Ironically, with architecture, despite its status as the most social and publicly accessible of the arts by dint of formal intent and (excepting secluded private houses) exterior visibility, such credit-giving is stingier still for past and present practitioners alike.
In the history of the United States Postal Service, for example, there has been a single stamp commemorating an architect and in case you have not guessed already it was in 1966 for Frank Lloyd Wright, who also got one for Falling Water, the original Guggenheim Museum, and the Robie House among the measly total of seven stamps that have had anything to do whatsoever with those who shape the built environment. Maybe some of the internationally branded stars anointed more recently and redundantly by critics, like the late Herbert Muschamp, will hold up to long-term scrutiny but it is too soon to tell.
Such lack of attribution and the according anonymity of practitioners, whose contributions are thus hidden in plain sight, helps underscore the important joint contribution of the authors Peter Pennoyer, an architect, and Anne Walker, a historian, with their ongoing series about important “Underknowns” from the first half of the last century. And they come at a time when much of their subject examples still stand in moot contrast to the frenzy of up-zoning and air-rights laden exuberances now taking root across the five boroughs and their surrounding region.
There is no justification for the accomplishments and business practices of these masters to be lost to history, especially if and when the constructed results are overlooked, demolished, or at risk. Yet this backward glance is not a nostalgic yearning for better days past, nor a disguised plea for preservation. On the contrary, by always adding analysis of what building their subjects’ work replaced, they acknowledge the changing social dynamics and economic circumstances imposed on the profession by varying clients. At the same time, however, they refuse
to ignore such precedents and look instead for ways it can inform this inevitable continuum, especially given the sometimes blinding juggernaut of Modernism.
Enlivening the text are ample blueprints and illustrations, especially in an occasional photographic essay contributed by Jonathan Wallen, of a surviving example of each building typology that defines the volume’s thematic chapters. The Lee, Higginson & Co. tower at 41 Broad Street stands out for its instructive glimpse of structure and ornament in vital symbiosis.
And who knew? Far from their Federally inspired clubs and Cotswold Cottage-inflected homes on Long Island’s North Shore, Cross & Cross landed in 1940 at the stripped down swank of Tiffany & Co. at Fifth Avenue and 57th Street with what was then the largest column-free merchandising hall in the country. Here the window dressers have enjoyed more attribution than those who created the beguiling vitrines of irrepressible yet concentrated attention on the goods for sale: bling for the masses as much as for the potential customer, overall, however, tempered by restraint of the stylistic commission.
Another narrative drive found here, lacking in most contemporary architectural narratives, are lively and unapologetic accounts of the Cross & Cross clients, who, like them, grew up in the small world of interconnected families at the center of wealth and power which, without knowing it, were witnessing the end of this age of birthright privilege. All the Pennoyer/Walker books do so not as gossipy peeks at the rich and discreetly renowned, but as measures of doing business—that can still instruct even as a WASPy upper class hegemony depicted in these pages has long ago yielded to the finance and real estate meritocrats and foreign oligarchs who prove more elusive as illuminating ingredients in the complex business of getting things built.
Ironically, despite their well set place at the exclusive elite table, Cross & Cross, and in particular Eliot, also worked as speculative developers with the associated firm of Webb and Knapp that has evolved into today’s Zeckendorf Development, thriving as never before. While benefitting from the decorous rules of Social Register propriety, Eliot and his profit-minded cohorts simultaneously contributed to its ultimate dismantling by the tools of investment, marketing, and the general free-for-all of accumulated wealth alone as the real drivers of growth.
In this way too, the invisible impact of forgotten trailblazers emerges from the historical shadows as with the authors’ earlier series’ subjects. The profession, like an evermore design savvy public, gains as a result of these insights. Its creative intent is worth sharing for the sake of drawing back a curtain blocking the artistry we inhabit daily whether, frankly, we want to or not.