The Carbide and Carbon Building in Chicago

photo by: Pendry Chicago

Preservation Magazine, Spring 2023

7 Dazzling Art Deco Buildings for Architecture Admirers

In 1925, the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris introduced to the world the style that would later be known as Art Deco. With its sleek lines, symmetries, and angular patterns such as sunbursts and zigzags, Art Deco epitomized modernity and the rise of new technologies. Although the United States did not display an exhibit at the exposition, the new style took off during the country’s building boom of the 1920s, manifesting in everything from skyscrapers to movie houses.

One of San Francisco’s first Art Deco structures, the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company’s headquarters at what is now 140 New Montgomery, announced the prominent role the telephone was beginning to play in society. Designed by the local architecture firm Miller and Pflueger, it was the city’s tallest building when it opened in 1925. The company’s bell logo is rendered in terra cotta above the arched main entrance, and columns of smaller bells decorate window spandrels. Fiberglass replicas of eight original eagle statues perch on the roof.

Stacey Spurr, regional director for the building’s management company, Pembroke, says one of her favorite spaces at 140 New Montgomery lies just past the bronze entry doors: the “exceptionally ornate lobby, which features a beautifully restored, hand-painted plaster ceiling inspired by a Chinese brocade and detailing a mix of illustrations, from whimsical greenery and clouds to phoenixes and unicorns.” The building now houses several tech, venture capital, marketing, and investment banking companies, which take advantage of large floor plates and bay views.

140 New Montgomery in San Francisco

photo by: Henrik Kam Photography

The restored lobby of 140 New Montgomery in downtown San Francisco.

Another company that used the Art Deco style to herald technological advancements was Niagara Hudson, the largest electric utility provider in the United States in 1932, when its headquarters was completed in downtown Syracuse, New York. The steel-and-masonry Niagara Mohawk Building takes the form of a ziggurat, with a seven-story tower rising above the main entrance. The Spirit of Light, a 28-foot-tall stainless-steel figure wearing a helmet, spreads angled wings, symbolizing the rise of electricity in the early 20th century.

“The grand crown jewel of the building is the lighting outside,” says David J. Hillery of National Grid, which currently owns the building. The original architects, Melvin L. King and the firm of Bley & Lyman, integrated chrome panels that reflect light from concealed tube-shaped fixtures between the first-story display windows. High-wattage floodlights behind heat-resistant glass sizzled raindrops upon landing. “During World War II, the building went dark and stayed dark for the next 50 years,” Hillery says. A massive restoration around 1999 rejuvenated the exterior, including the lighting.

A fellow scientific pioneer, the Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation, built its regional headquarters in Chicago in 1929. Urban legend says that the architects of the 37-story Carbide and Carbon Building—the Burnham Brothers, sons of the famous local architect Daniel Burnham—clad the tall volume in dark-green terra cotta and topped it with a gold-leaf cap so it would resemble a Champagne bottle. The building became a hotel in 2004. Most recently, after a 2021 renovation, it reopened as the Pendry Chicago hotel, shown at top.

“A lot of architectural walking tours show up in our historic lobby,” says James Winning, director of sales and marketing at Pendry Chicago. “It’s beautiful—you’ve got the original brass, the original elevators, the original U.S. mail letterbox with a chute that runs up and down the building. This is a throwback to what it was like to walk into a state-of-the-art luxury building in 1929.”

The interior of the Wiltern in Los Angeles.

photo by: RMA Photography

The grand Art Deco interior of the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles.

Despite their beauty, Art Deco buildings are hardly immune to the economy’s ups and downs. Take the Wiltern movie theater, at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue in Los Angeles. G. Albert Lansburgh designed the theater as part of a complex that also includes the 12-story Pellissier Building office tower by architecture firm Morgan, Walls & Clements. Both buildings’ blue-green terra cotta exteriors recall the aqua hues of Los Angeles swimming pools. Lansburgh equipped the venue’s interior with fanciful murals, gold-leaf decorations, and a large sunburst pattern on the ceiling, with rays that symbolize skyscrapers radiating out over the audience. The theater opened in 1931 but then closed two years later, a victim of the Great Depression.

