25 February 2008

How to Give a Neighborhood the Finger

There's been a lot of ire addressed at the aggressive, Williamburg, Robert Scarano creation known as the "Finger Building," called such because (I presume) of its shape and the way it sticks out like a sore thumb (or finger) in the middle of the block, and, also, because it is figuratively giving the finger to its low-slung neighbors.

I'm no Finger Building apologist. But a walk through Soho recently recalled to my memory that it is possible for a finger building to bring beauty to a community. Look at this long slender number on the south side of Broome Street, near Broadway. Now that's a finger you could welcome into the neighborhood! The architect, one John T. Williams, adhered to the cast-iron character of the area when he built the thing in 1895, and, since the building would be so prominent, endeavored to make it as attractive as possible, from foot to crown. There are only three windows across on the Broadway side, but 26 on the Broome side; the contrast is quite striking, as is the large, oxidized cornice on top.

In one respect, however, Soho's 19th-century finger building is similar to Williamsburg's 21st-century finger building—its architect was a jerk. Williams was not only an architect but a developer, and he didn't give a tinker's damn what the public thought. According to the New York Times:

In the 1890's he was involved in a controversy with Phillips' Presbyterian Church at the northeast corner of 73d Street and Madison Avenue. Williams decided to build a private stable for his own use next to the church, and he was subjected to a storm of editorial and public condemnation. Stable builders in such situations generally retreated, but Williams remained unmoved, refusing even to meet with the church's architects.

Oh, well. At least he left behind a gorgeous building, not a piece of crapiteture.


Anonymous said...

I've never noticed the finger bulidings.


Greg said...

Beautiful building. I wouldn't call it a finger building though. The finger buildings are all mid-block and mostly on quiet residential streets of two and three story buildings. This one fronts Broadway in a commercial district. Finger buildings are also often over three or four times as tall as the surrounding structures - this one is not nearly as mismatched.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

I don't disagree, Greg. My point was more to contrast them, not equate them. But I do think the Soho building is not as mismatched for the reason I stated: its style is in keeping with the neighborhood. The Williamsburg building's style is wholly apart from its surroundings.