The 56 story tall Chanin Building is a brick and terra-cotta skyscraper located at 122 East 42nd Street, at the corner of Lexington Avenue, in Manhattan. Built by Irwin S. Chanin in 1929 It was designed by Sloan & Robertson in the Art Deco style, with the assistance of Chanin’s own architect Jacques Delamarre, and it incorporates architectural sculpture by noted sculptor Rene Paul Chambellan.
In the lobbies, eight bronze reliefs designed by Rene Paul Chambellan are inset in the walls above ornate bronze radiator grilles. The bronze ornamentation continues in the waves on the floor, mailboxes, and elevator doors extending the general Art Deco style from the outside in. Initially a dominant landmark in the midtown skyline, the building had an open air observatory on the 54th floor.
Having been surpassed in height by a number of buildings, most notably the Chrysler Building located across the street, the observatory has been long closed. The self-supporting tower atop the building is the original transmission site for WQXR-FM from 1941 to the 1960s. Irwin S. Chanin, was a self-made man – from poor immigrant to successful architect & developer. He wanted the building that bore his name to represent everything America and New York City meant for him, and could also be for all those that chose to seek it.
He had Rene Chambellan work with Jacques Delamarre to develop a set of eight relief sculptures to represent this. There were two lobbies in the building, each have four plaques, all of which were to represent a theme of “New York, the City of Opportunity.” four of the plaques represent the Mental Life and four of them represent the Physical Life of the individual.
HISTORY of the sculptor whose artwork appears on the building;
Rene Paul Chambellan (September 15, 1893 – November 29, 1955) was an American sculptor, born in West Hoboken, New Jersey. Chambellan studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the Academie Julian in Paris and with Solon Borglum in New York City. Chambellan specialized in architectural sculpture. He was also one of the foremost practitioners of what was then called the “French Modern Style” and has subsequently been called Art Deco. He also frequently designed in the Greco Deco style. Rene had many historic and significant buildings under his belt as a sculptor, including the NY Daily News Buildings, Buffalo City Hall, NY Life insurance building. Rene also designed medals, bronze doors, and the historic city seals and other artwork adorning the old Miller Highway (West Side Highway) that ran along Manhattan’s West side along the North (Hudson) River until a collapse in 1973 resulted in it’s eventual removal.
I always found these hyper-masculine figures in this era to be interesting, more so with the abstractness of this in Art Deco. Chambellain’s grandson Bob was working on a book several years ago, and a looks at the web site http://www.louisvilleartdeco.com will bring forth a treasure trove of studio photos and more information on Mr Chambellain and his many works; Rene Paul Chambellan – One of Art Deco’s Greatest Sculptors. by Jim Patterson, with Bob Perrone. Artists played a critical part in architecture during the late ’20s, through the ’30s, and up to WWII. Art Deco buildings wouldn’t have their edgy character without the ornamentation supplied by these artists. A number of talented artists contributed to making each building into its own art gallery of sorts. Metalworkers, muralists, sculptors, designers…. They all played a key part. This feature article is about one of my favorite artists – sculptor Rene Paul Chambellan (pronounced with the “sh” soft sound: “Sham -bell – an”).
The unassuming and dimunitive little Otis elevator call button was a simple but artistic design used for many years by Otis elevator Co., with their laurel wreath encircling their name emblazoned over a globe logo, and surrounded by a classical egg & dart molding. This particular artifact has only one button- the “up” button as it was originally located in the basement, not only was it located in a lowly, damp basement, but that basement happened to be the one that was under the 1867 Broadway Central Hotel (BCH) once located on several lots fronting 150 feet of Broadway with the main entrance at 673 Broadway, NY City.
It was originally named “The Grand Central Hotel”
The site was originally a hotel and theatre known as; The Lafarge House. Edwin Booth appeared there as did other well known persons, this building was destroyed in an 1854 fire, it was rebuilt, and destroyed in yet another spectacular fire!
In March 1869 the property sold at public auction by the heirs of the Lafarge estate to E. S. Higgins, Esq., who was recorded fourth on the list of wealthy citizens for the sum of $1,000,000. This gentleman was determined to erecting the largest hotel in the country with 630 rooms.
