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The ‘Architect of the Century’ and the Salvation Army

In 1957, Ralph Walker was honored as “the architect of the century” by the American Institute of Architects. Walker (November 28, 1889–January 17, 1973) hit his peak in the profession during the height of the Art Deco period, bringing to life such New York City landmarks as the Barclay-Vesey Building at 140 West Street (completed 1926), the Western Union Building at 60 Hudson Street (1930), and the Irving Trust Bank Building at 1 Wall Street (1931). He also designed a gem for an organization that has had a presence in our neighborhood for more than a century: the Salvation Army Headquarters at 120-130 West 14th Street.

Ralph Walker (via the National Portrait Gallery) and the Salvation Army complex on West 14th Street

The building opened in May 1930 to celebrate the golden jubilee of the Salvation Army’s work in the United States. The originally London-based organization first began outreach in New York City in 1880, and expanded significantly over the decades to include a wide range of charitable functions, from men’s industrial associations and maternity homes to settlement houses and employment bureaus. In 1895, it constructed a headquarters designed by Gilbert A. Schellenger, a Romanesque Revival–style building whose battlements and turrets created a fortresslike appearance that some considered appropriate for an Army. The building, at 120 West 14th Street, suffered a major fire in 1918, which forced a reduction in space available for charitable and management purposes. They needed greater flexibility to serve its growing numbers of services and clientele. Several options were considered to relieve the pressing need for more space, from rebuilding the 1895 structure to moving to an entirely new location.

The previous Salvation Army building on West 14th Street, which stood from 1895 to 1929 (via Architectural Record/Daytonian in Manhattan)

Instead, Salvation Army leaders decided to stay at the 14th Street location, which offered extensive transportation opportunities to better reach out to those in need. They also decided on a completely new structure on the existing site, one that would offer greater flexibility in planning. The organization “was deeply concerned with creating a new symbol of its positive impacts on the city,” wrote Kathryn Holliday in her biography of Ralph Walker, “while minimizing its cost.”

In Walker, they found someone who met those needs, and who believed in creating building designs specific to a client’s unique needs, yet did not demand adherence to a traditional building style. (It probably didn’t hurt that one of his partners at the firm of Voorhees, Gmelin, & Walker was also chairman of the Salvation Army Architects’ Division of the Home Service Fund Campaign.) Walker ended up designing a complex of structures on the site that balanced functional spaces with a truly stirring one. For the main 11-story office tower facing 14th Street, he eliminated conventional ornamentation, choosing to use brick and cast stone to create a dramatic and functional design that met the Salvation Army’s need for more space and its limited budget. Standing directly to its east on 14th Street is a four-story temple auditorium fronted by a dramatic entrance that created a deep and welcoming public space, surmounted by a huge arch shaped like layers of a rising curtain opening onto a stage.

The heavily Art Deco–influenced entrances to the Salvation Army’s temple auditorium (left) and its office building

The two buildings connect to a 17-story dormitory on 13th Street, its setbacks typical of Walker’s other project in Manhattan. (Only the office building and auditorium were included in the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s designation in October 2017; the dormitory is part of the Greenwich Village Historic District.)

“Ralph Walker’s design for the building,” LPC wrote in its designation report, “created a unique and well-thought-out complex that meets and houses the functions of the organization and uses banners and other signage to advertise the many programs offered here. The Salvation Army has continued to grow and use this complex of buildings since its opening, almost 100 years ago.”

One response to “The ‘Architect of the Century’ and the Salvation Army

  1. Thank you David for this well-researched and thoughtful piece on our beautiful Centennial Memorial Temple on W14 Street. Since its completion in 1930, it has served as a gathering place for Salvationists to this present day. It was the idea of our then National Commander, Commissioner Evangeline Booth, to construct the new Salvation Army headquarters which she named in honor of her parents, Salvation Army founders William and Catherine Booth to celebrate the 100th anniversary of their births (they were both born in 1829, and construction of the new building began in 1929). We are all immensely proud of our headquarters which we refer to as the ‘CMT’, and count it our privilege to use it as a resource to help the people of Greater New York. If you would ever like a tour of the inside of the building, please get in touch.

    Rob Jeffery, Salvation Army Heritage Museum Director

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