Occasionally in the course of my research of buildings in our area, I come across a familiar name. Last week exactly that happened. In looking into the history of 35 East 9th Street, I found that it had a famous resident at one time, Hugh Ferriss.
For those who aren’t familiar with the name, you probably are familiar with his work. “Ferriss was the master draftsman of his time of the American metropolis, both real and ideal,” according to Carol Willis, Executive Director of the Skyscraper Museum. In the course of his career, he rendered hundreds of buildings and projects around the country, but it was his visions for the ideal city, particularly as illustrated in his book The Metropolis of Tomorrow, that would earn him his fame and legacy, which still resonates today.
Born on July 12, 1889, Ferriss earned his degree in architecture from Washington University (MO) in 1911. The following year, he moved to New York and worked for Cass Gilbert as a draftsman until 1915, when he set out on his own and worked as a free-lance delineator (an artist who creates renderings of other architects designs usually for promotional or planning purposes). Initially, his commissions were for illustrations and advertisements in magazines, but by the early 1920’s he was working with architects such as Raymond Hood. He developed a unique style employing chiaroscuro, a treatment of light and shadow, with the light falling unevenly or from a particular direction, to create his depictions of buildings and streetscapes.
In 1922, working in collaboration with architect Harvey Wiley Corbett (who, perhaps not coincidentally was also one of the architects of the Greenwich Village building he lived in until his death in 1962), Ferriss created a massing study in response to and as an explanation of the relatively new 1916 zoning law of New York City. The 1916 Zoning Ordinance, the first of its kind in the United States, regulated building use, area, and height of new buildings. It imposed height and setback limits and distinguished between residential and industrial districts. The Hugh Ferriss drawings of 1922, known as “The Four Stages” or “Evolution of the Set-back Building,” are perhaps the most iconic and influential architectural images of the 1920s. “Widely exhibited and published, they inspired other architects to understand the rules of New York’s 1916 zoning law not as a restriction, but as a form-giving principle for a new, modern skyscraper,” also according to Willis.
As Ferriss explained in his article “The New Architecture,” published in The New York Times in 1922 along with his renderings: “It should be mentioned that the new laws do not prohibit the erection of tall buildings as has been assumed in some quarters…The result (of the zoning ordinance) will be that towers will rise from the center of the masses that they dominate. Terrific verticals will no longer spring from nothing but a sidewalk. The result will be altitude poised and unified. Summits will have the composition of mountain ranges.”
In 1929 Ferriss published his masterpiece, The Metropolis of Tomorrow, which included some of his finest drawings from the 1920’s, as well as new work. It is composed of three sections, titled Cities of Today, Projected Trends, and An Imaginary Metropolis, the latter showcasing his new drawings and visions for an urban utopia. In his text he bemoaned the lack of planning in the contemporary city, and called for architects to maintain human values in the face of unbridled urban growth for capitalistic gain.
During the mid-20th century, Ferriss’ practice and stature continued to grow. He often served as official delineator and consultant on large projects, including the 1939 New York World’s Fair and the United Nations Headquarters. Additionally, he published another book in 1953, Power in Buildings, with more renderings of cities, buildings and other structures from around the country. He was the President of the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the Architectural League. On January 29, 1962 he passed at his home at 35 East 9th Street.