Fortunately, it returned the next year and had a long run until it shuttered again around 1980. Its then-owner, an insurance company, started preparing for demolition. Concerted efforts from the Los Angeles Conservancy helped save the building from the wrecking ball. Finally, local developer Wayne Ratkovich stepped in to buy the complex in 1981. Renovations restored the opulent auditorium’s interior, which now serves as a performance venue operated by Live Nation.

Forces both progressive and regressive shaped Nashville, Tennessee’s Pearl High School at a time when Jim Crow laws segregated school populations. One of the city’s first public African American high schools, Pearl High was formerly located in a 1917 building that a 1931 survey deemed “inadequate with an unsatisfactory environment.” Public Works Administration funds enabled the city to replace it with a new high school for Black students in 1937. McKissack & McKissack, one of the nation’s first African American architecture firms, drew on the Art Deco style to embody the progressivism of the times.

The building has “Pearl High School” carved in Art Deco letters, decorative grillwork over the windows, and a stylized clock above the main entrance. A black zigzag pattern enlivens the lobby’s two-tone terrazzo floor. Desegregated in 1971, Pearl High closed in 1983, and the building is now home to Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Magnet School. Bauer Askew Architecture completed a renovation and expansion in 2018. “I was happy with the blending of the modern addition with the historical building in keeping with the original architecture,” says David Proffitt, executive director of facilities, planning, and construction for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. “Pearl High School is one of the most historical schools in Nashville, and it required respect.”

The Hope Memorial Bridge in Cleveland.

photo by: EQRoy/Alamy

The large Art Deco statues on Hope Memorial Bridge in Cleveland are known as the Guardians of Traffic.

Also commanding respect are the Guardians of Traffic—eight 35-foot-tall Art Deco figures that stand on either side of Cleveland’s Hope Memorial Bridge. Intended to “typify the spirit of progress in transportation,” a quote attributed to the bridge’s original engineer, Wilbur Watson, the guardians are arranged in pairs on four sandstone pylons. Sculptor Henry Hering executed architect Frank Walker’s design for the statues: Each guardian holds a different vehicle, including a covered wagon, an automobile, and a concrete mixer. Built in 1932 as the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge, the structure was renamed in 1983 to honor the family of one of the stonemasons who worked on the sculptures—William Henry Hope, father of comedian Bob Hope.

The Guardians of Traffic have appeared as illustrations on products such as T-shirts, paintings, and murals, says Byron Sah, a civil engineer for Cuyahoga County. So when Cleveland’s Major League Baseball team surveyed fans for ideas for a new moniker in 2021, it made sense that “Guardians”—the eventual winner—kept coming up. “The team’s new logo has the same Hermes-like wings on the side of the baseball that the Guardians of Traffic have on their helmets,” Sah notes.

The National Hotel in Miami Beach

photo by: National Hotel

The National Hotel in Miami Beach is a Historic Hotels of America member.

Roy France, the architect whose hotels virtually define the skyline of sunny Miami Beach, Florida, originally hailed from the Midwest. After a 1931 train trip to Florida, France and his wife left winter behind and moved to Miami Beach, where he designed dozens of resort hotels guided by his philosophy: “Let in the air and sun. That’s what people come to Florida for.” One of the grandest is the National Hotel, opened around 1940 just steps from the beach, its 14-story tower topped with a silver-painted cupola. The hotel maintains its historic integrity, with period furnishings and cozy rooms that follow their original footprint.

General Manager Stephane Mercier says working there is “like having a historic masterpiece in front of your eyes every day.” The ceiling of the hotel’s restaurant bears a meticulous reconstruction of Art Deco artist Tamara de Lempicka’s painting Young Lady with Gloves, here made of thousands of tiny tiles. “It looks like a kind of photographic mosaic, recalling the Jazz Age before the war,” he says.

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By: Ron Nyren

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