18-20 East 41st Street (detail)
18-20 East 41st Street
George & Edward Blum, 1912
In 1912, the architects George & Edward Blum received a commission for a twenty-story office building from the Holland Construction Company (also referred to as the Holland Holing Company), Judson S. Todd, president. George & Edward Blum created some of the most unusual buildings in New York City, often employing a singular Arts-and-Crafts ornamental aesthetic that exploited the properties of ornamental terra cotta. Although the Blums are best known for their apartment houses, they also were responsible for a significant number of commercial office and loft buildings. The East 41st Street office building is one of their most unusual buildings. At first glance, the relatively narrow building has a decidedly Gothic feel, with a strong sense of verticality and a use of arched and other Gothic forms. This stylistic choice was probably inspired by the Woolworth Building, then under construction. Also similar to the Woolworth Building’s design is the use of terra-cotta cladding. The terra cotta on both the Blums’ building and Cass Gilbert’s Woolworth Building is coated with a bright white glaze, with the recessed sections of the three dimensional facades highlighted with polychromy – blue fields in the case of the Blums’ building. However, what makes the East 41st Street building so exceptional is the quality of the ornamental detail which combines the Blums’ interest in using both organic and geometric forms. The facade is highlighted with spandrels, vertical bands, balconies, and other features on which are twining vines with large leaves and what appear to be ripe figs ready for the picking. The Blums, who were of Alsatian descent, had studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and had become familiar with progressive French ornamental design. They use one of their favorite French-inspired ornamental devices on this building – the design of leaves that appear to lap over their frames naturalistically. The organic design features are balanced on several of the Blum’s most important buildings with an overlay of geometric detail. This is evident on 41st Street in the square grids, each with nine small squares, that appear in many locations on the facade and in the geometric grids cut into the three different shield designs used on the front of the shallow projecting window balconies.
The building was altered over the years, but has undergone an exceptionally sensitive restoration. The two-story storefront had been completely removed, but has been redesigned in a manner that echoes the Blums’s original design. It appears that the roofline has also been altered.
Dolkart, Andrew S. and Susan Tunick, George & Edward Blum: Texture and Design on New York Apartment House Architecture (New York: Friends of Terra Cotta Press, 1993).