Walkabout: George Browne Post’s Perfect Pitch, a Troy Story

Troy SBMH, kurtman518 for wiki

George Browne Post was one of New York City’s finest architects. He’s also one of New York’s most underappreciated architects, a man whose work often gets overshadowed by the Beaux-Arts architects who followed him, men like Carrére and Hastings, and McKim, Mead & White. Ironic, really, as some of his greatest works were being built when they were all still in school, or just getting started on their careers. He was a visionary, and looking at some of his buildings, it’s hard to believe they were built as early as they were, as many of his ideas were very much ahead of their time. Sadly, Post is also one of those architects whose works have been mostly lost to us today. They are gone, torn down not only in Manhattan, but in many of the other cities that commissioned his work. Fortunate is the city that has a Post building. Often it becomes one of that city’s greatest architectural treasures. Like the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, in Troy, N.Y.

George Post studied civil engineering before he became an architect, and that explains why his most impressive and iconic buildings are the marvels they are. He knew structure, not just pretty or historical forms. Post was born in 1837, in New York City, the grandson and son of prosperous New England merchants. He was one of the first students in the new School of Civil Engineering and Architecture at the University of the City of New York, which today is New York University. He received his degree in 1858. While studying architecture, he apprenticed in the offices of Richard Morris Hunt, one of the 19th century’s greatest American architects, a graduate of the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

Hunt had only recently returned from Paris, and was filled with the fervor of the converted, eager to teach his young American apprentices the precepts of the classical traditions of the Beaux-Arts. His studio was located at 15 West 10th Street, in Manhattan, and as Post learned under the tutelage of the master, he was also exposed to the other extremely talented artists and architects who worked in the building. Frederic Church, the great Hudson River painter, had his studio here, and Frank Furness, who would go on to become Philadelphia’s most famous architect, was also an employee at Hunt’s firm.

Post struck up a friendship with a fellow Hunt apprentice, Charles D. Gambrill, and they formed a partnership in 1861, but the Civil War would put a big change in their business plans. Post enlisted and became a captain in the 22nd Regiment, serving on the staff of General Ambrose Burnside, at the time of the defeat at Fredericksburg, in 1862. He moved up through the ranks, eventually retiring as a full Colonel, although he never had people address him as such, later in life. When he came back to New York, after the war, Gambrill had moved on, and Post put out his shingle on his own.

One of his first commissions was the Williamsburgh Savings Bank, on Broadway, in Williamsburg, a job won in a competition, as were most of his greatest works. The year was 1870, and the building was completed in 1875. It is a masterpiece of both architecture and engineering; the dome is as perfect a structure as any Classical or Renaissance masterpiece, and uses every element of Beaux-Arts Classicism that Hunt could teach. He must have inspired the Beaux-Arts architects who followed him twenty, twenty-five years later, and this building is often thought to have been built much later.

He moved on to win many other competitions, designing some of New York City’s most important buildings, including the New York Stock Exchange, the original buildings of City College in Hamilton Heights, Harlem, the New York Times Building on Park Row, the Produce Exchange Building at 2 Broadway, in Lower Manhattan, and the Cornelius Vanderbilt Mansion at 58th Street and 5th Avenue. The latter two are gone; the Produce Exchange torn down in 1957 and the Vanderbilt Mansion destroyed in 1926 for Bergdorf Goodman’s.

Brooklyn is lucky to have two Post buildings, the Williamsburgh Savings Bank, and the Brooklyn Historical Society Building, originally the Long Island Historical Society, on Pierrepont Street, in Brooklyn Heights. Unlike his more familiar classical buildings, this one is a marvel in red brick and terra-cotta, festooned with ornament and sculptured busts, created by Olin Levy Warner. The building was begun in 1878, and finished in 1881.

An architect goes where he must, to make a living, and in 1870, still at the beginning of his career, he heard about a competition in Troy, NY, for the design of a new bank and music hall for the Troy Savings Bank. He entered his design, competing against four other architects, and won. His Williamsburgh Savings Bank was still being built at this time. Troy didn’t know it, but they were going to get a building that would far exceed anything they had ever seen before.

The Troy Savings Bank had been founded in 1832. Troy was a fast growing city on the Hudson River, just north of Albany, a city becoming rich due to its position near the meeting of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers, one of the most important junctions of the Erie Canal. By the end of the Civil War, Troy had mushroomed into an extremely wealthy city; with commercial ventures stemming from the river and canal commerce, as well as Troy’s other main industry at the time: iron and steel production.

During the Civil War, Troy’s foundries were fast producing steel with the new Bessemer process, among the first in the United States. Troy’s iron and steel mills produced plate for the Civil War armored boat, the Monitor, as well as railroad ties and wheels, and foundries that produced some of the country’s best bells. Troy made precision instruments, and was beginning to get a reputation for its textile and shirt factories, which would later in the century boom into a larger industry than the steel and iron mills.

