A Modernist celebration of cutting-edge space age architecture jazzing up the Stamford skyline
Photograph from the Collection of Tobias Bisharat
Take a look around. Design fads from the 1960s are making a comeback in the form of clean, sexy lines, open spaces and plenty of expressive touches.
It’s a decorative trend that redraws our attention to the intuitive shape and artistic function of architectural gems that define Mid-Century Modernism—the movement known for its rocket-ship sleek curves, among other studied outlandishness.
And lucky for us that we don’t have to go far to see Modernist structures now earning the respect of a new generation. In Stamford, which was rebuilding itself from scratch just as the retro-future style took off, giving architects a golden opportunity to give the landscape a space-age look, there’s a lot to admire, from High Ridge Park and the First Presbyterian Church to Landmark Tower, to name a few.
“The buildings expressed so much optimism about how we were leading the world by going to the moon,” says Michael Crosbie, Ph.D., chairman of the University of Hartford’s Department of Architecture, about the appeal of the Mad Men–era period pieces. “The gestalt was that the sky was the limit, and we could do anything.”
Latching on to that upbeat spirit in less hopeful times may explain why a group of residents recently banded together to save Lord & Taylor, which was slated for demolition. The department store, which was designed in 1969 by Andrew Geller, rejects the plain-Jane rectangular form of many department stores for what resembles a stack of varying-length tabletops, arranged with a healthy disregard for symmetry and a fondness for overhanging edges.
Like the diamond-, cube- and pyramid-shaped houses that Geller created in beachside locations like the Hamptons, Lord & Taylor also illustrates the architect’s tendency to juxtapose the high-tech with the natural. Grooved concrete walls brushed by branches seem to emerge from a jumble of stones when viewed from High Ridge Road. And Long Island views can still be had from the third floor’s Signature Café. Though a more anodyne eatery than the building’s original Bird Cage restaurant—which included an outdoor patio—it still serves tea sandwiches on date-nut bread.
All this became endangered in 2006, when, soon after buying Lord & Taylor, the National Realty and Development Corporation planned to raze the Stamford outpost and replace it with a much larger shopping center. Convinced of the historical merits of the store, the last of twelve built in the Northeast to reach a suburbanizing population, opponents fought the plan, and NRDC ultimately shelved it.
Two years later opponents also succeeded in getting Lord & Taylor listed on the state’s historic register, though listings cannot prevent teardowns. Neither can Stamford’s own demolition ordinance, which only delays them for ninety days. And that delay is triggered only if a building is fifty years old, which excludes many Modernist structures, a point that preservationists say illustrates the difficulty of their work. “It’s frustrating and discouraging,” says Cynthia Reeder, a writer from North Stamford who led the NRDC opposition.
If Geller played a supporting role in shaping Stamford’s skyline, the late Victor Bisharat, who designed Landmark Tower, and other buildings, was the star.
Born in as-Salt, Jordan, Bisharat took an early job with the Ralph M. Parsons Company, for which he helped transform an Anaheim orange grove into Disneyland, according to his family. But, while it may be tempting to connect the dots between the minimalist monorail tracks of Disney’s original Tomorrowland and, say, the long, unadorned fins running up and down the Landmark façade, park officials couldn’t confirm Bisharat’s employment.
A more credible precursor, and a possible foreshadower of what was to come, was Bisharat’s creation for the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens, New York—the Jordanian pavilion, with a rippling, mounded roof pierced with hexagonal skylights that mimicked the original seven hills of Amman, Jordan.
Constructing that unconventional surface fell to Stamford’s F. D. Rich Sr., then a contractor hoping to expand into development who invited Bisharat to relocate to Connecticut. Practicing what he preached, Bisharat settled into a Richard Neutra–designed Modernist house, whose chocolate-colored cantilever over a carport still dazzles at the end of Brookhollow Lane.
Bob Rich, the current chairman of F.D. Rich Company, admits that critics didn’t immediately cotton to Bisharat’s outlandish style, though “the public not only liked it, they loved it.” Rich says that people waited in line for hours to visit their first collaboration, High Ridge Park, when it opened in 1967.
A thirty-eight-acre office complex, High Ridge Park boasts buildings resembling TV sets and others with bubble-wrap skins tucked improbably among pines. An ongoing, $10-million-plus renovation that began in 2004, after Rich sold the complex to a partnership of George Comfort & Sons and Angelo, Gordon & Company for $79 million, has altered many of the buildings as it has peeled back stucco while adding windows.
Yet many aspects of High Ridge Park are still mesmerizing, like the somewhat anticlimactically named Building Two. Squashed and round like a Tupperware bowl, and topped by a tiny glass dome, the three-level space is perched over an artificial pond on one edge and ringed by a moat at the entrance. To get in tenants must cross a gangplank.
Bisharat customized the interiors for clockmaker General Time Corp. with sumptuous attention to detail, adding rosewood desks, green leather filing cabinets and nineteen hand-carved teak doors, which depicted the histories of the countries where the company had offices. To enlarge the space, many finishes were stripped out over the years, though some doors have been socked away. Two can be found on the second floor of downtown’s University of Connecticut branch, while another pair is at the Palace Theatre.
