 Chicago Fair and the 1939 New York World's Fair. His Chicago Fair entry, by the way, was never built because it was deemed too expensive. In fact, Walker spared no expense on any of his projects. "A skyscraper," he said, "is not a building, but a city."
Walker began working as an architect at the dawn of the Machine Age, when steel frame structures extended a building's verticality beyond anything the world had ever seen before. And as construction was remarkably fast, competing firms treated skyscrapers like a veritable space race (half a century prior to the actual one), rushing to reach higher heights than the competition.
Of course, Walker and his firm got there first with the Barclay-Vesey Telephone Building (now the Verizon Building at 140 West Street). It's perhaps most notable for using the 1916 Zoning Resolution to its advantage by implementing setbacks, or tiered sections, a style now commonly associated with art deco architecture, though at that point it was simply known as moderne.
Walker's brand of humanist architecture used form, texture and ornamentation to connect emotionally with pedestrians at street level. He felt that a façade should act like a drape hung over a building. The ziggurat-style setbacks began not just as a way to create texture and break up the form, but to establish his skyscrapers as structures that allowed their occupants to literally take a step back from the street and city life.
He also paid close attention to the interior, designing details right down to the fittings for the air vents. For the Irving Bank Trust (now One Wall Street), the most expensive real estate in the city at the time, he worked with renowned mosaic artist Hildreth Meiere, who covered ceilings in opalescent kappa shells and rich red hues. Walker's massive, gilded entryways and lush interiors were very much influenced by the theater and his close friendship with Joseph Urban, the famous set designer. Again, the motto was 'spare no expense.' "A room should lose its walls for your mind's sake," Walker said.
This architectural extravagance was not well received after the depression, which set the stage for the International Style of Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. Walker rejected their preference for glass over steel, but this simpler, streamlined approach was where the world was headed, and Walker, for all his glitz and glamour, began to step back in his role at the firm. Still, he remained active, becoming the President of AIA in 1949, which presented Walker with the Centennial Medal, an award created specially for him in 1957, on AIA's 100th anniversary. The New York Times dubbed him "The Architect of the Century."
That might have been the high point of Walker's career. Three years later, he resigned from the AIA amid controversy surrounding a member of his firm who was accused of stealing another firm's contract. Though he was later cleared of all wrongdoing and reinstated, his wife was committed to a sanatorium. Ten years later, in 1973, Walker shot himself with a silver bullet, only after destroying his AIA award. His original firm still exists under the name HLW International, but as Walker and his wife had no children, all that remains of his great legacy are the buildings he created.
To learn more about Walker and his legacy, check out Kathryn Holliday's book, "Ralph Walker: Architect of the Century."
“Architect of the Century” was the headline reporting the awarding of the American Institute of Architects’ Centennial Medal to Ralph Walker in 1957. Though no such claim could ever be incontestable, Walker’s many contributions to the architectural profession, and skyscraper design in particular, are widely recognized.
An exhibit at 212 West 18th street (formerly belonging to the New York Telephone Company, but in light of recent remodeling and marketing as a multipurpose high rise, now known as the Walker Building) highlights select works from his career. Though few outside the industry are familiar with his name, undoubtedly millions of New Yorkers have seen his buildings at one time or another.
The one-room exhibit covers the period of Walker’s life from 1917 to 1959 and four major works within that period: the Barclay-Vesey Building, the Irving Trust Building, his designs for the 1933 worlds fair in Chicago, and of course, Walker Tower.
If you can look past the shameless self-promotion of an exhibit whose featured architect designed the very building housing the exhibit and whose luxury apartments (coincidentally) go on sale this spring, you’ll enjoy a quaint and highly informative experience that includes period photographs, movies and sound clips, some actual art deco fittings from his buildings, and in the case of Walker Tower, an amazing interactive physical model where touch screen controls operate the lights in specific apartments up for sale this spring. The experience is greatly augmented by one of the better tour guides I’ve had the pleasure of listening to, being both highly informative and extremely receptive to visitors’ questions.
So who was Ralph Walker and why should you care? Well, he is one of the architects whose body of work is highly representative of a bygone era. He’s one of the icons of early skycraper design, representing a gilded age in which vast sums were spent on the opulence of both the facade and especially the interiors of skyscapers. (The stock market crash of 1929 curbed such displays of wealth). Early in the emergence of this new building typology skyscrapers were called cathedrals of commerce. A more apt nomenclature based on their entryways might be monuments to mammon.
It’s a shame that many of these buildings now have restricted access in the wake of 9/11 since many of their lobbies are truly exquisite works of art that deserve to be admired and not just glanced at in passing between the street and the elevator banks.
Walker’s Barclay-Vesey Building was actually damaged by the attacks, but has since been repaired. However, in addition to this distinction it is also considered the first art deco skyscraper ever built, and it is one of the first buildings to really take advantage of the 1916 New York zoning ordinance, which placed limits on a building’s height in relation to its distance from the street in an attempt to make the city more habitable by allowing more sunlight to hit pedestrians.
