This post is part of the Looking Up series, which explores the unique architectural and historical stories that can be discovered when we raise our gaze above the sidewalk, the storefront, and the second floor.
The Schermerhorn Building at the corner of Lafayette Street and Great Jones Street is an individual landmark and part of the NoHo Historic District, which was designated by the Landmarks Preservation Commission fifteen years ago this weekend. This stocky Romanesque Revival structure was built for utilitarian purposes, but its façade is chock full of whimsical Victorian details that help lighten its heavy design once you look up above the ground floor.
The NoHo designation report notes that “this store and loft building was designed by Henry J. Hardenbergh, and built in 1888-89 for William C. Schermerhorn at a time when Lafayette Street, then known as Lafayette Place, was becoming more commercial in character. The Schermerhorns were a prominent New York family that owned much property around the city…376-380 Lafayette Street, which replaced the Schermerhorn mansion, was rented to a manufacturer of boys’ clothing upon completion. The building, which remained in the Schermerhorn family until at least 1915, was converted from a factory to an office building in 1931, and was for a period in the 1930s used as a dormitory and dining room operated by the city’s Department of Welfare. It was converted back to manufacturing use in 1943. It remains in commercial use above the ground floor.”
In addition to this building, architect Henry J. Hardenbergh designed the old Waldorf-Astoria Hotel as well as the Dakota Apartments on the Upper West Side. The massive bay of arches that Hardenbergh placed at the ground floor might seem at an almost inhuman scale, but as you begin to look up, you start to realize that the building’s facade is actually full of humanity — in the form of human faces.
Faces on buildings — the architectural terms is ‘mascarons’ — were originally placed on structures to frighten away evil spirits, but they have long since been used as ornamental details on buildings. These mascarons and other imagery are used in abundance on the two street-facing facades of the building. Faces are even incorporated into the metal cornice running along the top of the building.