2.12. THE ATRIUM: THE EQUITABLE, WESTERN UNION, AND NEW YORK TRIBUNE BUILDINGS

Post, Equitable Building. Close-up showing the window wall in the lightcourt above the Banking Hall’s skylight, as it appeared in 1889. (Landau and Condit, New York Skyscraper)

The Equitable Building had just such an interior lightcourt.  The competition program had required the inclusion of a two-story banking hall that was to be located in the least desirable, i.e., lowest rentable area: in the middle of the building at the second floor. This would have required an overhead skylight to provide sufficient daylight as the area was too far from the exterior windows.  

Post, Equitable Building. Banking Hall as it appeared in 1889. (Landau and Condit, New York Skyscraper)

Above the two-story banking hall, there were three floors of rental offices, intended for professionals such as lawyers.  These were planned in a single-loaded corridor scheme lining the lightcourt needed to bring daylight down to the banking floor.  These floors were contained within a rectangular volume, as the structure reveals on the Second Floor plan. The building’s perimeter (on the upper right corner of the plan image) did not follow the outline of the site but was pulled back far enough away from the party wall of the adjacent building in order to provide daylight to the elevator bank, stairs, and the offices along this side.  

Post, Equitble Building. Second floor plan showing the location of the banking hall. Note the location of the two elevators at either side of the stairway and how the building was pulled inside the lotline to form a lightwell. (Landau and Condit, New York Skyscraper)

What historians, including William Birkmire, Sarah Bradford Landau, as well as myself, have been unable to definitively determine is whether there was a second skylight at the roof that would have weatherproofed the skylight over the banking floor.  If there was, then the perimeter of the atrium at each floor could have been open balconies that lined the atrium.  If Post had determined that he needed as much daylight as possible to penetrate down to the banking floor, he would have left this skylight open to the sky above, meaning that he would have had to enclose the corridors around the lightwell with walls and windows. A close-up image (at the start of this post) through the lower skylight of a photograph taken after 1889 reveals an exterior wall with windows lining the atrium.  However, this wall may have been a later addition based on Post’s detailing in the 1881 Produce Exchange. (If the wall was part of the original design, it would have been the prototype for the detailing in the New York Produce Exchange: see later chapter.)  I will return to the construction of this wall in the next chapter on ‘Firmness.”  

George Post, Produce Exchange, New York, 1881. Elevation of the lightcourt’s exterior walls. (Landau, George B. Post)

In Post’s Western Union Building, the site’s width was such that no atrium was required as a double-loaded corridor scheme was efficiently accommodated.  In contrast, the site for the New York Tribune Building was larger than needed for a simple double-loaded scheme, and Hunt planned the building with a lightcourt in the rear (and to the left of the plan) that would also provide daylight when a double-loaded corridor addition was added in 1881. 

Hunt, New York Tribune, 1873. First Floor Plan. (Landau and Condit, New York Skyscraper) Below: 1881 Addition showing the extra single-loaded wing forming a lightcourt. (Gray, History of the Elevator)

FURTHER READING:

Gray, Lee E. From Ascending Rooms to Express Elevators: A History of the Passenger Elevator in the 19th Century. Mobile, AL: Elevator World, 2002.

Landau, Sarah B. George B. Post, Architect.  New York: Monacelli Press, 1998.

Landau, Sarah B., and Carl Condit.  The Rise of the New York Skyscraper, 1865-1913. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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