Many of Walker’s buildings (not mentioned in the exhibit, but easily spotted in their natural habitat by walking the streets of New York) are notable for their massive bulk and huge footprint, often occupying an entire city block and looking more like a small mountain than a construct of man. Construction on this scale is almost unheard of in New York today, partly because it’s rare for any developer to be able to seize an entire city block, but also because Walker did a lot of work for the New York Telephone
Company whose buildings had special requirements for the tons of mechanical equipment and legions of switchboard operators that needed to be housed within their bulk.
Skyscrapers are an American innovation and no city in America is more famous for its skyscrapers than New York. From the Flatiron to the Freedom Tower our history is preserved in our buildings. Exhibits like this one remind us not just of how our buildings have evolved, but also of the socioeconomic conditions driving that evolution. They are a window into our past and from habitability issues to economic downturns, they remind us that while the architecture has changed it has all been in service to the same issues that concern us today.
Admission is free, but by appointment only. Call 212–335-1800 to make an appointment or visit ralpalreibi.com.
Oh, how far the mighty can fall.
Named “Architect of the Century” by The New York Times in 1957, Ralph Walker became little more than a footnote in Manhattan’s pantheon of great builders a decade later.
He was a master of the massive, stepped-back Art Deco skyscrapers of the 1920s and ‘30s, responding deftly to the 1916 Sunshine Laws that limited height and insisted on setbacks.
His work includes the Barclay-Vesey building, also known as the Verizon building, the Irving Trust building at 1 Wall Street, now the BNY Mellon building, and the Western Union building. His designs graced two of the era’s World’s Fairs: Chicago in 1933 and New York in 1939.
Even during the Great Depression, his firm managed to design and build (though forced to cut staff from 200 to six) because of clients like the New York Telephone Company.
So what happened to the legacy of the man whom Frank Lloyd Wright called “the only other honest architect in America,“ and to whom the AIA gave its Centennial Gold Medal in 1957?
“Walker is a difficult figure,” says Kathryn E. Holliday, architectural historian, professor at the University of Texas at Arlington and author of a new book on Walker from Rizzoli. “By 1950, the European modernists had arrived in America, and he was an acerbically outspoken critic of Gropius and Le Corbusier – and they were nasty right back.”
Walker thought their work cold, sterile and overly technological, and wasn’t bashful about saying so publicly. A champion of restrained ornament in modern design, he wasn’t charismatic enough to pull off the diatribes against the clean lines of modernism that he consistently wrote.
By the 1960s, his firm was headed in a new direction, designing stripped-down, low-rise corporate headquarters spread out on lush green lawns for Caterpillar, Esso, IBM and General Foods.
“He was never quite comfortable in the new world,” she says. “He thought the park-like, bucolic and restful atmosphere of the landscape was the way to communicate, but it didn’t have the same power as Art Deco.”
He is remembered today, she says, as a prime contributor among the first generation of modern architects to define how skyscrapers should fit into the city.
Art, of course, will not be denied – and neither will Ralph Walker.
For more on “Ralph Walker, Architect of the Century,” go to http://www.rizzoliusa.com/book.php?isbn=9780847838882
To be honest, I hadn’t heard of architect Ralph Walker before I picked up this book on the back that it appeared to have a skyscraper angle.
You might be familiar with some of Walker’s work though, which includes the Barclay-Vesey Building (which miraculously survived the 9/11 attacks located next to both towers), and the Irving Trust Company Building.
You might also have an aha-moment knowing he is one of the guys who made that famous picture of architects dressed up as their buildings at the 1931 Beaux-Arts costume ball in New York. Walker is the one to the right of William Van Alen, who is dressed up as the Chrysler Building.
Just being in that picture shows that Walker was considered a starchitect whose peak moment coincided with an age in which skyscraper construction was prolific, and skyscraper architecture had come of glorious age. This was a time in which his ideas could flourish.
The subtitle of the book, Architect of the Century was coined in 1957 by like minded colleagues during the 100th AIA convention. An accompanying article in the New York Times he is also hailed as a philosopher and a humanitarian.
In the book however, the other message I got out of it was that Walker also comes across as someone with good ideas but lacking the personality to successfully sell them. Walker is second to one of his partners when it comes to representing the firm, and someone who prefers writing as a way to express himself.
Later in his career he appears to be stuck in the past as he goes on to openly criticize the Modern Movement that had become mainstream in the post-war years, losing friends and esteem in the process.
An essay by Walker published in 1930 about the role of the skyscraper in the urban life has been reprinted in the back of the book. It’s a lengthy piece in which he rationalizes the skyscraper as a logical result of ongoing urbanization and contemporary social developments. Interestingly he uses the same kind of platitudes and fallacies of which Modernists typically have helped themselves.
This being an exhibition catalogue, the book benefits greatly from the extensive image research. The book design is a tribute to Walker’s aesthetic principles, his successes and his failures.
Although Ralph Walker seems like an honest guy with sympathetic ideas, he’s probably not the most intriguing skyscraper architect to read about. For an architect, statements are best made, and fame best gained through completed designs, instead of published criticism.
