The Lobby and Auditorium are Locally Designated by the New York City Landmarks Commission as of June 3, 1997.
The New School was founded in 1919. A decade later the fledging university was forced to move from its location on 23rd Street because the buildings they were occupying were slated for demolition. New School president and founder Alvin Johnson approached one of his greatest benefactors who owned three townhouses on 12th St between 5th and 6th Avenues. "Johnson proposed that in exchange for Cranford-Smith donating the New School his townhouse (and, incidentally, the two vacant townhouses Cranford-Smith had purchased on both sides, simply to shield himself from any noisy neighbors), where the New School would build a new building, Cranford-Smith would get an apartment in the penthouse. To Johnson’s surprise, Cranford-Smith bought the deal. Johnson wanted a new style of building, which would integrate a library and social center that were merged, classrooms that integrated the latest in 1930s media technology (and even, in the ultimate expression of ultracommunity, an apartment for the student, Cranford Smith)—in a metallic spaceship-like tower that would say to the world, 'we are new and on message!' In essence, as it proclaims to do today, The New School considered its building a form of media...Johnson convinced legendary functionalist architect Joseph Urban to do the job for a six percent commission — about half the going rate at the time. Normally architects’ fees were paid upfront, but the New School had no endowment, so Johnson asked Urban to take the job on promise of future fundraising. Over a table at the Plaza Hotel, Urban accepted in less than a minute.'" (Cummings) Urban had designed theaters and buildings around the world, most recently in New York in 1928 as he designed the Hearst Magazine Building, a landmark in its own right. Urban's design for the New School would be unlike anything that had been seen in New York before.
From the Landmark's Designation report: "Urban’s New School building is a seven-story block composed of brick and glass. The International Style is reflected in the pure geometry of the solid, horizontal bands of black and cream brick which float between ribbons of windows. The main section is set within a recessed black enframement which incorporates the ground floor. Here the polished black granite base is marked by five sets of doors leading into the auditorium lobby." The AIA Guide To New York City describes the building as a precocious modern design (for New York) with its restrained use of strip windows and spandrels where brick coursing sets back slightly from the street as it rises. These subtleties make it appear shorter, less imposing, more in scale with adjacent row houses. The auditorium within is a dramatic example of Urban's theatrical talents and was the "model" for Radio City Music Hall.
The construction of The New School For Social Research was unlike anything the neighborhood of Greenwich Village, or indeed the entire city of New York had seen up to that point. Situated among brownstones and other row houses the blackness of the base and the abundance of glass in the facade made the building stand out and would have caught the attention of any New Yorker passing by. "In 1930, amid the row of 19th-century townhouses still surrounding it today, 66 rose like a spaceship-like beacon of new ways of thinking, proclaiming to the world a new educational philosophy based on new neural pathways between the disciplines. This was a New York still mostly devoid of modernist buildings." (Cummings) While the Empire State Building and Chrysler Building had just been completed uptown, Sixty Six West Twelfth Street represented the next step in architecture. The massing of the building, and its modest height, means that it actually blends in with its surroundings rather well.
This being the New School for Social Research, the building had a social impact on the city. From the Landmark Designation Report: "Johnson saw this as an opportunity to build a new structure that would give form to the school’s progressive philosophy and unorthodox curriculum. He considered two prominent architects for the job: Frank Lloyd Wright and Joseph Urban. Although he considered Wright to be America’s greatest architect, Johnson decided that Urban would be more responsive to developing the ideas he wanted to express in the building. Johnson asked Urban to create a building which would be able to 'function in the present and if possible to forecast the future.' Although the school could only afford a modest commission, Urban accepted the low-paying project because he had been working for years as a theatrical designer and wished to return to architectural design before the end of his career. Johnson's interest in promoting artistic and theatrical developments at the school and Urban's theatrical experience proved a fortuitous combination. The New School was Urban’s truly modern masterpiece and was
the first appearance of the International Style in New York."
The Building is considered to be a modernist masterpiece and a exemplary version of the International Style as its earliest stages. The buildings massing and facade actually fit in well with the rest of the short row houses in the neighborhood.
Along with the Hearst Magazine Building, The New School For Social Research is the only example of architecture in New York by Joseph Urban. Its construction just after the height of the Art Deco and Moderne movements signaled that a new type of architecture was on the horizon. "Urban's influence, however, can be clearly seen in Radio City Music Hall, which incorporates numerous features from his designs for the Metropolitan Opera House, the Music Center, and the New School auditorium. " (Landmark Designation Report) Urban's influence can be seen in the theaters of the era and in the explosion of Modernist and International Style Buildings in the city after World War II.
The New School for Social Research at Sixty Six West Twelfth Street in Greenwich Village is a very important early Modernist Building. The earliest example of Modernism in New York and one of the earliest in the United States, it had stood the test of time and remains a highly regarded landmark building. Today it is not quite as stark against the brick row houses, as there are a few other glass clad buildings in the neighborhood, such as the New School's Scheila C. Johnson Design Center and 13th St. and 5th Ave, these buildings no doubt influenced by Urban and his work here.
Cummings, Peter Ian. "Strange But True History: The Spaceship of Knowledge" Web. 29 November 2010 < http://www.newschoolsenate.org/resources/strange-but-true-history/ >
Kurshan, Virginia "Landmarks Preservation Commission" Web. 29 November 2010 < http://www.nyc.gov/html/lpc/downloads/pdf/reports/newschlint.pdf >
White, Norval and Elliot Willensky with Fran Leadon. AIA Guide to New York City. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2010.