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More Than Just a Beautiful Structure: the Legacy of James Stewart Polshek

James Stewart Polshek, who over the course of a 70-year career came to be known as a “quiet giant of modern architecture,” passed away on September 9 at the age of 92. He was known for a range of impressive structures across the city and country, including the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History, and the William J. Clinton Library and Museum in Arkansas, among many others, yet he called Greenwich Village his home for more than six decades, and had a special relationship to its architecture.

James Stewart Polshek. Photo by Michelle Leong/Ennead Architects

Here, he brought his socially conscious approach to design to bear not only on smaller-scale projects but also on his efforts to foster the community’s rich architectural heritage. A longtime member of Village Preservation’s Board of Advisors, he helped inaugurate our annual Village Awards program, and garnered attention for our campaigns focused on the local waterfront that eventually led to protections for dozens of blocks and hundreds of historic buildings.

That kind of dedication was needed as “we’re seeing … kind of the worst consequences of excessive wealth and real estate development around us,” Polshek said in an oral history conducted with us in September of 2017. “If I turn and look a little bit to the northwest [from his home], I see Hudson Yards. And, actually, the north window here looks directly at the Empire State Building, you’ll see, directly, when you get up. And while a city can tolerate one or two truly iconic, formally iconic buildings, it can’t take a lot of them. It destroys neighborhoods. And it’s destroying the neighborhoods around these. Partly that’s because of the sort of upscale rents that are pushing small merchants out, so the small mom and pop stores are soon to be gone.”

When he started attending Western Reserve University in 1947, Polshek was not focused on architecture at all; rather, he was a pre-med student. One art history course, on Modernism, changed that goal: “I did so well in it that the professor, having apparently looked up my academic record, said, ‘You know, you should think about switching to architecture.’ And I did. Practically the next day. And then I went one more year there in the architecture program, and it was basically a beaux-arts program that had not entered the twentieth century yet.” He transferred to Yale University’s architecture program, where he eventually earned a master’s degree, then worked for I.M. Pei and other leaders in the field until he established his own firm in the 1960s.

In 1972, he was named dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, a position he held for 15 years.  “I am well known as a Modernist in a stricter sense,” he said. “In fact, my buildings … can only be considered eclectic, and I’ve always … found historic preservation very important. When I went to Columbia, as dean, the program was not even a degree-granting program, but it had been nurtured by a very well known, very important professor named James Marston Fitch. And the first thing I did was change the name of the school and put ‘preservation’ into it. And upped their budget, and hired new people, and I had always practiced …  one of the earliest buildings I did in New York was a restoration of the Friends Meeting House on Gramercy Park, making it into what is now Brotherhood Synagogue.” 

Interior of the Brotherhood Synagogue

The architect always focused on bringing the principles of urban design and planning into his design work: “ It’s insufficient just to do a beautiful structure, and ignore the social and economic implications … Or the design of a city, meaning the relationship of one part of it to another part of it.” An outstanding example of this is in what he called his most ambitious Village project: Washington Court, on Sixth Avenue between Washington Place and Waverly Place, built in the mid-1980s as the first apartment building to be constructed in the Greenwich Village Historic District since it was designated in 1969.

“Washington Court was an example in urban design terms of adding the new to the old. In actually quite a literal way,” he recalled. “That building site, that program, that is the number of housing units in it, could have been a two-story building. It would have been three –– would have had a base of commercial and then two floors, and that would be totally ridiculous in terms of maintaining that kind of optimum scale, and so we took advantage of the zoning code that does allow the building to be bulked up to seven or eight stories [the building is six stories high], …  so that was the first important step. The next was the choice of materials, the details of the window openings, the chimney pots on top of the building, which are real fireplaces below, the little, and they’re wonderful little apartments.”

Washington Court

“I’ve always been very proud of that building,” Polshek noted. “And here I’m living on the same street.”

Be sure to read the full oral history with James Stewart Polshek to learn more about his approaches to architecture, urban planning, and social responsibility here.

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