This is a beautifully illustrated book that does justice to the career and ideas of Ralph Walker, that will appeal to those interested in skyscraper architecture of the 1920s.
Perhaps you, like me, were unaware of the career of architect Ralph Walker. The fact that Walker, a pioneer of the Art Deco skyscraper, is relatively unknown today is amazing considering that the American Institute of Architects, in conjunction with its 100th anniversary in 1957, awarded Walker its Centennial Gold Medal, and the New York Times called him "the architect of the century." Even more amazing: On that occasion Frank Lloyd Wright – a man not known for praising other architects – called Walker "the only other honest architect in America." But even as Walker was basking in the praise of his colleagues, forces were at work within the profession that would soon render Walker's name merely a tiny footnote in the history of 20th-century American architecture.
Remedies for that injustice are now underway. This volume by Kathryn E. Holliday was published as part of a retrospective exhibit of Walker's work held in New York City earlier this year. The exhibit was mounted in a former Bell Telephone building designed by Walker – and which is now renamed Walker Tower by the developer who is converting the building to 50 condominium residences. Holliday's book is a beautifully presented and well-written introduction to the life and work of a man who radically changed the Manhattan skyline in the 1920s and '30s.
Born in 1889 in Waterbury, CT, Walker did not immediately go to college after graduating high school. Instead, he apprenticed in 1907 to Providence, RI, architects Hilton & Jackson. In 1909, Walker began attending classes at the School of Architecture at MIT – where he was exposed to the Beaux-Arts curriculum then in use. However, he left shortly before graduation in 1911 to return to work full time. Walker bounced around among several architectural offices until 1917 when he enlisted in the Camouflage Section of the Army Corps of Engineers.
Returning from WWI in 1919, Walker made a choice that shaped the rest of his career: He joined the office of McKenzie, Voorhees & Gmelin – an architectural and engineering firm that had clients in the newly burgeoning telephone industry. Walker was hired as chief designer in the hopes he would make the firm's architectural designs as innovative as its engineering work. Walker saw himself as the firm's "analyst of beauty" and gained recognition for masterful handling of form and ornament.
The Barclay-Vesey Building Started It All
The Barclay-Vesey Telephone Building (now the Verizon Building) in lower Manhattan on West Street overlooking the Hudson River was the project that established Walker's reputation. Completed in 1926, the massive building was intended to consolidate telephone operations as well as project a glamorous forward-looking image for the company. The building had to conform to the new 1916 "sunshine" zoning law that required tall buildings to "step back" to provide light and air to the street below. Walker's asymmetrical solution was revolutionary at the time (see photo) and avoided the monotonous predictability of many of the step-back skyscrapers that followed.
During the 1920s, Walker went on to design numerous tall buildings in Manhattan – most for the Telephone Company. Many of these became landmarks of what was later called the Art Deco style. Unfortunately, the Great Depression put an abrupt end to skyscraper projects. When skyscraper construction resumed after WWII, fashion had shifted away from brick and stone envelopes to the plain glass curtain wall – a type of building that Walker always opposed on aesthetic and functional grounds. He spent the balance of his career working mainly on low-rise suburban industrial parks, planning projects such as two world's fairs, along with active involvement with the AIA.
Ironically, an image of the Barclay-Vesey Building was used as the frontispiece of the 1927 American edition of Le Corbusier's Towards a New Architecture. Walker's use of sculptural shapes and ornament was definitely not the type of architecture Le Corbusier had in mind. And it was Walker's later railings against the sterile International Style that got him excommunicated by the Modernists from 20th-century architectural history.
Walker believed an architect should be concerned with beauty, and divided the design process into two parts: First, make the building work functionally; second, make it work "spiritually." He also spoke of "humanist" architecture, and his skillful manipulation of sculptural forms and ornament flowed from his desire to infuse spiritual qualities into his buildings.
Though modern, Walker was not a Modernist – and his insistence that architecture should have a spiritual component made him a vocal critic of the austere, technological designs of Le Corbusier and Gropius. As Modernists gained ascendency in the architectural establishment, however, they fought back with equal vigor – and eventually managed to almost completely erase Walker's name from the 20th-century architectural pantheon.
Holliday's concise text, combined with numerous historical photographs, provide a firm basis for re-evaluating the work of this major 20th-century architectural talent. Ralph Walker certainly deserves better treatment than he has received from those who have been dictating architectural history for the last 60 years.
JDS Development Group broke the record for the sale of the most expensive condominium in Manhattan last fall when its Walker Tower penthouse sold for just under its asking price of $55 million.
The New York, N.Y.- based company is a real estate development company formed by Michael Stern for the purchase and development of luxury residential real estate. Over the last several years, JDS Development Group has developed and constructed more than 4 million square feet of property in New York and Miami. “JDS is a fully integrated development and construction company,” Managing Partner Michael Stern says. “What sets us apart is the fact that we self-perform all of our work without the use of a third party construction manager and maintain a team of in-house design and construction personnel to streamline the entire process.”
