An Architectural Whodunit (NYTimes)


Left, 920 Union Street in 1909, when it about five years old and the headquarters of the Long Island Automobile Club. The building, which today mainly houses apartments, retains some of its Art Nouveau flourishes.

IT has been a burr under my architectural saddle for at least a decade: a gnarled fragment of an Art Nouveau building, as deformed as the hunchback of Notre Dame, just off Brooklyn’s elegant Grand Army Plaza.

The red brick and limestone structure, at 920 Union Street, looks like an escritoire that a gorilla sat on — two great, sinuous pieces of masonry flanking a central section eradicated by some later alteration, plus two upper floors of absolutely plain brick.

But the pieces on either side, perhaps 15 feet high, stick in your mind, despite the savage gap between them. They immediately recall Hector Guimard’s fluid, curving entrances for the Paris Métro of 1900, though the Art Nouveau styling so common there was rare in New York City.

In April, I was up with insomnia at 2 a.m. and, rather than watch the Military Channel, I was struck with the idea of devoting an hour or two to getting to the bottom of the puzzle: What had the building been and, more important, who had designed it?

An online land map from 1907 shows a garage of unspecified height at 920 Union Street, which made sense: Grand Army Plaza was a frequent setting-off point for early automobile owners.

Avery Architectural Library’s digitized version of The Real Estate Record and Guide is even better in some ways than going to the Department of Buildings. But nothing turned up about the original construction, just a tantalizing item from 1904 — a perfect date for Art Nouveau — that said that the Long Island Automobile Club was looking for a building site near Prospect Park.

Hmm … a club of rich automobile owners is far more likely than a commercial builder to put up a fancy design.

But a search for a building permit listing architect and owner proved maddeningly elusive, both online and later, at the buildings department. At this point, I was not sure if I should be searching for a garage or a club. The term “Union St” appears 956 times from 1900 to 1910 in The Record and Guide. And then there’s the address, appearing variously as 918 Union, 920 Union and 918-920 Union., a volunteer effort, indexes scores of newspapers. About 4 a.m., it gave me a true eureka moment, displaying both a 1909 headline in The New-York Daily Tribune that proclaimed, “L. I. Auto Club’s Home Is Formally Opened,” and a crisp picture of the Union Street building in all the trappings of the Vienna Secession, Austria’s counterpart to Art Nouveau. These included distinct vertical piers projecting above the roof, topped by eagles and other ornaments, and the swoopy, Guimard-like curves.

There was a little problem: according to the account, the club had been renovating a garage for just two weeks, and made no mention of an entirely new facade. I assumed the newspaper had it wrong; in these situations, you read what you want to hear.

And infuriatingly, the article did not mention the architect. Perhaps Otto Wagner, the leader of the Vienna Secession, had made a secret trip across the Atlantic? Would I win a MacArthur for this incredible discovery? These are the visions that make the research nerd drunk with power. I was still clawing madly around the Web at 6 a.m. when Morpheus finally beckoned.

Over the next few weeks the Internet burned, producing pages and pages of tiny mentions but no smoking footnote.

On a third campaign of digital searches using different key words, a building permit turned up in The Record and Guide. Filed in 1904, it was not for a club but a regular garage.

The owner, “Adolph Levin,” had no observable connections with the artistic, and the architect, “D. Livingson” — well, nobody has ever heard of him. However, a city directory indicated that Livingson shared an office address with Oscar Bluemner, an avant-garde painter who had designed a few Secession-style structures. Tantalizing.

Enlightenment did not dawn until Suzanne Braley, who has done much of the research for this column since 1989, undertook a fourth search campaign and recovered a small 1904 news item in The Record and Guide that made it clear, alas, that the architect had not been Otto Wagner. Nor had he been some highfalutin painter. A new, unmangled spelling revealed “D. Livingson” to be “O. Lowinson” — the O for Oscar.

Lowinson designed tenements that look almost exactly like other tenements. But he also did the Jones Speedometer Building at Broadway and 76th. It was mutilated decades ago, but before then was topped by a cornice — an Art Nouveau cornice. Bingo.

Lowinson went not to some elite architecture school but to City College. In a career working for speculative real estate developers, the Prospect Park Automobile Company garage is his signature work, and indeed, was one of the most expressive Art Nouveau designs in this country.

The building was scalped sometime before 1980, and although it is painful to behold now, it is, for me, another little New York mystery crossed off the list. About as satisfying as a good night’s sleep.


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