The hotel had 350 workmen building it, 7 acres of carpeting, 4,000,000 bricks were used.
The hotel was the scene of Railroad magnate Jim Fisk’s shooting, and in the early 1970s when the hotel was a welfare hotel and deteriorated greatly, the rear of the hotel was converted into the Mercer Arts Center, a multi theatre and arts complex by Sy Kaback.
On a late summer day in August 1973, a section of the 8 story facade and the floors behind it all collapsed onto Broadway- killing several people, hundreds of patrons who were due to attend the theatres that very evening escaped the disaster!
The buck stopped with the city who was notified about a serious crack and “bulge” in the facade wall, and other violations, they sent an inspector out, and despite requiring corrective action within 10 days, nothing was done and the city didn’t bother following up! Of the 308 residents, 4 residents were killed, 2 dogs survived days trapped in the rubble, one was adopted by the fire department. Consider that just between Nov 1970 and March 1973 there were 450 building and health code violations recorded in the hotel. Violations included illegal alterations, leaks in the plumbing, fire alarm malfunctioning, and of course the crack and bulge in the facade wall to name but a few.
On Jan 26, 1973 the Buildings Dept was notified by an engineer doing structural renovations at the hotel that brickwork was bulging out of bond, the next day an inspector found a crack stretching from the 2nd to the 6th floor separating the bearing and facade walls. What was happing there was the facade was moving away from the bearing wall in the center where the 2 walls connected to one another which ran East to West from Broadway to Mercer St in the back.
The inspector decided to call in the chief inspector, but neither wrote an official report! They did not issue a summons or record an official violation either, they “informed” the hotel manager who promised to take immediate action.
It wasn’t until Feb 22nd- almost a month later that it was re-inspected after “officially hazardous” conditions were first discovered, a violation was recorded then. It wasn’t even re-inspected again until March 29, NO repair work had even been done despite the 10 day law.
Still nothing happened as April, May, June and July rolled on by while a major crack from the 2nd to the 6th floor went un-repaired, then Friday August 3rd came around and residents reported hearing strange noises coming out of the walls, the Buildings Dept emergency number was called by Mercer Arts owner Sy Kaback and his wife over the weekend and they told them to call on Monday! The noises became worse and plaster was falling from the ceilings in places, so at least one if not 2 callers called the fire department and they were told that “strange noises are coming out of the walls” the person at the fire dept asked the caller if they had been drinking… amazingly, in the middle of that call with the Kabacks the line went dead because that was when the collapse happened and a large section of the stone and brick facade wall fell out onto Broadway and the sidewalk.
I communicated around 1998 or so with the owner of the Mercer Arts Center: Sy Kaback, and his wife, who together operated several live performance theaters in the back of the hotel, Sy’s wife described the scene to me and her call to the fire dept.
On the day of the collapse, the Mercer Arts Center was expecting a crowd of patrons for some live performances, and the Kabacks were gravely concerned about the falling plaster and cracking and other noises in the walls, they tried calling city agencies to get a go or no go because if they cancelled the event they would have been sued for breach of contract, OTH if they had a few hundred patrons in their theaters and something happened- they would be liable.
As it happened, the collapsed cccurred just hours before the events were to begin!
After the collapse, an emergency demolition was begun to demolish the entire building, that was when this then 13 year old author discovered the site and I began exploring it top to bottom during the demolition, the little Otis elevator plate was discovered after crawling down thru a hole in the rubble to a debris filled hallway in front of the elevator. The button plate and a number of other artifacts came home with me over the many weeks of demolition, and some of these will be pictured here as well.
But let us go back before the collapse, way back, back before the hotel was built and to the LaFarge House, this illustration will perfectly show my theory, which to my knowlege no one else has hiterto come up with;
The drawing on the left in the split image would have been done before the fire on January 8, 1854, Metropolitan Hall and the adjoining La Farge House were destroyed by the fire; but the hall was rebuilt and opened in the following September, under the name of the New York Theatre and Metropolitan Opera House.