JDS Development Group’s team of professionals has a wide range of experience and unique expertise in design, construction, hands-on project management, results-driven sales and marketing, and real estate financing. When looking to acquire a property for adaptive reuse, Stern explains that inspiration is found in buildings with certain architectural pedigrees and histories that can be reimagined for a different use without stripping away their “soul.”
He adds that Walker Tower exemplifies that approach. “Walker Tower had incredible bones and stands alone as the tallest building in the neighborhood that enjoyed the best views. It had soaring ceiling heights and beautiful detail that had unfortunately been stripped away over the years.”
The company worked with a partner, Property Markets Group, an acquisition and development firm based in New York City, to retrofit Walker Tower. Cetra/CRI Architecture PLLC, a design practice, was the architect for the project.
Architect Ralph Thomas Walker was responsible for the design of many New York skyscrapers during the Roaring Twenties. His work includes the Barclay-Vesey Telephone Building, which was credited with being the first Art Deco building in New York City. He also designed a telephone building on West 18th Street now known as Walker Tower since JDS Development Group’s acquisition in late 2009. He also designed the Irving Trust Building. In 1957, a New York Times headline proclaimed Walker as the “Architect of the Century” and Frank Lloyd Wright reportedly called him “the only other honest architect in America.”
Walker Tower was built in 1929 as an office building for the New York Telephone Co. JDS Development Group transformed the 200,000 square feet of former office building into luxury condominium space in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. The building has 47 one- to five-bedroom condo units including four newly constructed penthouse floors that sit at the top of the property.
Walker Tower was built before neighborhood height limits were enacted so the 328-foot-tall building soars above its surroundings and offers 360-degree Manhattan views that won’t ever be compromised.
“Walker Tower is special because it is an Art Deco prewar building that features the very finest in today’s luxury finishes and technologies,” Stern says. “It’s that juxtaposition of old and new that makes Walker Tower truly stand out.” The conversion of Walker Tower incorporates the building’s original design details and all the conveniences of modern, upscale residential living. The company also meticulously restored the building’s brick façade, which features multiple shapes of brick and decorative pre-cast elements that create a texturized appearance and Art Deco ornamentation.
Numerous challenges faced JDS Development Group during construction, but the first and most critical obstacle was determining the construction sequences and logistics. The building has had continuous commercial occupancy beneath the residential component and the company had to maintain services to those tenants with no interruption, Stern explains.
“We moved every staircase and elevator machine room and replaced the building’s cooling plants while always maintaining functional staircases, fire alarm systems and cooling systems,” he adds. “It was quite a logistical dance and our team did an outstanding job on what is certainly the most complex residential conversion ever done in New York City.”
Selling for Millions
After only one month on the market in October 2013, Penthouse One sold for nearly $55 million, a record-breaking deal that gave Walker Tower the prestigious honor of housing the most expensive condo in Manhattan. The 6,000-square-foot Penthouse One includes five bedrooms and five-and-a-half bathrooms and occupies the entire top floor of the building. Other amenities include 479 square feet of terrace space and heated flooring. Penthouse Two in Walker Tower sold for $47.5 million.
“Our clients define quality not just through the nicest finishes in the marketplace, but by superior build quality that is more than skin deep and the most sophisticated mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems available,” Stern adds. After Hurricane Sandy devastated homes along the East Coast, JDS Development Group has been focused on building for human stability. The company’s latest projects feature raised mechanical systems, dry flood proofing and emergency power to each unit, Stern explains. Walker Tower’s main mechanical systems are located on the eighth floor and diesel generators back up the building’s critical life safety systems.
Walker Tower’s luxurious amenities have drawn millionaires and celebrities to purchase condos in the building. Laura Mercier, co-founder of the Laura Mercier cosmetic line and former make-up artist to Madonna, reportedly purchased a two-bedroom condo for $5.9 million. Actress Cameron Diaz also reportedly purchased a three-bedroom condo in the tower for $9 million.
The Ins and Outs
Walker Tower was built strong to house New York City’s telecommunication nerve centers in the 1920s. The building is concrete-encased, heavy steel-framed and because of the lack of interior load-bearing walls, the condos offer maximum flexibility to its residents. The floors, one-foot thick with state-of-the-art acoustical mats, were built to withstand the weight of heavy industrial equipment. Sound will not be an issue within these condo walls because a caramel-toned brick covers an insulating mortar gap and a layer of hollow terra cotta block is underneath. The outside walls are about 18 inches thick and measure up to 2 feet thick in some places.
Inside the residences, ceiling heights range from 10 to nearly 14 feet tall and windows scale eight to nearly 10 feet high and five feet wide. The floors are made of custom French herringbone beveled oak and are lined with hydronic radiant heating. A state-of-the-art home automation system allows for total control of lighting, audio, shades and temperature through the use of integrated touchscreens or an iPad. Some homes in Walker Tower include a wood-burning fireplace with solid marble enclosures.
Walker Tower also provides a number of amenities and services. The building has a lobby concierge available 24 hours, a fully equipped fitness center, yoga room, sauna, steam room, library lounge with pantry and bar, bicycle storage room and a children’s playroom. A landscaped common roof deck features a dining area, sun lawn, observation area and covered cabana room with built-in seating. Private outdoor terraces are also available in about half the condo units.