FUNCTION TRUMPS FORM
Modern tastes and Modernism don’t always make the perfect cocktail. It’s why Reckson/S.L. Green decided to renovate Landmark Tower, a twenty-two-story obelisk whose flared, sugar-colored façade, turned 45 degrees from Broad Street, might seem right at home in Dubai. In 1997 the building, which was suffering from low occupancy rates, underwent a massive makeover in which a sunken skating rink at the corner of Atlantic and Broad streets was filled and replaced with a row of shops.
Around the same period, four smaller office buildings by Moshe Safdie were clustered around the base of the Landmark, but the tower’s sinuous lobby, with crescent swoops that evoke the rim of a shell, wasn’t touched.
In 1973, when the Landmark debuted, it loomed over downtown. In fact it was the state’s tallest building outside Hartford until Trump Parc opened in 2009. But as other highrises sprouted, its sense of dominance ebbed.
In an April 1981 letter to the New York Times, Bisharat himself seemed to bemoan that the overcrowding had kept the Landmark from being the landmark it was meant to be. “I turn the other way when I pass it on the highway,” Bisharat wrote, referring to Stamford’s downtown, adding that it had become marred by a “jarring lack of harmony.”
Were he still writing letters, Bisharat also might have had misgivings about changes at St. John’s Towers, his trio of “corncob” apartment buildings—also developed by F.D. Rich—at Tresser and Washington boulevards that, besides Chicago’s Marina City, are likely the country’s only cylindrical multifamily homes. Last year a platform-supported park between the pair of towers along the south side of Tresser had to be torn down because it was crumbling, and a footbridge over Tresser showing similar wear and tear could soon come down as well, building officials say.
In a move that seems borrowed from a Jetsons set piece, the platforms and bridges Bisharat designed had been installed to allow workers and residents to pinball between the buildings without setting foot on crime-prone sidewalks.
Indeed, witness the huge raised platform that still envelops Bisharat’s One Stamford Forum, a glassy upside-down ziggurat known as the General Telephone and Electronics, or GTE, building, when its ribbon was cut in 1973. Plus, elevating people one flight allowed parking lots to be placed closer to the building’s front doors, in a line of thought that sums up Modernist architects’ outlook on what should go where—form follows function whenever possible.
But while the platforms at St. John’s Towers may have failed, Stamford did gain distinctive structures says Anne McNamara, a twenty-year resident and the current occupant of a 1,200-square-foot two-bedroom there. Sure, corner china cabinets have a hard time fitting with walls that slightly arc, McNamara explains, but the panoramas are stunning: “The sun rises on my left. I turn my head six inches to the right, and I get to watch the sun set, without moving. “You can buy a $10 million penthouse in Manhattan and not have that.”
The view almost changed drastically in 2007, when, faced with the need to make expensive renovations to the outsides of the towers, owner St. John Urban Development Corp. decided to sell the northern tower for $23 million to allow for three thirty-five-story buildings—likely of the rectangular variety—from developer Lowe Enterprises. The downturn put the kibosh on that. Similarly, last September federal restrictions that protect the complex’s 360 middle-income units expired, meaning that the owners could put St. John’s on the auction block, but barring a sharp economic rebound, that’s seen as unlikely … for now.
Though not everybody agrees that Bisharat’s buildings are worth savoring, or even saving, there’s one point of agreement between conservatives and the avant-garde alike—the First Presbyterian Church on Bedford Street, designed by Wallace K. Harrison, is a sui generis modern marvel.
Tucked into a slope, the 1958 building from afar can seem like one of those oversized boulders strewn along Stamford’s backcountry roads, owing to its beveled gray surface, which in parts is shingled in bluestone.
Inside, though, awaits an explosively different sensory experience. Embedded in walls that are angled like a tent’s is a startlingly vivid array of 20,000 red, green and blue glass chunks that, when the light is right, give you the impression of standing inside a finely cut, sixty-foot-tall jewel.
Such a radical rethinking of how walls and windows should relate was a trademark of Harrison’s. His Hall of Science for the 1964 World’s Fair has eighty-foot walls spangled with rows of blue-glass shards. Having also designed the Buck Rogers–inspired Trylon and Perisphere exhibits at the 1939 World’s Fair, also in Queens, Harrison could be said to have created the two bookends of the Modernist movement.
Still, Harrison, who also worked on the United Nations building, called the Presbyterian Church his favorite work, according to Victoria Newhouse’s 1989 book Wallace K. Harrison, Architect, which also debunks a popular myth: Though known as the “Fish Church” for its piscine silhouette, that wasn’t Harrison’s intention. In fact, early sketches reveal it as more of a bowling pin.
While their charms bode well for the future of design and may have growing appeal here and elsewhere, Stamford’s wiggly-weird structures do seem to have caught on already with a specific group: architects who now do with a computer what many old-timers in Stamford had to dream up in their heads. And that may be the city’s most lasting legacy. “The buildings show an experimental way of thinking, before experimental was mainstream,” says Victor’s son Tobias Bisharat, also an architect, invoking Frank Gehry and his crumpled-paper-like façades. “They were a taste of what was to come forty years later.”