Federal Building, New York, NY
Location: 201 Varick St, New York, NY 10014
The federal building at 201 Varick Street in Manhattan, New York, historically known as the United States Appraisers’ Stores Building, was completed in 1929. It is on the west side in lower Manhattan and is bounded by Varick, King, West Houston and Hudson Streets in a densely built area of commercial, office and light industrial buildings. The building is several blocks from the Holland Tunnel which connects Manhattan with New Jersey beneath the Hudson River. This section of Manhattan was dominated by smaller scale commercial buildings and manufacturing lofts until construction of the Holland Tunnel was completed in the 1920s, at which time it became an important terminus for traffic from west of the Hudson. The tunnel stimulated millions of dollars of investments in commercial and warehouse buildings, and included the United States Government among its investors. Passenger ships docked along the Hudson River in this part of Manhattan making it a vital entry point as well.
In 1926 the federal government appropriated $200,000,000 for the construction of federal buildings across the country. Prior to that year money was annually appropriated, but demand was outpacing the appropriations, so the building program was accelerated. This more extensive building program aimed to simplify the government’s complicated practice of leasing space at scattered sites. The need for quality space at reasonable rates, to house agencies which had outgrown their rented buildings led Congress to approve the move to construct buildings in Washington, D.C. as well as in towns and cities across the country. The United State Treasury Department, working in cooperation with the U.S. Post Office, was designated as the agency to direct the public buildings program, choosing what was to be built and where, and the Office of the Supervising Architect in the Procurement Division was responsible for site acquisition, design and construction supervision.
New York State was initially promised approximately $50,000,000 worth of projects, and a portion of it was to go to New York City projects which were identified as a parcel post building, a post office site, a customhouse and post office, an assay office, appraisers’ stores, and a post office annex. Among the projects completed during the course of the Public Buildings Act were the Appraisers’ Stores by Buchman and Kahn; the United States Courthouse in Foley Square by Cass Gilbert; an Annex to the Manhattan Post Office by McKim, Mead and White; the Staten Island Post Office designed by the Treasury Department; the Staten Island Marine Hospital designed by Kenneth Murchison, William H. Gompert, Associates; and a government warehouse designed by the Treasury. From the beginning of the Public Buildings Act there were exceptions to the Treasury-designed rule and many of them were in New York City. Although few in number, private architectural firms were given contracts, until the Depression increased pressure on the Treasury Department to hire private architects and their proportion increased somewhat.
The Appraisers’ Stores Building was one of four constructed across the country; all four were private architect designed. The purpose of appraisers’ stores was to warehouse uncollected goods from abroad or goods seized by the Customs Bureau for legal reasons. Merchandise was often highly valuable and needed strict security which was laid out in detail by the Customs Bureau. Fines collected through the U.S. courts for this activity made it highly profitable, The New York Times reported it to bring in an average daily revenue of $1,100,000 (September, 1928).
As one of their last commissions, the architectural firm Buchman and Kahn was chosen to design the Appraisers Stores Building. Architects Albert Buchman and Eli Jacques Kahn had been in practice together since 1919 when Kahn, aged 35, became a partner with Buchman, who was 60. Buchman (1859-1936) studied architecture at Cornell, worked as draftsman for Henry Schwartzmann until 1890, and then worked in several partnerships in New York specializing in commercial buildings and department stores. He designed the Annex to the New York Times Building and the New York World Tower Building. Kahn (1884-1972) did his undergraduate work and architectural studies at Columbia University, finishing in 1907, after which he went to the Ecole des Beaux Arts. He subsequently began teaching in 1915 at Cornell, and then went to New York, where he joined Buchman’s firm in 1917 as a draftsman. Kahn was particularly well-known for his Art Deco skyscrapers which were imaginatively ornamented and always furnished with lavish lobbies where his interests in interior design and eastern decorative arts came together. While he was to become an avowed "modernist" in later years, the building at 201 Varick Street is more representative of his Art Deco work. Together Buchman and Kahn were responsible for the Student Building at Barnard College, the Hospital for Joint Diseases on Madison Avenue, the Garment and Millinery Building in the garment district and Bergdorf Goodman’s department store on Fifth Avenue. Kahn went on after 1929 to design large housing projects such as Fort Green Houses in Brooklyn and the Maritime Transportation Building at the World’s Fair in Flushing, New York. As one of his last projects, he designed 1 Astor Plaza in New York in 1969.