The team ensured Walker’s original design was maintained by restoring the Art Deco ornament on the lobby entrance. The renovation to the building’s 1929 façade was done by hand and includes new brick in a mix of nine different shapes and five different colors. It also includes 14,000 pieces of bronze, stainless steel and aluminum panels, and four bronze spires were added to the top of the building. Stern says it was crucial for the additions to be seamless and look like they were always intended to be there.
“JDS Development Group will continue to be a design-focused group that is dedicated to pushing the boundaries and redefining markets in all sectors, whether residential condo, multifamily rental or hospitality,” Stern adds.
In the rebirth of downtown living in New York, first there was the converted gritty industrial loft, then the minimalist "glass box" condo tower. Now the glass box has given way to a new demand—for elaborately finished condominiums that echo the gracious prewar apartments of the Upper East Side.
Until this fall, the record deal for a downtown condominium was the $31.5 million sale in 2010 of a raw, do-it-yourself-style penthouse: a vast unfinished concrete space at the top of Superior Ink, a condominium on the Hudson River in the West Village that was badly flooded during superstorm Sandy.
Tastes are changing. The biggest recent deals downtown have been in condominium conversions that take their inspiration from Fifth and Park Avenues. In September, a $42 million penthouse went into contract at 18 Gramercy Park, a former Salvation Army women's hotel that was redesigned by Robert A.M. Stern, the architect behind luxury developments uptown like 15 Central Park West.
A few weeks ago, a buyer signed a contract to combine two penthouses together for $34 million at Walker Tower, an Art Deco skyscraper located in a former telephone company switching station in Chelsea. With half of the 50 condos in contract at Walker Tower, the asking price of the most expensive penthouse in the building was recently raised to $55 million from $50 million, according to Shaun Osher, the founder of CORE, the brokerage company that is handling sales in the building.
Walker Tower, completed in 1929, has a decidedly traditional aesthetic. Apartments at Walker Tower come with a formal entrance gallery, coffered ceilings, 10-foot-high paneled windows and large terraces. There are white marble bathrooms streaked with gray veins, herringbone oak floors, big kitchens with marble and limestone countertops, cabinetry designed by the fashionable U.K. company Smallbone of Devizes and hidden high-tech features.
Converted buildings like Walker Tower are a far cry from the glass-walled condominiums that sprung up all over downtown beginning in 2002 with a series of three modernist buildings in the West Village designed by Richard Meier. Many more glass towers followed, often with designs commonly seen in office buildings, with lightweight glass and aluminum skins for the facade. Inside the spaces were often dominated by a "great room"—a combination open kitchen, dining and living room.
Brokers say that high-rise glass towers still have their fans: Buildings like One57 and 432 Park Ave., now under construction in midtown, are two examples. But some say that the excitement surrounding glass-walled condos has cooled as the buildings have proliferated. For the same square footage, they say, many buyers, especially New Yorkers, now prefer the romance of the older buildings and neighborhoods.
"If you think of Singapore or Dubai, you think of modern glass towers, which have their own elegance," Mr. Osher said. "But New York is an old city in a modern world, like London or Paris. A lot of the richness and heritage of the city is in its prewar aesthetic."
That aesthetic guided the conversion of the Abingdon, a former hotel and nursing home completed in 1906 in the West Village that has been remade as a condo building. The apartments at the Abingdon have a formal layout, with separate public and private spaces, divided by a traditional entrance gallery. Tim Crowley, a managing director at Flank, the architecture and development firm that handled the conversion, says the architects studied prewar interior layouts by Rosario Candela and Emery Roth, who designed many of the grand apartment buildings along Central Park.
Only two condos are unsold at the Abingdon: the model apartment, and the largest condo, a 9,615 square foot, three-story "mansion" with its own separate entrance, which is about to come on the market. The price has not been set, but offering documents list it at $25 million
The 22-story Walker Tower also draws heavily on the past. It was built by New York Telephone in the 1920s, at a time when telephone companies, like banks, created large imposing buildings to impress the public. The architect was Ralph Walker, a once prominent figure in Art Deco skyscraper design, who had been largely forgotten.
Verizon still owns the building below the eighth floor, but sold the top for $25.5 million in 2009 in the midst of the real-estate slump. The buyers, JDS Development Group and Property Markets Group, set about celebrating Mr. Walker and turning the building into an upscale showpiece.
They commissioned a book about Mr. Walker from an architectural historian, Kathryn E. Holliday, that was published in September by Rizzoli New York. They sponsored an exhibition with scale models of his best-known buildings in the lobby.
The developers brought in CetraRuddy, an architectural firm, to restore the building, enlarge the windows and design the interiors. The architects are creating a new crown for the top of the building, a feature that the phone company had trimmed back from Mr. Walker's original design because of the cost.
