5.16. THE INFLUENCE OF THE SHILLITO’S STORE ON GEORGE POST

George Post, Smith Building, New York, 1879. (JSAH, October 1972)

The Shillito’s store had its impact on George Post, as well, judging by his projects that immediately followed the October 1877 publication of its design and details in American Architect.  In 1879 he designed the Smith Building in which in its elevation he rotated his typical horizontal accent, such as how he had detailed the pre-Shillito’s New York Hospital, to a vertical emphasis à la Shillito’s. In fact, he even kept McLaughlin’s rhythm of a base, a three-story middle (tied together also with colossal pilasters) and a one-story top, upon which he placed the still fashionable mansard roof with dormers.

In 1880, Darius Ogden Mills, California’s wealthiest resident and until 1878, the President of the Bank of California, returned to New York, his hometown to retire and to continue in the development business.  We last discussed Mills in Volume One in relation to his role in the construction of San Francisco’s grand Palace Hotel. He was one of the three members of San Francisco’s “Comstock Ring,” along with William C. Ralston and William Sharon, that had made a killing in bankrolling would-be miners in Nevada’s Comstock Lode’s silver bonanza of the 1860s.  In 1864, the three “bankers” had founded the Bank of California, destined to become the largest bank west of the Mississippi, with Mills as the president, Ralston as the Cashier, and Sharon as the manager of the branch bank in Virginia City, Nevada. 

John P. Gaynor, Palace Hotel, San Francisco, 1871. The Grand Court. (Lewis, Bonanza Inn)

As I discussed in Volume One, Ralston had used his wealth to build the country’s most expensive hotel (over $5 million, Chicago’s contemporary Palmer House had cost a mere $3.5 million), the Palace Hotel.  Unfortunately, he never lived to see its completion because his two partners had turned against him and exposed his financial manipulations first as the Bank’s Cashier, and then following Mills’ strategic resignation, as its President to assist in funding the construction of the hotel during the early days of the 70s economic depression.  Once the two exposed his malfeasance Ralston resigned the next day and never returned the following day from his daily swim in San Francisco Bay.  Sharon now owned the Palace Hotel that was formally opened for business on October 2, 1875, the same day that the Bank of California reopened its doors, with Darius Ogden Mills once again in the president’s seat.

George B. Post, Preliminary Design for the Mills Building, New York, 1880. (Weisman, American Architecture)

New York’s economy had started to come out of the depression in 1878 and by 1880 had sufficiently recovered to allow the revival of construction of ten-story skyscrapers.  Mills commissioned Post to design a huge, expensive speculative office building at the corner of Broad Street and Exchange Place.  Post’s original design was nothing more than an exact copy of the Shillito’s Store (I have photoshopped the image to compare) with a dormered mansard roof, like the Smith Building, placed directly on top, in an apparent attempt to lend a level of ornateness to the spartan body of Shillito’s. This would have been more appropriate for the image of a pre-depression office building, than that of a building that was a result of five years of economic depression.  Although no plan has survived, I can surmise from the site plan and the elevations that it would have been a single-loaded corridor scheme, again repeating the Shillito’s plan, but also I can’t resist the idea that Mills had suggested that Post reprise the interior of the San Francisco Palace Hotel.

Top: Shillito’s; Bottom: Post’s Original Design for the Mills Building, sans Mansard Roof. (Author’s collection)

5.17. THE FIRST EXTERIOR-EXPOSED LIGHTCOURTS: THE VANDERBILT MANSIONS AND THE POST BUILDING

George Post, the Post Building, New York, 1880. (Landau, Post)

While the Mills Building’s preliminaries were developing, Post received the commission to design another New York office building, the Post Building.  Here Post showed his openness to new ideas by convincing the owners, Post’s own father Joel Browne Post and uncle John, that he could give them not only more offices, but also ones better supplied with daylight and fresh air with a floor plan that broke from the street front with the use of an exterior lightcourt, i.e., a U-shaped plan.  Montgomery Schuyler, the critic for American Architect, reported that  “The most striking feature is the interior court gained by a bold recess in one of the fronts which is thus divided into projecting wings and a center withdrawn half the depth of the building.”  The building’s massing comprised of a two-story bluestone base, with asymmetrical wings to either side of the lightcourt, the building’s entrance being located immediately beneath the lightcourt.  The elevations of the wings consisted of a four-story body (curiously, after he had detailed both the Equitable and the Western Union Buildings with flat-headed windows, Post had regressed to using arch-headed windows in each floor that were connected with colossal Classical pilasters), that supported a two-story top. These upper six floors were sheathed with pale yellow brick and matching terra cotta.

John B. Snook, William H. Vanderbilt twin residences, New York, 1879. Hunt’s house for W.K. Vanderbilt is immediately across the street. (Online)

Historically, Post should not be given credit for this idea, for John Snook, the architect of Vanderbilt’s Grand Central Depot (for which Root had been the construction superintendent), had used this idea the year before in the design for a new mansion on the west side of Fifth Avenue between 51st and 52nd Streets for William H. Vanderbilt, the new patriarch of the Vanderbilt clan and the New York Central Railroad system, following the death of his father on January 4, 1877. Vanderbilt had asked Snook to design two mansions: one for himself, the other, joined by a common entrance, for his two daughters and their families.  Snook designed two brownstone palazzos that were linked in the center of the lot by a glazed atrium that served as an entrance for both residences.  Snook had set the precedent that would be imitated in many coming buildings, including the Mills Building.

George B. Post, Cornelius Vanderbilt II residence, New York, 1879. (Landau, Post)

There was no way Post could have been ignorant of Snook’s design as he himself had been commissioned by the old “Commodore’s” oldest grandson, Cornelius II, to design his mansion on the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th, five blocks north of his father’s mansion and only a block south of Grand Army Plaza and Central Park.  All this new construction was made possible once the elder Vanderbilt’s estate had been finally settled in April 1879, after which the Commodore’s son and his two eldest grandsons, Cornelius II and William K., took little time in spending a portion of their inheritances in erecting what would be known as “Vanderbilt Row.”  Post had produced a French chateau-inspired design that employed both late Gothic and early Renaissance details with a highly ornamented pitched roof, not unlike the one he would employ the following year in his first design of the Mills Building.  We will discuss the third mansion, that of grandson William K. when appropriate.

FURTHER READING:

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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