Within one year of its completion the Appraisers’ Stores Building was recommended by President Hoover for unspecified remodeling at a cost of between $500,000 and $600,000. Drawings indicate that the remodeling was related to improved security with silver storage vaults being added in 1936. The first new agency related changes to the building occurred when the offices of the Atomic Energy Commission moved to the building in 1959. The US Public Health Service installed an Outpatient Clinic in 1965. Other agencies to take space in the building have been the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Government Printing Office. Between 1978 and 1981 the building was significantly altered by the architectural firm of Shreve Lamb and Harmon Associates/Meyer Strong and Jones. The original industrial metal sash windows have been removed and replaced with sash of an unrelated configuration. The only remaining original painted steel sash remaining are located at the two story roof bulkheads. On the elevation facing Varick Street as well as the first two structural bays wrapping Hudson and King Streets, replacement windows fill the original large window openings. However, on the elevations facing West Houston, Hudson and King Streets, the majority of original large window openings have been reconfigured with a replacement window at each side of the original opening and a large infill panel between. Doors and entrances have also been replaced and reconfigured. Lobbies and offices throughout the building have been reconfigured and given new finishes, including new partitions and doors, new dropped ceilings and fluorescent lighting fixture.
The Statement of Eligibility for Nomination to the National Register of Historic Places states that the building at 201 Varick Street in New York, historically known as the United States Appraisers’ Stores Building, was constructed in 1929 to the designs of the architectural firm of Buchman and Kahn as part of the public buildings program begun by the federal government in 1926. The building is not eligible for nomination to the National Register as an individual listing as it has lost a significant number of its character defining features through alteration and modernization. Replacement windows on all facades, greatly altered entrances, replacement of lobbies, and a modernization program on the upper floors which lowered ceilings, replaced wall and floor surfaces, removed lighting fixtures, replaced and added partitions, elevator lobbies, doors and associated trim have taken place. Should an historic district be proposed at a future date to include this building, however, it might well be considered contributing for its well-maintained Art Deco masonry facades. The Appraisers’ Stores Building is associated with events which made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history as a part of the grand Elliot-Fernald public buildings act of 1926 which aimed to provide government owned buildings across the country in what was termed “the greatest National building program the world has ever known” (New York Times, April, 1928). Further, it is one the relatively few architect designed buildings to issue from this program. However, the loss of material integrity and character defining features disqualifies it for National Register recognition. Both the Annex to the Manhattan Post Office by McKim, Mead and White and the U.S. Courthouse at Foley Square by Cass Gilbert are better representatives both of the work of the public buildings program and of those designed by private architectural firms.
According to criterion B, the building might be considered for its association with the architects Albert Buchman and Eli Jacques Kahn, the latter in particular who has some significance in our architectural past. 1929 is the year in which Buchman and Kahn, Architects became Eli Jacques Kahn as Buchman retired from the firm. Kahn’s importance to New York architecture was for his Art Deco skyscrapers with what the Macmillan Encyclopedia of Architects referred to as “inventive ornament … [and] opulent lobbies, deco masterpieces.” The loss of entrances and lobbies removes this building from consideration as a representative example of his work, and leaves among other candidates to carry this significance the Bergdorf Goodman store on Fifth Avenue and the Hospital for Joint Diseases on Madison Avenue.
- Architects: Buchman and Kahn
- Construction Dates: 1928
- GSA Building Number: NY0128ZZ
- National Register of Historic Places Landmark Status: National Register Listed