Inside, the units have oak doors, hand cut mosaic tiles in the bathrooms, ebonized mahogany trim in a marble powder room and custom-made door knobs and fixtures to echo the building's Art Deco design. Hidden automated shades can be lowered on the tall windows, and air conditioning is provided through narrow slits in the ceiling rather than ducts. Radiant heating comes through pipes encased in the floors, a feature rarely seen in Manhattan buildings. Electronic controls in the wall, as well as an iPad provided with each unit, control the music, security system, lighting, shades, heating and cooling in each room in the apartment.
Elliott Joseph, a principal in Property Markets Group along with Kevin Maloney, said that at one meeting about the design, the developers asked whether they had omitted any features that a wealthy private owner might add in an individual Manhattan apartment renovation. The engineers had one suggestion: a system to control humidity to protect art work. A multiple-zone humidification system was added soon after.
Holidays demand coffee-table books, and there’s no shortage of them this year.
“Ralph Walker: Architect of the Century” (Rizzoli, $50) by Kathryn E. Holliday, who teaches at the University of Texas-Arlington, borrows the title bestowed on Walker in 1957 by The New York Times. Frank Lloyd Wright once called Walker “the only other architect in America.”
Skyscrapers like 1 Wall Street and 140 West Street, she writes, “highlight Walker’s dramatic sense of the scale of architecture and his ability to soften its hard edges with beautifully rendered ornament.” This book collects photographs, drawings and plans for many of his New York buildings, as well as images of their Art Deco-era interiors.
Gerard R. Wolfe, joined by the photographers Jo Renee Fine and Norman Borden, has completely overhauled “The Synagogues of New York’s Lower East Side” (Empire State Editions, $29.95), originally published in 1978. This volume, which is illustrated with black and white photographs and has a foreword by The Times’s Joseph Berger, uses historic houses of worship as a prism to explore immigrant life and culture. “Grand Central: Gateway to a Million Lives” (W. W. Norton, $50), is another handsome reissue, just in time for the terminal’s 100th anniversary in 2013.
In his foreword to “Magnificent Trees of the New York Botanical Garden” (Monacelli Press, $50), Gregory Long, the garden’s president, quotes Kahlil Gibran: “Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky.” It is a fitting epitaph for this collection of breathtaking color photographs by Larry Lederman, and essays by Mr. Lederman and Todd A. Forrest, both among the garden’s extraordinary team of experts. This volume also provides an informative guide for amateur or professional landscapers, and is all the more valuable because some of the trees pictured, including the sweet gum on the cover, were damaged during Hurricane Sandy.
Cass Gilbert has his Woolworth Building, and Daniel Burnham has the Flatiron Building. In New York, the most iconic buildings can be matched to their architects faster than you can say “McKim, Mead & White.” However, every so often one is lost to history—even if he was proclaimed “the architect of the century” in a 1957 article in The New York Times. Such is the case with Ralph Walker. But with the conversion of his West 18th Street Telephone Building, the city is reintroduced to one of its visionaries—and 50 families get to call the reimagined Walker Tower home.
Back in the 1920s, the New York Telephone Company needed to reassure customers that its newfangled technology was here to stay, and it delivered that message through the permanence of architecture. When it came time to construct a new office and switching station in Chelsea, the company turned to Ralph Walker, the man who, years earlier, built the Barclay-Vesey Building at 140 West Street, considered the first Art Deco skyscraper in the city.
Walker’s colossal creation on 18th Street did its job. In fact, the concrete-encased, heavy-steel-framed structure remained a functioning Verizon building well into the 21st century—and it had the drop ceilings and dreary cubicles to prove it. Thankfully, Michael Stern, managing partner of JDS Development Group, saw past that. “The first time I went into the building I went straight up to the roof,” he remembers, and the unobstructed views in all directions—made possible because construction of the 328-foot building predated neighborhood height limits—made his call an easy one. “I decided to buy the building on the spot.”
Of course, turning a long-neglected office building into the epitome of high-end living wasn’t easy. To do it, Stern’s team started with what was already in place. “Walker’s telephone buildings had to accommodate a lot of vibration,” says Marci Clark, a PhD candidate in art history who helped curate an exhibit on the architect for the opening of Walker Tower. “There was the modern steel frame technology, but he also used masonry to make them solid, like mountains.” (The developer in Stern gets straight to the point: “If you tried to build a structure like that today, you’d go bankrupt.”)
The sheer size and scale of the building allow for the units’ most impressive features: ceilings that reach more than 14 feet (with tilt-and-turn windows more than nine feet tall), a lack of interior load-bearing walls (making for a surprisingly open concept), and terraces made from Walker’s signature setbacks that let lucky homeowners look down (literally) on Manhattan’s most expensive real estate in the West Village and Tribeca.
The building also includes every conceivable modern amenity: heated floors in every room, zoned humidification (good for preserving artwork), and a Crestron home automation system that controls everything from lighting to music with the touch of a tablet. “It’s more state-of-the- art than any building in the city,” Stern attests, “yet it lives in this iconic, prewar building with an architectural pedigree.”
