Art Deco architecture of New York City Art Deco architecture of New York City - ImagesGram

Art Deco architecture of New York City

Art Deco architecture flourished in New York City during the 1920s and 1930s before largely disappearing after World War II. The style is found in government edifices, commercial projects, and residential buildings in all five boroughs. The architecture of the period was influenced not just by decorative arts influences from across the world, but also local zoning regulations.

Their proliferation first fueled by the Roaring Twenties and speculation, Art Deco buildings range in size and sophistication from towering skyscrapers and office buildings to modest middle-class housing and municipal buildings. First defined by the colorful, lavishly-decorated skyscrapers of Manhattan, the Great Depression and changing tastes pushed Art Deco to more subdued applications in the 1930s. The lull in construction during World War II and rise of the International Style led to the end of new Art Deco in the city.

After falling out of favor and suffering from neglect during the city's downturn in the latter half of the 20th century, New York's Art Deco has been reappraised; among its most treasured and recognizable buildings are the Art Deco Empire State Building and Chrysler Building, and Art Deco skyscrapers formed the core of the city's skyline. Today, many of New York's finest Art Deco examples are protected by historic preservation laws, while others have been lost to development or neglect.


American Art Deco has its origins in European arts, especially the style moderne popularized at the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts from which Art Deco draws its name (Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes). While the United States would not officially participate, Americans visited the exposition: 47 including New York architect Irwin Chanin: 55 and the government sent a delegation to the expo. Their resulting report helped spread the style to America. :6 Other influences included German expressionism, the Austrian Secession, art nouveau, cubism, and the ornament of African and Central and South American cultures. :8–9 In America, Art Deco architecture would take on different forms in different regions of the country, influenced by local culture, laws, and tastes. 42

Art Deco came into style just as New York itself was being rapidly transformed. An exploding population, flush economic times, cheap and available credit, and lax zoning combined to encourage a building boom. The real estate market was so explosive that old buildings were regularly being torn down for new construction after standing for only a few years. :42 To obtain greater returns, builders tore down twice as many buildings as went up, with the new buildings occupying two or more old lots. The result was that the amount of office space in New York City increased by 92% in the back half of the 1920s. 49–50

In New York City specifically, zoning regulations had major impacts on the design of its buildings. The development of the elevator and steel-framed buildings enabled the construction of buildings far taller than ever before—the skyscraper. The rise of ever-larger skyscrapers such as the 40-story Equitable Building helped spur the passage of the United States' first citywide zoning code, the 1916 Zoning Resolution. The regulations, intended to prevent tall buildings from choking out light and air at street level, required tall buildings to "set back" from street level depending on the width of the street and the zoned area. Once a building rose up and set back to cover just 25% of the lot, clients and architects were limited not by city codes but by money and engineering as to the height of their project. 48 The impact of the new regulations was not felt until later in the decade, since building slowed during World War I.

Early buildings built to conform to the new setback codes did so unimaginatively—the Heckscher Building in Midtown (completed 1921) set back evenly like a stack of boxes as it rose—but more novel interpretations of the law would follow. Influential on the resulting skyscrapers was Finn Eliel Saarinen's second-place entry for Chicago's Tribune Tower was considered a liberating alternative for a skyscraper style unbeholden to either Gothic or Classical architecture. 7–8 Also influential were architect and illustrator Hugh Ferriss' series of speculative architectural illustrations exploring how to make buildings that met the zoning requirements. Ferriss' illustrations envisioned buildings not as boxes but sculptural forms. Architect Talbot Hamlin described Ferriss' work as "a magic wand to set the American city architecture free from its nightmare. No longer was the high building apparently built by the mile and cut off to order, but it was composed break upon break, buttress on buttress. The possibilities of poetry entered in." 48–49

Precursors to the Art Deco skyscrapers that would soon go up across the city were buildings such as Raymond Hood's American Radiator Building, which was neo-Gothic in general style but featured abstract ornament that would characterize the emerging style. Another early transitional building was the Madison Belmont Building at 181 Madison Avenue (1924–1925), which featured traditional ornamentation and organization on upper floors, combined with Art Deco motifs on the lower floors. The ironwork was provided by Edgar Brandt, who contributed the iron entrance gates to the 1925 Paris Exhibition