In 1919, the New School found its first home in Chelsea, around the corner from the offices of the New Republic, a convenience given that its editor Herbert Croly served as one of the main instigators of the school. Several converted townhouses on West 23rd Street, paid for by Dorothy Straight, hosted the school’s classrooms and administrative offices for 10 years. The school outgrew these spaces just as the buildings were slated for demolition to make room for the London Terrace Apartments in 1928. The school’s director, Alvin Johnson, also knew it was time to expand the space available to the students.
Johnson approached Daniel Crawford Smith, a benefactor and supporter of The New School, who owned three houses on West 12th Street just east of 6th Avenue in the heart of Greenwich Village. Smith agreed to support The New School’s efforts by donating the three lots, with the agreement that on the top floor would lay a penthouse apartment for himself and his wife. With the purchase of one more adjoining lot, this gave the university with eighty feet of frontage on West 12th Street. The building was the first to be constructed solely for use by the New School at a cost of about $1,000,000. (Note: accounting for inflation, the cost of building such a structure today would fall somewhere between approximately $14,020,898.20 – $15,404,539.47.)
Exterior of 66 West 12th Street direct view. circa 1930 – 1949. The New School Photograph Collection. New School Archives and Special Collections Digital Archive. Web. 23 Sep 2014.
Exterior of 66 West 12th Street, three quarter angle with two neighboring buildings. circa 1930 – 1949. The New School Photograph Collection. New School Archives and Special Collections Digital Archive. Web. 23 Sep 2014. Exterior of 66 West 12th Street side view with street scene. circa 1930 – 1949.The New School Photograph Collection. New School Archives and Special Collections Digital Archive. Web. 23 Sep 2014.
Exterior of 66 West 12th Street at night. circa 1940 – 1950. The New School Photograph Collection. New School Archives and Special Collections Digital Archive. Web. 23 Sep 2014.
Appropriate for a school dedicated to the “new,” the building on 66 West 12th street was the first building created in the International Style in New York City. Designed by Joseph Urban and completed in 1931, this building placed the New School on the map — as a center for modernism in the arts and experimentation in education. Urban was known for his training in Secessionist and modern design, as well as his work designing theaters. When Johnson and Urban met to discuss various aspects of the design, Johnson requested an egg-shaped auditorium. (The design was said to inspire that of Radio City Music Hall.) Based on Johnson’s experience as a lecturer, he thought that this design would provide more intimacy than a rectangular room and draw the audience together.
Towering above the surrounding brownstones, the white and black stone facade made a striking pattern. The strong horizontal bands leant the building a modernist feel in the machine-like functionality with no ornamentation. But what was most shocking was that the exterior mostly comprised of windows. Even the doors into the building were mostly panes of glass. Bronze horizontal bands cut across the doors, mimicking the building’s exterior brick pattern. The bands continued inside the lobby. Coupled with the inlaid lights and wall color, the lobby and entrance to the building resembled a theater more than a school. And the interior had far more ornamentation than the facade suggested. Through the many class windows of each floor you could see the vibrant colors that graced the building’s various spaces.
by Dora Sapunar, M.A. Design Studies/Parsons ’15
Although it is hard to tell from the contemporary perspective, for a long time the austere gray geometric lines of the facade of 66 West 12th Street hid behind them a much more eclectic masterpiece. In the interiors of the New School 1930 building, a late work of architect Joseph Urban, we could see a manifestation of a lifetime of experiences and a breadth of influences. In these interiors, Urban employed the sinuous curves of the Secession movement which originated in his home country, Austria-Hungary. He also drew from art-deco, a geometric but decorative style which was appropriated by the film-industry, in which Urban worked. The interior also revealed Urban’s understanding of new developments in architecture and an admiration of the works of functionalist architects. And, finally, what was most distinctly evident in the New School interiors, was Urban’s deep-seated appreciation of color. Working as a set designer in theater taught him how color could be used to express emotion, while working on film sets taught him how to use contrast to achieve the strongest effect, all of which he applied in the designing the color scheme for the New School.
In his designs for the school, Urban utilized a different color scheme for each of the seven floors and the basement, drawing mostly from bold and energetic colors which gave a strong sense of character to each space. The colors were articulated differently in each room, and served distinctive purposes. They were primarily governed by principles of lighting. Cool colors were used in shadow and warm colors in light, but Urban also used color to create focal points in spaces and to make the plan as legible as possible. Interior window frames generally carried the color of the rooms, conveying a sense of the interior to curious passersby. So the mezzanine was introduced by the color orange, the second floor was a gray blue, the third orange and gray, fourth a dark blue, and fifth yellow. The sixth floor, the home of the donor of the property, was a muted white.
In the interior, colors were used primarily on the planes of the building, while structural elements, such as columns, were generally kept white, adding to the sense of spaces as theatrical sets, serving as backdrops for the everyday activities of the students. The New School interiors remain a work of great boldness, their strong colors generating a dramatic effect, unfortunately only preserved in sumptuous renderings and color schemes archived in the Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library. (All images from the Joseph Urban collection there.)