Towards the close of the same year the house was remodelled and called Laura Keene’s Varieties; and in the following year, it became Burton’s Theatre. In 1859 it became the Winter Garden and Conservatory of the Arts, the first part of the title being that by which it is best known and which it retained until its total destruction by fire, March 23, 1867.
On the left is the old LaFarge House, on the right is the Broadway Central Hotel built on the site after the LaFarge burned to the ground in a spectacular fire, those words “burned to the ground, spectacular fire” are key to my theory, because while the building burned down, the stone and brick facade REMAINED largely intact, notice the red circles showing the very same unique window surrrounds on the LaFarge facade, a classical tripointed alternating with dioclesan pedimented windows, as well as the center entrance treatment. In other words what I strongly believe they did, was they REUSED the LaFarge’s facade and where it’s 6th floor shorter windows and cornice were- they removed the cornice, added a larger more dramatic cornice plus three more floors on top and a large central tower with a mansard roof!
So when we consider this, remember- the LaFarge facade was built for a SIX story building, it was exposed to a massive fire in the rear, collapse of the floors behind it, no doubt millions of gallons of water soaked into it’s footings and surrounding earth. Add now almost 70 years of subway trains vibrating it underneath, and an illegal doorway was cut thru the East-West brick bearing wall behind it in the basement, factor in the additional weight of three more floors and it should be no surprise it finally gave out.
The failure can be traced right back to the big fire, water, and adding three more floors on top of it causing instability and settling.
Probably THE earliest photo of the hotel, on the original image it is clear that final finishing work was still being done in the rooms behind the windows whose upper half is pushed down fully open, that dates it to about 1869, the horse-drawn carriages were in use before the trolly tracks came in 1892. With a larger scan of one part of the above image reproduced below, let’s focus on the remains of a painted SIGN clearly visible on the wall that says; “–ARGE HOUSE”;
THIS is where the original LaFarge House side wall left off and the new brickwork added to the left and above it, that one arch top open window’s lower half is exactly where the short square windows of the LaFarge were located, and that elaborate cornice with it’s large scrolled brackets is where the plainer LaFarge cornice was.
Some other artifacts from the hotel include a Tycos mercury thermometer from a basement
hot water tank, china and silverware with the hotel logo, and an ACME fire alarm box.
Interior cast-stone shown with an antique dirty bronze finish
The eagle plaque sculpture is a bas relief and after a design by Grueby Faience Co 1904. Grueby custom made tiles and ornaments for the NYC subway stations, and at the Union Square (14th Street), Brooklyn Bridge, and 33rd Street stations these eagle plaques were installed in two slightly different configurations.
All the ornamentation had been designed to help passengers recognize his or her station without the necessity of listening for the announcement or reading the signs.
The Interborough Rapid Transit Subway, or IRT, was the first subway company in New York City, and opened on October 27th, 1904
Station Decoration, Plaques: Grueby Faience Co. 1904.
Architectural Designs For New York’s First Subway David J. Framberger Survey Number HAER NY-122, pp. 365-412 Historic American Engineering Record National Park Service Department of the Interior Washington, DC.
SIZE: Nominal 24″ high by 19″ wide.
The plaque is one piece made to look like the multiple pieces the originals were made from, these can be obtained in your choice of any of my usual finishes and may be purchased at this url;
In addition to the new “Artifact of the month” feature in which I detail the story, history and more of each architectural artifact in my personal collection, I decided to start a new “Sculpture of the week” feature which will showcase one of my sculptures each week.
Inspired by a terra cotta frieze on the historic Nortown Theater, Chicago, Illinois,
~ I present ~
Art Deco Nortown Spandrel Panel Nr D5
Nortown theater Art Deco D7
While the Nortown theater is long gone, you will be able to enjoy the lovely design in your home. Fans of Art Deco may have seen the Nortown theater in Chicago, the theater featured many interior plaster decorations as well as exterior terra cotta elements. Some of the limited number of ornaments were salvaged and were for sale, most of these exterior pieces were quite large at over 30″ wide and 20″ high, 4-6″ deep, my version of this is in a more apartment/home friendly size/weight at a nominal size of 21-1/2″ by 13-3/4.
