James Gardner — Frank Williams: He took Manhattan

<i>The late architect helped remake city's skyline with post-modernist inspirations</i>

There was a special poignancy for me in the news that on Feb. 25, the architect Frank Williams succumbed to cancer at the age of 73. This feeling went beyond the fact that I counted him as a friend (indeed, over the years, I had done some writing for his firm). It had to do with an appreciation that, in many respects, Frank was the quintessential New York architect, the sort who is responsible for most of the towering structures that inhabit the modern metropolis.

Though Frank was little known to the proverbial man in the street, he was well-known inside the profession, and well regarded by some of the city’s foremost developers. You could make a strong case that Frank Williams and Partners was more responsible than any other firm for how Manhattan’s skyline changed between the mid-1980s and the new millennium. During that time, Frank completed about 20 tall and imposing skyscrapers and high-rises that now define the Upper East Side, the Upper West Side and Midtown. Just by looking out the window of his apartment in the Park Belvedere on 79th Street and Columbus, which he designed in 1985, Frank could see seven buildings he had worked on, among them the Trump Palace, the Four Seasons Hotel and 515 Park Avenue, perhaps the last monumental residential building that will rise on that avenue.

In person Frank was an impressive presence: tall, pale and white-haired, with a trim figure usually outfitted in an elegantly tailored suit. Now that I reflect on the matter, there seems to be a resemblance between the architect and his buildings, which are mostly tall, traditional and clad in pale limestone. He looked a little like a tennis player of the old school, which he was. If memory serves, he told me he used to play tennis with the great Gordon Bunshaft, the architect responsible for Lever House, Manhattan House and so many of the other monuments of postwar Manhattan modernism. And on more than one occasion, I found Frank absorbed in watching the U.S. Open on a small TV near the office kitchen. “You can learn a lot about life from watching tennis,” he explained appreciatively, and he meant it.

Given Frank’s bankerly appearance, one might have expected him to be a somewhat stern and formidable personality. But in fact, he was infallibly easygoing and kind. It seemed that Frank was incapable of running into me without inviting me to lunch, which usually meant the Trattoria Dell’Arte opposite Carnegie Hall, where he had his office for many years. There we would discuss the cities he loved — Rome, Paris and Moscow.

If in the course of the discussion I mentioned some building or some architectural detail, he would respond by holding out a pen to me, which meant that I was supposed to draw the form in question on the paper table covering (something for which, by the way, I had not the slightest aptitude).

Like most New Yorkers, Frank came from somewhere else, specifically from Ashburn, Ga., where he was born in 1936. He studied at the University of California, Berkeley, before graduating from Harvard with a degree in architecture in 1965. Like many people who have come to seek fame and fortune in the Big Apple, he came to love his adopted city.

He was also something of an expert in its architectural history, and this interest went beyond mere antiquarianism to become an essential part of his architectural practice. The forebears whom he most admired and emulated were men like Raymond Hood and Irwin Chanin, who, in the 1930s, completed such projects as Rockefeller Center and the Majestic on Central Park West, respectively.

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In his own work, Frank drew inspiration from the forms of these predecessors. In the process, he evolved an aesthetic that he was pleased to call “New Yorkism.”

In practice, this is an acute sensitivity to that conjunction of elements in a building — whether ornamental details, massing or window work — that caused the structure to fit seamlessly into its New York context. Put another way, what is it about the Empire State Building that would make it seem out of place in Chicago, or about the Sears Tower (now called the Willis Tower) that would make it seem incongruous in Manhattan? The answer to that question is easier to grasp intuitively than to spell out systematically, but it is an intuition that guided Frank’s practice for twenty years.

Frank is mostly associated with post-modernism, the contextualist, classical sort that rose to preeminence in the 1980s and that continues to serve as a viable option today, especially in more traditional Manhattan neighborhoods, like the Upper East and Upper West sides. However, he was trained as a modernist, and his earliest completed structure, the Columbia on Broadway and 96th Street, bears out this connection. That building, with its sharp angularity and its boldly cantilevered balconies, bespeaks a residual brutalist aesthetic that would not reappear in his work.

Only two years later, in 1985, at the Park Belvedere opposite the Museum of Natural History on Columbus Avenue and 80th Street, he preserved the right angles of modernism, but softened their impact with a new sensitivity to materials.

The typical Frank Williams building, however, is taller and thinner than either of these early works. It is also paler, and more obviously classical in its inspiration. The design is governed by its classical division into a base, a shaft and an elaborate lantern summit. A good example is Trump Palace, which was completed in 1991 on Third Avenue at 69th Street. At 56 stories, it is the tallest structure on the Upper East Side and, with its limestone façade and the improvised classicism of its details, it dominates the skyline. Similar in style, but bolder in the play of volumes at its base and summit, is the Four Seasons Hotel on East 57th Street, which Frank designed with
I. M. Pei.

Perhaps my favorite of Frank’s buildings is 515 Park Avenue, at 61st Street, which towers above the avenue — and, at 42 stories tall, is closer in spirit to the Pierre and the Sherry-Netherland than to traditional Park Avenue residential buildings. Like the Pierre, which it somewhat resembles in its granite facing, its punched windows and its elaborate mansard roof, this building, developed by Zeckendorf, is one of the most sumptuous residences in all of Manhattan. At street level, the façade bears a delightful cartouche with the name of the developer, and then, just below it, “Frank Williams, Architect, A.D. 2000.”

After that project, Frank went on to design others in Midtown, such as the W Hotel in Times Square and the Marc, a residential tower on Eighth Avenue and 54th Street, but he increasingly worked abroad, in places like Dubai and Russia. One of his last designs was for the Mercury Towers in Moscow, which is scheduled to be completed next year. It draws some inspiration from Tatlin’s huge and never-realized sculpture, the Monument to the Third International, but it is also inspired by the Chrysler Building. Even a world away, it seems, Frank chose not to forsake his attachment to New York City architecture.