JDS, along with co-developer Property Markets Group, painstakingly restored the building’s façade and expanded the building’s four top floors. Careful to make sure this new space worked with Walker’s original design, the team restored the Art Deco ornament on the lobby entrance—highlighting the same flourishes that greeted phone bill payers at street level nearly 100 years ago. “We didn’t introduce any new shapes, and we stayed true to the materials,” Stern explains. “In fact, we’re the first building to use cast bronze in 70 years.”
As a result, an architecture lover like Marci Clark cannot help but appreciate the care that went into every step of the redevelopment. “When you think of an office building, you certainly don’t think of sweeping spaces and such volume and light,” she says. “Walker believed that space was for human use, and I think he would be proud of how it has been transformed.”
As Stern looks back at how far the project has come and looks forward to future sales, the full scope of Walker Tower truly comes into focus. “We appreciate the asset not just because we’re the developers, but because we know we might not ever replicate it,” he explains. “Where do you find overbuilt prewar towers in great downtown neighborhoods to convert? You just don’t. It’s once in a career.”
Celebrities keen for Art Deco design are eyeing the Walker Tower on 18th Street in Chelsea.
The Daily News reports A-listers including Cameron Diaz, Ryan Seacrest, and newlyweds Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds have visited the luxury condo, expressing interest in the enormous residences.
Insiders say at least one celebrity finalized a deal last month, while another dropped a staggering $34 million for two combined penthouses.
The building-- designed by famed architect Ralph Walker, who was once heralded by The New York Times as "architect of the century"-- boasts 10-14 foot ceilings and French oak flooring. More than half the homes also come with private outdoor spaces.
Units range from $6.85 million to $55 million.
How do you take an industrial building with few windows and turn it into a luxury apartment that can command high prices? All over America, it is being done, with great success. Especially with the “back to the city” and historic preservation movements since the 1970s onward, repurposing old buildings is seen as a catalyst for improving neglected neighborhoods. Manhattan’s west side character owes much to this process of restoring old buildings for new uses. (I live in one of those converted buildings too.)
What are the typical characteristics of early twentieth century industrial construction? Such materials shifted from the older wood plank and beams between solid brick walls, to larger layouts of posts and beams with concrete slabs. Sometimes the floors are poured over vaulted arches for extra strength. The main structure of these buildings is in a skeleton of posts and beams, which are often steel or concrete, or both. Between the posts, and often resting on the concrete slabs, usually are walls (called non-structural, since they don’t hold up the building) of one or more layers of masonry.
Due to zoning regulations for separation or the obnoxious nature of the activities, industrial buildings were usually in rough areas, far from desirable residential areas. As the city and industry change, the neighborhoods have an opportunity for a new life.
Let’s look at one recent example of this transformation to see how it can be done.
The Walker Tower, now named after one of its architects, Ralph Walker, is located off Seventh Avenue between West 17th and 18th Streets. It was built for the New York Telephone Company in 1929 and housed Verizon Telephone’s corporate headquarters for decades. The building’s Art Deco exterior displays its folded, curtain-like brick façade, and detailed ornamentation of nickel and brass sunbursts and electrical motifs. Much of the exterior had few windows, since the function was for telephone call center equipment and switching gear.
Ralph Thomas Walker’s creative juices were at their peak in the 1920s and 30s, where, as a principal architect at Voorhees, Gmelin & Walker, he contributed to Manhattan’s skyline with the Barclay-Vesey Telephone Building at 140 West Street (1926) and the Irving Trust Building at 1 Wall Street (1931) and many of America’s greatest Depression-era skyscrapers. Walker’s architectural legacy extended beyond New York and its skyscrapers with his work for the Chicago World’s Fair (1933) and another fair on his home turf in 1939. By the late 1940s, he was elected as head of the American Institute of Architects New York and in 1957, he received the national organization’s highest honor, the Centennial Medal of Honor (The Times called him “Architect of the Century”). Even the renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright said that Walker was the only other (besides Wright) “honest” architect living. Tragically in 1973, the troubled architect ended his life with a silver bullet he forged himself.
In 2007, the developers Michael Stern of JDS Development and Elliott Joseph of Property Markets Group bought the building for approximately $28 million. With the help of local architecture firm Cetra/Ruddy, they are gutting the interior space and refiguring the layouts of the upper floors to accommodate 48 new condos, at a cost of approximately $200 million. Walker Tower rises high above its surroundings and features stunning views, soaring ceilings, and large tilt-and-turn windows. Verizon will maintain its presence on floors one through seven; new condos will occupy all the floors above.
Walker Tower’s walls rival those of a medieval fortress in strength, where layers of rich caramel-toned bricks cover a layer of hollow terra cotta block for thermal and acoustic protection. The interiors are finished with a level 5 (top quality) finish drywall. These compound walls, 18 inches thick on average, measure up to 2 ft. thick in some locations.
However, a high-end residence demands lots of windows in just the right places, so somehow more windows would need to be added. The easier way was to build out certain areas with new exterior window walls, which are shown on the upper setbacks of the tower. One neighbor already reported that the built-out walls have squared up the top of the building enough to block his view of the Empire State Building.