The Nortown Theater was located at 6320 North Western Avenue, Chicago, IL and was designed by J.E.O. Pridmore in 1931, the theater was demolished in the summer of 2007. On the facade there was a frieze band on the ground floor composed of 4 different panels assembled in a set about 17 feet long. There were 5 sets total. The sets consisted of 3 panels with this design 31″ wide, 21″ high, 5-6″ deep alternated with a “tragedy” and a “comedy” mask, and capped on both ends with a square geometric block. Thus, there were only 15 panels with this design and 5 each of the masks made, most were salvaged and offered by an antique firm in Chicago for $750 and an even heftier price of $1850 respectively!
After I modelled this first panel, I modelled the other two panels with the tragedy and comedy masks, thus, the series of three of these panels are completed and available individually or as a set.
This ornaments on the building were probably made by the major company that supplied much of these to architects in Chicago- Midland Terra Cotta Co. It’s curtains for Nortown; 2 smaller cinemas to take place of old. Chicago Sun-Times, Aug 4, 2007 by Teresa Sewell The old Nortown Theater is finally coming down. The grand movie house hasn’t featured a film since 1990, but the building — famous for its striking seahorse, mermaid and zodiac motifs — has stood its ground at 6320 N. Western since 1931. Demolition of the Nortown began in 2007. Amrit Patel, who owns several Dunkin Donuts and Baskin Robbins locations, wants to build a 70-unit, six-story condo building on the site.
To purchase one of the interior cast-stone versions of this panel, they are priced $179 each and include shipping to your door;
D5 is ALSO available in a hand-pressed, kiln fired red terracotta
Nortown theater Art Deco D5 terracotta rear view
These are made exactly like the original antique terracotta pieces were.
Each of theses terracotta sculptures are personally signed, numbered and dated works of art. Please note that hand pressed is NOT the same as the much cheaper, paper-thin ceramic “slip castings” used to produce teapots, china plates, bowls and ceramic pieces! The two processes are similar only in that both use a complicated plaster mold, the difference between slip casting ceramics and hand-pressing clay is- the slip is simply poured into the mold like a plaster cast, let set a while, drained and removed just like a plaster cast. Slip casting is a condensation process, with the clay particles condensing by gravity, slip castings are usually very weak, very thin, and easy to break, this process is used for mass production. Hand-pressed clay sculpture involves real work, physically taking the moist clay and both pressing and ramming small amounts of it into the plaster mold, pressing and working it in to remove air and squeeze the clay into all of the fine details. As the sculpture is built up to the top surface of the mold it is then levelled off on the back and hollowed out by hand, leaving the clay walls about 5/8″- 3/4″ thick.
Once the pressed-clay has remained in the plaster mold used to form it for a few hours, it is carefully removed and laid on a wire rack to begin drying. Here is another difference- the pressed-clay sculptures are completely gone over by hand with sculpture tools to add back any fine details, accent others, and generally clean up the whole surfaces, this is exactly the same processes used to create all of the architectural terracotta found on old buildings my work is based upon. These sculptures are fired in the kiln @ 2,079 degrees for about 36 hours.
Someone recently mentioned they “hate” terracotta because they had some in the garden that “fell apart,” please do not confuse THAT type of mass produced Chinese -JUNK sold for $9.95 at Walmart with fine hand-made sculpture! The reason their “terracotta” in the garden fell apart was that it was poorly made, poorly fired at the lowest possible temperature to save time and money, and the item was sold in garden stores cheap. This stuff is NOT real terracotta, I even suspect some of it is just red tinted plaster. Due to clays’ shrinkage, the terracotta version of my design is slightly smaller than the interior cast-stone version. NOTE: on the production time, I will try to keep a few of these on hand to ship quickly, however, if I happen to run out it WILL TAKE 3 weeks to make and dry one before it can be fired, 2 weeks of that is for the slow drying out process which can’t be rushed.
SIZE: Nominal 12-1/8″ high by 19-3/4″ wide, 2″ deep. WEIGHT: 29#.
These are priced $259 and include delivery to the lower 48 states, I only work with red terracotta.
