A Tale of Two Park Avenue

A covert exchange between a deranged novelist and storied Manhattan architect

Illustration by the author

Passing under a glitzy geometric ceiling mosaic and through ornate bronze revolving doors at Two Park Avenue, Ayn Rand went to work on her novel The Fountainhead. The building was designed by Ely Jacques Kahn and built when tall towers were rapidly springing up across New York City—this was the era of Hugh Ferriss’s fantasies first published in Pencil Points. Yet, unlike the abstract stepped masses depicted in those charcoal renderings, Two Park Avenue is a polychromatic gem.

Rand’s destination was the top floor, where Kahn’s architecture office provided sweeping views of the Manhattan skyline just blocks from the Empire State Building. The two had come to an arrangement: unknown to her colleagues, Rand offered to work as an unpaid typist in exchange for the opportunity to be among architects, which, as she explained to Kahn, would help her write a compelling novel about the profession. She could discuss everything from licensure to design plagiarism and discreetly jot down gossip about architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, whose uncompromising design approach made him a fitting model for the book’s principled protagonist, Howard Roark. Despite Rand’s many attempts to interview and learn from Wright, all of her letters remained unanswered. Perhaps he was too busy to be bothered: “The only thing that matters,” as his fictional counterpart Roark says, “is the work itself.”

Without any input from Wright, Rand leaned on her undercover observations in Kahn’s office as she wrote the manuscript, choosing to portray a profession marred by collective compromise. Kahn’s counterpart, Guy Francon, was a reputable and successful architect whose traditional designs lacked forward-thinking (read: modern) innovation and the spark of individual genius. But where Rand saw compromise, she failed to see architecture: artfully eclectic details, clear structural expression, pragmatic massing, and a truly collaborative effort by architects, artists, and craftspeople made Two Park Avenue a building very much of its time. Terra-cotta tiles glazed in red, black, ochre, cerulean, and teal were carefully developed at full-scale in coordination with color consultant and ceramicist Leon Solon, whom Kahn had befriended at the Architectural League of New York. Those doors that Rand passed through were designed and crafted by Gaston Lachaise. The mosaic, by Hildreth Meière. Two Park Avenue stood out among its buff brick–colored neighbors of yesteryear and still radiates amid a monotonous backdrop of glass towers.

Not surprisingly, Kahn thought it best not to be specifically acknowledged for his role in shaping Rand’s views, likely worried by the controversy the book indeed ultimately stirred. Instead, at his fitting request, Rand offered her “profound gratitude to the great profession of architecture and its heroes who have given us some of the highest expressions of man’s genius, yet have remained unknown.”

Leopoldo Villardi is co-author, with Robert A.M. Stern, of Between Memory and Invention (Monacelli, 2022).