Gotham in One Building

Under the trunk of the tower’s seventy stories, daylight is pretty scarce, and there may be no other block in Manhattan that comes so close to the Tim Burton’s Gotham.

Public domain

There’s a well-worn bit of New York architectural lore, which holds that the whole of the 1920s and ’30s—the golden age of Art Deco, and by some lights, of the city’s architecture in general—was the accidental residue of an abstruse change in the local building code. As the story goes, the unglamorous-sounding 1916 Zoning Resolution was the law that launched a thousand jazzy fantasies: by mandating a set of height-to-street-width ratios, and restricting towers to 25 percent of lot size, the ordinance obliged architects to introduce setbacks into their skyscraper designs. Meant to prevent the city from becoming a warren of gloomy canyons, the rule helped give rise to the jagged silhouette that distinguishes all of the most beloved landmarks of the era, from the Empire State Building to the Chrysler Building to the towers at Rockefeller Center.

The story is true, for the most part. Thanks to architectural draftsman Hugh Ferris, whose famous massing studies—prompted by the zoning change—helped popularize the so-called “wedding cake” type, the setback tower became a staple of cities all around the country and indeed around the world. But imagine, for an instant, that this weren’t so: imagine dissolving the seeming synonymity between the familiar ziggurat profile on the one hand and the Deco style on the other. What would prewar towers be, and what would the city they shaped look like, without the light-loving 1916 resolution and the setbacks it brought about?

The skyscraper at 70 Pine Street, originally known as the Cities Service Building, doesn’t exactly answer that question, at least not on paper. Completed in 1932, just a year after the Empire State, the building from the obscure if impressively titled office of Clinton & Russell, Holton & George obeys every letter of the law: occupying a parcel of roughly 30,000 square feet at the corner of Cedar and Pearl Streets in the Financial District, the tower rises 952 feet in a series of regular steps—most of them used as outdoor spaces by tenants (formerly commercial ones, including employees of the late AIG; now high-end-condo owners)—narrowing to less than a quarter of the base area by the time it reaches the top floor (once a viewing platform, today a restaurant). If anything, the uppermost levels display a special exuberance of setback-itude, replete with beveled corners and telescoping pilasters, all topped by a needlelike mast. Given its vintage and its locale, 70 Pine is just the kind of tower you’d expect it to be.

Except it really doesn’t look that way. The 1916 law divided the city into five districts, with allowable ratios ranging from 1:1 to 2.5:1; the greater values were accorded to existing commercial neighborhoods, and 70 Pine is located in the heart of a slender wedge of Lower Manhattan that happens to be the sole district allotted the maximum value. Other developers in the area availed themselves of the opportunity to build exceptionally tall towers—but 70 Pine is not like other tall towers in the area. The previous tallest skyscraper in the Financial District was 40 Wall Street, built in 1930 as the headquarters of the Bank of Manhattan; 70 Pine is 25 feet taller, making it the third-tallest building in the world at the time of its debut. And while 40 Wall enjoys plenty of breathing room, with the Stock Exchange and Federal Hall cowering around it and a grand approach up Broad Street, 70 Pine is pressed tight on all sides. Pine, Pearl, and Cedar Streets are scarcely any more than alleys, barely wide enough for a modern SUV. The enormous tower is practically straitjacketed into the urban fabric.

70 Pine Street stands as a (not-so) little reminder that, in architecture, there may be room for the special case, for the perverse counterexample, provided the design has the chops to make subversion feel like a pleasure.

The result, as seen from ground level, is a building that gives every impression of not setting back much at all—just a sheer upward thrust of gneiss and limestone, kitted out with all the usual period regalia (ornamental grilles, floral reliefs, even a sculpted replica of the tower itself perched over an entryway) but with no monumental procession, no sense of scale, no Ferris-esque perspectival drama. Walk away from the tower and it disappears almost instantly, only cropping up again on the skyline a few blocks away, appearing weirdly hypodermic against the fatter, more pompous towers that surround it. It’s Deco all right, but even with those upper-level setbacks the massing is notably off-theme: too high-shouldered, too much like a pure extrusion.

Neither the architects (a fairly distinguished practice in fact, responsible for the celebrated Apthorp apartment building, among other local landmarks) nor the developer (an eccentric capitalist named Henry Latham Doherty, who reportedly planned to install a mechanical bed that would roll out onto the balcony of his penthouse boudoir) had the intention of producing any kind of novel stylistic mutation. In any case, it isn’t really the design itself that makes 70 Pine so provocative; it’s the site, which effectively negates the stated purpose of those legally required setbacks. Under the trunk of the building’s 70 stories, daylight is pretty scarce, and there may be no other block in Manhattan that comes so close to the dim and creepy menace of Tim Burton’s Gotham. And that’s the thing: That dimness, that creepiness? It’s thrilling—in fact it’s what makes 70 Pine just about my favorite building in New York, for reasons having as much to do with the quality of the building as with the alternate-reality city it conjures up.

A quasi-medieval, junglelike Manhattan of spindly stone towers, looming awesomely over sunless understories…it’s an exciting picture, though perhaps only in thought. The advocates of the 1916 resolution were almost certainly right, and the strength of their argument is bolstered by just how many great buildings—and what a great urban landscape overall—took root in New York in the four-plus decades before the law was superseded in 1961. Deco stylistics turned out to be a perfect complement to the winnowing volumes that the rule effectively demanded, producing a city of daring verticality without robbing its streets and sidewalks of light and air. But 70 Pine Street stands as a (not-so) little reminder that, in architecture, there may be room for the special case, for the perverse counterexample, provided the design has the chops to make subversion feel like a pleasure. Even the most progressive and design-friendly reforms can start to look a bit pale in the shadow of certain buildings, seen from certain angles.

Ian Volner has contributed articles on architecture and urbanism to The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, Harper’s, and other publications.