A client purchased a number of sculptures for his home, one was the Morton school Sullivanesque frieze. We decided to do this interior cast stone version for him in the aged buff yellow finish and I think anyone can agree it looks very “old world” an just like a weathered antique fresh off the demolition site!
The Oliver P. Morton High School, built in 1936 was located at 7040 Marshall Avenue, Hammond, Indiana and was demolished in the late 1980s. Once in a while an oddball piece or two of original salvaged terracotta artifacts come up for sale at pretty high prices. Many have chips and other damage to them as well as inappropriate removal by powersaws of their back sections; supposedly to reduce the weight, but which instead severely weakens the artifact and destroys it’s integrity.
The amount of “excess” weight removed is miniscule, on what might be 85 pounds it’s removing at best 5 to 10 pounds.
Nominal 13-1/2″ high by 15-1/2″ wide, 3″ deep WEIGHT: 22#.
I’ve had this design in my lineup for quite a while, but this week a client purchased a cast along with several others and I started thinking that since I need to order in some materials, maybe now would be a good time to order what I need to “convert” this design so it can also be offered in my hand-pressed kiln fired red terracotta.
With an original selling for around $750 at salvage outfits I know there’s a lot of people who don’t want to pay $750 plus shipping for one of the originals, and only being able to obtain one, and it having chips and damage on top of that, but they would be interested in the design in a fired terracotta from me that can be purchased in the quantity they want or need at a quarter of that price, and they don’t have to settle for damaged goods either!
I’m going to have to make a new rubber mold to replace the old one I have for this as it is tearing due to the purple Quantum Silicones rubber I used years ago that turned out to be total garbage, once I do that I can pour a rubber positive in the new mold and then make the plaster piece mold off that to use for pressing the clay version.
The design is from the demolished Morton High School (1936, Hammond Indiana) This was George Elmslie’s final project before his death. Elmslie was the chief ornamental designer for Louis Sullivan. This piece is cataloged as an M-5 Main building cornice from the book Architectural Ornament by Krutty and Schmitt.
Hope to finally finish this Sullivanesque pier capital to-morrow, the clay is getting pretty firm despite being covered with plastic and spritzed with water, so it needs to be finished now.
It’s amazing how much time this design takes, probably twice what other models I’ve done have taken, there’s a lot of detail packed in on the surface!
I still have 5 of the 8 “squares” along the sides- the 4 on the right and the bottom left one to finish refining and cleaning up and then it’s done.
Now that the model is done it is drying out.
There is an 11 minute long timelapse video showing the whole modelling process on this start to finish over 3 months;
This James W Scoville building Elmslie “Sullivanesque” sculpture is now out of the kiln, it is still about 200 degrees and had to be handled with gloves, it turned out perfect!
One can see the color change in photos from the previous dry/unfired state and now that it’s been fired to a little over 2,079 degrees, actually cone 2 tipped because I added a 15 minute “hold” at the set temperature, but because of the “heat work” it went a little higher, but the result is better and the color is nice and even top to bottom, whereas in the past the very bottom of large pieces like this would turn out slightly lighter due to slightly lower temperatures near the floor of the kiln.
Exterior Ornament from the James W. Scoville Building, Chicago (Primary Title)
Dankmar Adler, 1844-1900 (Artist)
Louis Sullivan, American, 1856 – 1924 (Artist)
Northwestern Terra Cotta Co. (Artist)
probably modeled by, Kristian Schneider (Modeler)
After 4 weeks of drying I placed the pressed clay Chicago James Scoville building “Sullivanesque” panel in the kiln and turned ‘er on.
I changed the program on the controller slightly for this piece by bumping the temperature up and adding 10 minutes soak time to when the kiln reaches that temperature.
About 37 hours from now the kiln will shut off and take half a day to cool down before I see what I get.
Meanwhile, here it is sitting in the kiln when I turned it on. The light yellow colored deals touching the back of the panel are shelf posts and I placed them on both front and back so that should the panel want to tip- it can’t.
The two red pyramid haped deals resting on top of the posts are called “cones” and they will partially melt and bend over at specified temperatures each uniquely is formulated to do that at, so they tell me if the kiln got hot enough- what it was set to, or too hot- hotter than I set it for.