Troy’s wealthy elite had the money to do whatever they liked with their city, but they were not flashy folk, and Troy developed as an almost self-effacing city. Its architecture does not scream “look at me, we’re stinking rich!” but reflects good city planning, and good taste, taking the best from the popular architectural ideas of the times when the buildings were built. Troy’s wealthy showed off inside their homes, not outside. But that philosophy has resulted in a fine city, built with the best materials, which have stood up well to every element except modern urban renewal ideas. But I digress.

The trustees of the Troy Savings Bank wanted their new building to be not only a bank, but also a grand hall for musical performances, thereby fulfilling a state banking law mandating that banks fund public amenities such as concert halls. Post’s design filled that mandate by having the bank downstairs on the ground floor, and the concert hall above, underneath a rectangular domed roof. The other architects may have also combined the bank and hall in this manner, but Post was able to come in under budget. All of the other plans were estimated far over what the bank wanted to spend, and if for nothing else, they went with the guy from New York City who understood architecture and finance. Post’s conservative New England background, like that of many of Troy’s elite, served him well.

Post’s design for the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall fit in with many of the city’s classical public and private buildings. This was Troy, after all, named for the famed Greek city that endured in spite of years of siege. Post used everything in his repertoire on the building, letting his engineering skills guide the design. The building’s skin is a combination of French Renaissance and Italianate styling, and the Mansard glass roof is a masterpiece of Second Empire design and engineering bravura. The bank is sheathed in limestone, a material that would be de rigeur twenty-five years later, but was also crucial to Post’s Williamsburgh Savings Bank design. The Mansard roof was massive, its glass roof allowed light to flow into the banking space below. On top of that, Post designed a rectangular attic and cupola above, with wrought iron railings adding classic Second Empire detailing.

The result was an impressive building that can be seen for miles, rising above downtown Troy’s mostly three and four story buildings. It’s massive, and the roofline is quite prominent when coming into Troy from one of the hills surrounding it. And it got even better inside. Although not specifically trained to do so, Post managed to create a pitch perfect, acoustically perfect music hall, one of the finest in the country. His mastery of engineering was in play here. Rolled –iron trusses support the slate roof and penthouse, and iron bars extending from the trusses carry an iron grid to which the coved plaster ceiling is attached. He placed his ventilation ducts inside the roof, unseen by the public.

Post designed all of the ironwork in the building, including the ornate staircases, which were all fabricated by the Architectural Iron Works Company of New York. They were so impressive that articles were written about them specifically, and the building itself was marveled upon by both architects and laymen. The interiors of the bank and the music hall were opulent, with frescoes on the ceilings, marble columns in the bank, and a magnificent chandelier in the music hall that caused a Troy reporter to remark, “the gorgeous chandelier is the richest one without exception that hangs in any public hall in the state, if not the country.” That gas fixture had 10,000 crystal glass prisms, amplifying the light, and weighed three quarters of a ton. We don’t see that fixture today; it was replaced by an electric fixture in 1930.

In the years that followed, many of the world’s greatest musicians played the Troy Music Hall, including the greats of the late 19th and 20th centuries, including classical musicians such as Lillian Nordica, Henri Vieuxtemps, Ignace Jan Paderewski, Albert Spaulding, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Myra Hess and Jose Iturbi, Vladimir Horowitz, Yehudi Menuhin and Artur Rubenstein. In 1890, the Hall purchased a massive Odell organ from millionaire William Belden, and had it installed in the hall. It is the largest and oldest concert organ in the country, and is virtually intact, with some of the leather straps still original to the instrument. It is, today, in need of restoration. The Hall has hosted some of the world’s finest musicians and performers in every kind of music, from classical to jazz to pop, to world music. Many recordings have been made from its acoustically perfect stage.

Troy, like almost every industrial city in America, fell from its high perch when American industry began leaving her cities for cheaper places overseas, or the industry died when other industries replaced it. By the 1970s, the Troy Music Hall was in trouble. Fortunately, some concerned citizens of Troy banded together in 1979, and formed the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall Revitalization Committee, which was able to secure funds to save and refurbish and renovate the Hall. The building is now owned by First Niagara Bank, and run by the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall Corporation. The building is part of Troy’s Downtown Historic District, and in 1989 was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

There is so much more that could be said about the Hall, the rest of the building, George Post, and Troy itself, but that’s for another day. We’ll be back with more Troy stories.

(Troy Savings Bank Music Hall: Photo by kurtman518 for Wikipedia)

Photo: UpstateNYer, for Wikipedia

Photo: UpstateNYer, for Wikipedia

Rendering of Music Hall, 1876, via Wikipedia

Rendering of Music Hall, 1876, via Wikipedia

Late 19th century photo: Tuckerfuller.com

Late 19th century photo: Tuckerfuller.com

Photo: wamc.org

Photo: wamc.org

View of downtown Troy, with Music Hall prominently in the center. Photo: skyscraperpage.com

View of downtown Troy, with Music Hall prominently in the center. Photo: skyscraperpage.com

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