In November 1958, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) announced that it had selected a site west of Foley Square in lower Manhattan for the largest federal building outside of the District of Columbia area. The proposed complex, which required the demolition of about 25 smaller buildings, was part of a larger redevelopment program that reshaped lower Manhattan during the 1950s and 1960s. As chairman of the Downtown-Lower Manhattan Association, David Rockefeller led the effort to reinforce the area as New York's financial and government center. This skyward advance culminated in the completion of the World Trade Center in the 1970s.
Three architectural firms--Alfred Easton Poor, Kahn & Jacobs, and Eggers & Higgins--joined forces to design the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building and U.S. Customs Court, later to be rededicated as the James L. Watson Court of International Trade Building. The government approved the design, which consisted of a 41-story office tower next to an 8-story court building, in 1960. Construction began in 1963 amid protests from the local architectural community that the complex would crowd Foley Square and negatively impact plans for the New York Civic Center. The project proceeded, however, and construction was completed in 1967.
While critics did not consider the large complex a positive addition to New York City from an architectural design perspective, it very efficiently serves the needs of local citizens and federal employees, many of whom previously worked in leased office space throughout the city. The primary tenants of the complex are the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Social Security Administration, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and U.S. Court of International Trade.
The complex is named for two notable public servants. A native New Yorker, Jacob Koppel Javits (1904-1986) began his political career in 1947 after he was elected to Congress. He later served as New York's attorney general and completed four terms in the Senate, in which office he requested federal funding for the building that would eventually bear his name. James Lopez Watson (1922-2001) was a senior-level federal judge who was the first African American to serve on the U.S. Customs Court, now known as the U.S. Court of International Trade.
The Jacob K. Javits Federal Building and James L. Watson U.S. Court of International Trade Building are located in downtown Manhattan within the New York Civic Center; the site is bounded by Broadway and Duane, Lafayette, and Worth streets and is adjacent to the African Burial Ground National Monument. Other government buildings in the vicinity include the Daniel Patrick Moynihan U.S. Courthouse, Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse, Ted Weiss Federal Building, New York County Courthouse, New York Supreme Court, and New York City Hall. The Javits building consists of a tall office tower completed in 1967 and expanded to the west in 1973-1974. The eight-story Watson U.S. Court of International Trade Building, commonly referred to as CIT, is linked to the Javits building by a four-story pedestrian bridge. Foley Square Plaza unites the complex of interconnected buildings.
The 41-story, original portion of the office tower has little architectural adornment. The exterior is clad in gray Alabama limestone panels, black Minnesota granite panels, and glass arranged in an irregular checkerboard pattern. The annex, designed by the original architects, is attached to the original tower, but is taller at 45 stories. Tall, pale members run the height of the exterior, accentuating the verticality of the building. The street-level central portion of the building, which contains the entrance, is slightly recessed behind piers that support the upper stories. On the interior, the main entrance lobby is clad in marble, while the elevator lobbies are clad in Vermont marble and floors are covered with terrazzo.
The CIT building is a sleek cube sheathed in black glass. The building is traversed at two points by nonstructural granite buttresses that extend beyond the profile of the black glass walls and flat roof. Like the Javits building and many other buildings of the era, the upper stories are supported on piers with the street-level entrance recessed behind the arcade. Interior public spaces have terrazzo flooring. Other high-quality finishes include marble and wood-panel walls in the courtrooms and mosaic-tile walls in the elevator lobbies.
When the complex was constructed, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) did not fund any public art for the plaza because of changing agency policies and prohibitive inflation. However, in 1979, GSA allocated funds for renowned artist Richard Serra to create a sculpture for the corner site adjacent to the complex. Serra unveiled Tilted Arc, a 120-foot by 12-foot curving, raw-steel wall, in 1981. Criticized for aesthetic reasons, potential security hazards, and for bisecting the plaza, the sculpture was removed in 1989 amid much controversy. The situation led to the creation of the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA), which protects works of art and the rights of artists who create them.
After Tilted Arc was removed, GSA retained award-winning landscape architect Martha Schwartz to redesign Foley Square Plaza. Completed in 1997, the plaza is an open space with distinctive features such as the six-foot tall, grassy hemispherical topiaries. Hand rails with spiral designs run along the stairs leading from the street level to the plaza. Schwartz used bright colors in components of her design, such as green curvilinear benches placed in a serpentine pattern around the topiaries and orange mesh trashcans.
Prominent works of modern art are located throughout the complex. A Study in Five Planes/Peace (1965), a metal stabile by Alexander Calder, and the Manhattan Sentinels (1996) by Beverly Pepper, a cast-iron sculpture that celebrates human aspirations in the city, are found in outdoor public spaces. Two other significant pieces are located in CIT; Seymour Fogel's colorful geometric mosaic Metropolis (1967) is in the lobby and Eagle/Justice Above All Else (1970) by Theodore Roszak is in one of the courtrooms.
In 2003, GSA renovated the original lobby of the Javits building as part of its First Impressions program, replacing the original marble mosaic tile walls with marble veneer panels. GSA is constructing a new entrance pavilion on the Broadway elevation. The project will incorporate new security measures into the building.
1963-1967: Complex constructed
1973-1974: Federal Building West Annex constructed
1981: Federal Building named to honor Jacob K. Javits; Tilted Arc installed
1989: Tilted Arc removed
1997: Foley Square Plaza redesigned
2003: U.S. Court of International Trade Building named to honor James L. Watson
Location: Jacob K. Javits Federal Building: 26 Federal Plaza / James L. Watson U.S. Court of International Trade: One Federal Plaza
Architects: Alfred Easton Poor; Kahn & Jacobs; Eggers & Higgins
Construction Dates: 1963-1967, 1973-1974
Architectural Style: Sixties Modern
Primary Materials: Steel, glass, limestone, and granite
Prominent Features: Tall office tower; Landscaped plaza; Public works of art