In this case there’s a cone 1 which bends over at 2,079 degrees F and a cone 2 which bends over at 2,088 degrees F, and yes they are THAT accurate that 9 degrees in a furnace that is over 2,000 degrees can be measured accurately.
The temperature and soak time much like baking a cake or making toast in a toaster- also affects the final color and “doneness” of the terracotta. This clay I use is a brick red that as the temperature goes above that cone 1 starts to turn brown- it can take cone 5 (2,167 degrees) at which point it turns a dark chococate brown! I’ve never gone higher than cone 1 but it would be interesting to experiment with a smaller piece.
So far I’ve shown the modelling process, the hand-pressing process and now the kiln firing process will wrap it all up in a sort of educational “How the architectural terracotta was made” in Sullivan’s day and before.
Now that I have the materials needed, I’ll be making the mold required to produce this historic model in hand-pressed kiln fired red terracotta this weekend, it will be a few weeks before the first one can be produced.
With the plaster backing done for the rubber positive I made yesterday, I removed the assembly from the rubber mold. Once the plaster backing on this master positive is soaped up well, I can make the plaster piece-mold of this for pressing the terracotta into, The piece mold will be made in at least 5 pieces, most likely about 8 pieces.
It won’t happen very soon as I used up the very last bag of pottery plaster I had on hand and I’ll have to order more along with some other materials and I need some more clay, but I don’t want to order clay when it’s below freezing, so I may order the clay in the spring and order the plaster and other stuff I need now- soon!
I’ve begun the process last night to take my design towards making it in hand-pressed kiln fired terracotta, that requires two additional mold making steps, the first of which is making a rubber positive master cast using the new rubber mold, the second step is making a plaster piece-mold taken off the rubber positive.
Shown below is the rubber positive that was poured in last night- the remaining cavity not filled with that amber colored rubber will be filled with plaster to save on expensive rubber since only the face is the important portion of the design.
The amount of rubber shown in the mold was 2 gallons total, and this cost just about $200, so it’s easy to see how much it would cost to fill this the rest of the way up with this rubber!
Once this rubber is cured and the cavity filled to the top with plaster, it’s taken apart and the plaster and rubber master positive can be used to make the plaster piece mold.
This is similar to the way this was done for the originals my work is based on, though the final plaster piece molds are made identically to the way they were for these pieces back in the 19th and early 20th century when these ornaments were used on building facades.
All of the Sullivan/Elmslie designed terracotta ornaments were made exactly the way I make them- hand-pressed clay into plaster piece-molds, and then final finishing and detailing all done by hand one at a time.
The Virginia Museum of fine art which has a few artifacts from this building also has at least one of these lunettes with a very similar design on it as the spandrel panels have.
I like the shape of it as well, I have no plans to but easily could make the surrounding flat pieces for it if a client wanted them.
I will be working on this model very soon, of course it takes time and this type of work is done when I have time, and more time for the various mold making processes to get done, but progress photos will come along here soon enough.
This would most likely be priced around $325 in fired red terracotta.
The museum has their artifact sized 18-1/4″ x 18-1/2″ and 4″ deep, this size would fit into my existing kiln, so this is another design I can keep my model of full sized like the originals and offer both interior cast-stone this size but less deep to hang ON the wall, and hand-pressed terracotta which will be slightly smaller due to the shrinkage of the clay but made a nominal 3″ deep which can be additionally used outdoors in the garden or embedded into a brick or stone wall of any type.
Dankmar Adler, 1844-1900
Louis Sullivan, American, 1856 – 1924 (Architects) Northwestern Terra Cotta Co., probably modeled by, Kristian Schneider 1884-1885
I just ordered the two gallons of pourable mold rubber I need to “convert” my “Sullivanesque” design that was recently finished- into a form I can take a plaster piece mold from for pressing terracotta into. Two gallons is not enough to fill the mold, it is only enough to pour about 1″ deep, the rest of the depth will have to be plaster to save on the costs of not having to buy two more gallons of expensive rubber.