Feb 7, 2010

Harry Potter and the Historic District

By early evening on 20th June 2003, a gaggle of pointed hats and starry capes had formed around Broadway and Prince Street. They had come to hold a midnight vigil for the release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. This was the first Harry Potter book to be launched from the newly completed Scholastic Building on Broadway, designed by Aldo Rossi. It seems fitting that the largest publisher of children’s books in the world had the addition to their office designed by a man who Ada Louise Huxtable called “a poet who happens to be an architect.”

In 1992, Scholastic Inc. moved its headquarters into the Rauss building next door, at 555 Broadway: a 10-storey cast iron and stone structure from 1899. Scholastic spent $35 million on renovations, but their eyes were on the adjoining lumber yard and garage. In 1995, they finally acquired a lease on it, and hired Aldo Rossi to create the building that would serve as Scholastic’s front door.

Rossi, reputed for designing with sensitivity to historical context, had his work cut out for him here. At 561 Broadway the garage was flanked by the famous Little Singer Building, designed by Ernest Flagg. With its green iron tracery, terracotta tiles and glass, it has a completely different character from the Rauss building. And if this weren’t enough, the garage lot had its other face on the far less glamorous Mercer Street, where Beaux-Arts rubs shoulders with industrial warehouses.

Rossi’s design fits in with a magical mix of interpretation and inventiveness. On the Broadway side, riveted red steel girders rise floor after floor, in step with the Rauss Building on the left. Massive white columns on the façade draw the eye upward, giving this newcomer some gravitas among its veteran neighbours. Surprisingly, though the building was designed as an extension of the Rauss building, it pays quiet homage to Flagg’s ornate design. The glass panes are framed in green steel, just as in the Little Singer Building; and the red girders echo its terracotta tiles.

The façade on Mercer Street is more daring. The columns and girders are replaced by webbed steel arches, each two floors high, giving the building an industrial and geometric air. The two facades are united in colour and in the size of the window grid, but in not much else. And most critics agree that each façade seems perfectly appropriate for the block it is on.

Therein lies Rossi’s wizardly genius, for neither façade actually derives any features directly from its neighbours. There are no other exposed steel girders or webbed steel arches to be seen on the block. If taken out of the context, the Scholastic building has nothing that overtly suggests its surroundings. What Rossi coordinated was not the materials of architecture, but its feel. And in doing so, he raised the bar for building in the historic districts of New York.

While the design was ready in 1995, the building wasn’t completed until 2001. Scholastic Inc.’s fortunes waned in 1996. Then it bought the publishing rights to a novel about a boy wizard and the building was underway. In the meantime, Aldo Rossi had died in a car accident in September 1997. But the legacy he left behind has much in common with its illustrious tenant. Harry Potter is a very modern boy in a novel teeming with history, and he negotiates his own place between two worlds. There is nothing really historical about Rossi’s design either, yet it acts as a conduit between New York’s past and its present. There is definitely poetry in the Scholastic Building, but there is also magic.

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