The harder way is to create new openings in the existing masonry walls and to blend the new openings with the architectural character. This was done on all sides that needed the extra openings.
Yet how do you cut a hole in a masonry wall without ruining it? Very carefully. The wall must be braced before cutting and a new lintel or header is inserted at the top of the new opening; once the header is set, the new opening can be cut out and cleared. The sides are prepared for a new window by inserting framing members around the edges. The new window unit is then set in the opening and fastened into the framing. Final trimming on the interior and sealing on the exterior finishes the job. Walker Tower features some of the largest tilt-and-turn windows made, with some as large as 9½ ft. tall by 5 ft. wide.
So is all that work of transformation worth it? The market will tell. So far, it is saying yes. Celebrities such as Cameron Diaz, Blake Lively, Ryan Seacrest, and Barnes & Noble chairman Len Riggio are looking at the Walker Tower. Brokers said that at least one Hollywood star put down a deposit and someone else bought two combined penthouses for approximately $34 million, one of downtown’s largest contracts of 2012. More than 50% of the units are said to be under contract. Prices are higher than nearby condos, with upper floor three-bedrooms running as high as $14 million.
Apartment 11A has 3,022 sq. ft. and is offered for $9.25 million or $3,060/sq. ft. Apartment 19B has 2,691 sq. ft. and is offered for $12.5 million or $4,645/sq. ft..
The comprehensive amenities package includes a 24-hour doorman, concierge, library lounge with pantry and bar, children’s playroom, fitness center with yoga room, sauna, and landscaped common roof deck with dining area, sun lawn, observation area, and covered cabana room. Additionally, each residence includes a built-in zoned humidification system, an ultra-quiet central air conditioning and ventilation system and a vented kitchen and dryer exhaust.
Critics may say that this location is too rough or low-key for such high end prices. Is it so different than the Superior Ink condo in the Meatpacking district or the new condos on the Bowery that are commanding top-end prices for their apartments? Perhaps the rough edges are just what sophisticated buyers are looking for?
In the meantime, the fabric of the old buildings in place will continue to add value and character to their neighborhoods.
The Walker Tower in Chelsea has been an icon of the New York skyline ever since its completion in 1929 to the design of Ralph Walker - named 'architect of the century' by the New York Times in 1957.
More than half a century on and the Walker Tower has just been gloriously restored by developers Property Markets Group and JDS Development Group, who recently announced the completion of the building's iconic façade. The renovation, carried out by the architecture firm CetraRuddy, concentrated on maintaining the original building's spirit, but at the same time creating a state-of-the-art luxury residential building (the first apartments of which will be finished within weeks). 'Our goal was to ensure that the architecture remained committed to Ralph Walker's original design, and that the new elements we incorporated were based on existing decorative motifs found in the building's entrance and lobby,' said Michael Stern, founder of JDS Development Group.
Walker's work, often intricately embellished with ornaments and different textures, included collaborations with designers and artists, which illustrated his 'humanistic' design approach, aimed at creating a welcoming environment for residents. Following the architect's original vision, the building renovation features a mix of restored brick, new ornamental micro-linen bronze stainless steel panels, newly formed aluminum panels and new oversized tilt-and-turn windows.
Inside, the existing 24-storey building has been reconfigured into 47 residences, some featuring 360-degree views of the Manhattan harbour. More than half of the residences have private terraces, with existing openings enlarged to fully capture the breathtaking views. A 24-hour doorman, concierge, library lounge with bar, children's playroom, fitness centre, sauna and a common decked roof terrace are a few of the amenities the residents will be able to enjoy. It is no surprise that its 5,955-square-foot penthouse was snapped up after less than a month on the market. The penthouse will be ready in December and all the residents are expected to be able to move into the tower early next year.
Walker, also the architect behind the city's Barclay-Vesey Telephone Building and the financial district's art deco Irving Trust bank tower, tirelessly developed the skyscraper typology and also worked on the Chicago and New York World's Fairs in the 1930s. Perfectly timed to coincide with the Walker Tower renovation project, Rizzoli's new tome 'Ralph Walker: Architect of the Century' by Kathryn E. Holliday is the first monograph to fully present the architect's work and vision.
Called the “architect of the century” by the New York Times early on in his career, the legendary architect Ralph Walker completed his Art Deco masterpiece, lower Manhattan’s Walker Tower, in 1929. With the Walker Tower and his other Art Deco skyscrapers he sought to humanize skyscrapers through both design and ornamentation.
Originally designed for the New York Telephone Company, today the Walker Tower has been converted into luxury residences with quite a pedigree . Walker’s original deco vision was painstakingly preserved during it’s conversion from office headquarters. This restored architectural masterpiece soars above its neighboring buildings, providing views of Manhattan that rival the beauty of the meticulously designed interior.
As part of that restoration SuperStrata was brought in to create the custom, hand-cast Art Deco inspired plaster panels that top the sleek, black marble lined lobby designed by Jarvis Studios. From design to fabrication and installation, creating the Walker Tower lobby friezes was an artistic pleasure at every stage.