Of the three structures built by Albert Ledner for the National Maritime Union, the two at 9th Avenue were originally built as an annex to its headquarters, what is now known as the O'Toole Building (owned by St. Vincent's Hospital). These buildings served as living quarters, instructional (The Upgrading and Retraining School), medical and recreational space for members of the union.
In the early 1950's the National Maritime Union decided to embark on a project to erect hiring halls/union headquarters for the union throughout the United States. Kathleen Randall writes in Curran/O'Toole Building Backgrounder for Docomomo, that the Union sought, "...to make visible the progress of the union in its fight for fairness and professionalism in hiring and respect for the seamen." Of these union headquarters, the first was to be erected in New Orleans where the National Maritime Union tapped a young, local architect, Albert Ledner, who had studied under Frank Lloyd Wright. Ledner went on to design headquarters for the NMU across the country in various cities including Mobile, Alabama (1955), Baltimore, Maryland (1956), Houston, Texas (1958), and Galveston, Texas (1959). Randall writes that, "Ledner was key to creating a modern image for the Union and NMU officials believed it was the right image."
In 1964 Ledner and the NMU set out to create a headquarters for their largest constituency, New York City, which Randall writes was, ..."the country's busiest port, with over 100,000 seamen assigned to ships annually." In 1964 the National Maritime Unions headquarters at 7th Avenue between West 12th and 13th was completed. Randall follows that "The success of the project and the growth of the union led to two more New York projects that Ledner designed for the NMU: the Seamen's Training School and Dormitory on 9th Avenue at 17th Street, completed in 1966, and the Curran Annex, a low-rise addition to the school/dormitory tower, completed in 1967."
The first of the two buildings, built in 1967, the Seamen's Training School and Dormitory, fell in step with the pop-art nautical theme Ledner followed for his prolific NMU commissions. The structure was 12-stories, pierced with 5-foot diameter porthole windows throughout its white-tile covered facade. The front wall was designed to slope 8-1/2 degrees like the hull of a ship. According to the AIA Guide to New York City, "This was the architect's way of meeting zoning requirements of the 1961 zoning resolution," which required a 20-foot offset upward of a height of 85-feet.
In 1969 Ledner designed the Joseph Curran Annex which was added to the Seamen's Training School and Dormitory. With dimensions of 180 feet x 100 feet, this tall, narrow, 12-story annex has often been likened to a pizza box.
Nadine Brozan writes in Sailors, Runaways and Now, Bicoastal Hoteliers for the New York Times, that, "In 1987 it was converted into a home for runaway youths by Covenant House. Nine years later, it changed hands again, when it was sold to the New York Service Center for Chinese Study Fellows, which provided a variety of housing and educational services for Chinese students, artists, and business people." By 2003 the last of the three buildings, the Joseph Curran Annex, was well on its way to becoming its latest incarnation, the Maritime Hotel
Located on Ninth Avenue between 16th and 17th Streets, The Joseph Curran Annex rises up like a giant porthole pierced pizza box clad in gleaming white tile.
An unusually shaped, tall, narrow building, twelve-stories, with five-foot diameter porthole windows and clad in constrasting white tiles and cement, the Maritime Hotel certainly stands out, as it always has.
Examining the building from the street, it feels rather imposing in fact, as the entire building rests upon a very tall, unadorned cement riser approximately 7-8 feet tall. Along its sides (along 16th and 17th Streets), this riser is punctuated by small circular cut outs which reflect the porthole windows above.
Atop this riser is a relatively open plaza with widely spaced concrete piers clad in white tile which support a white tile covered lower story of the building which functions as a pergola of sorts. This lower story, which wraps around the central "pizza box" displays a pattern of vertical rectangles executed in white tile which are set upon a contrasting rough, plain, grey cement background. Originally, this plaza had been completely open. However, it now functions as two separate plazas as there are now stores which bisect it making for a rather, tight awkward space in the front particularly.
Behind this is a circular space which now houses the hotel's italian bar and restaurant (Ledner and the NMU were fond of round spaces and we see this a great deal in the O'Toole Building). Across its front it still reads in stark sans serif, "Maritime 1968 Building."
Arriving at the main structure, the tall, narrow "pizza box," what we have are the upper eight stories of the building. With five-foot diameter portholes twelve across and eight high this is certainly the most distinctive part of the Joseph Curran Annex. Again Ledner creates patterns with the white tile against the stark grey cement leaving a band of unadorned grey along the buildings perimeter.
Interestingly, as this report was being compiled, it appears that Ledner's previous building for the National Maritime Union, the Joseph Curran Annex's neighbor, was being restored as well. It is now in the process of being clad in a shiny silver material which provides a great deal of contrast to the white tile and cement of the Joseph Curran Annex / Maritime Hotel.
The Joseph Curran Annex, located in the heart of Chelsea, a bright white, modernist structure pierced by round porthole windows, has always stood out. When it was originally built, and was surrounded by brick tenements it must have stood out even more than today, however, as it now stands surrounded by taller (than their predecessors), more banal 20th century buildings made of brick and glass.
For the Joseph Curran Annex, Albert Ledner used a similar arsenal of materials to those of his previous two buildings for the National Maritime Union in New York City - concrete and in this case, white tile.
With the National Maritime Union's growing power and influence, a large motivation in building its headquarters all over the country was to solidify, consolidate and show off this growing strength. Kathleen Randall writes that, "The stronger the union the faster it could rid the maritime industry of the rampant corruption and discrimination that existed under he myriad of hiring gauntlets maintained by the individual shipowners."
Illustrative of this is a quote which Randall borrows from the Village Voice upon the opening of the Joseph Curran Building (which predates the Joseph Curran Annex), "The elegance and style of the NMU building is a symbol of the upward mobility of the labor movement since the 1930s."
As were all of Ledner's creations for the National Maritime Union, the Joseph Curran Annex was created with a great deal of nautical influence and reference. Additionally, with its bright, shiny, white facade, round porthole windows and pizza box shape it was a perfectly oddball example of the International Style.
Having graduated from the Tulane University School of Architecture in 1948, and having gone on to study under Frank Lloyd Wright, Albert Ledner, a young New Orleans architect, later went on to become the preferred architect of the National Maritime Union who at the time was undertaking an ambitious plan to assert its new found strength through the establishment of hiring halls across the country.
Ledner went on to design hiring halls for the National Maritime Union across the country. He even went on to design the National Maritime Park for the 1964 World's Fair. Which was according to Kathleen Randall, "...the only union sponsored project at the fair."
Albert Ledner continues to work as an architect and lives in New Orleans with his wife.
Kathleen Randall concludes that, "In these projects for the NMU, Wright's influence and the predominant tenets of organic architecture are palpable. The design approach for each hall is well integrated with its site. In addition, the adjoining volumes, circulation plan, floor layouts, interior design and furnishings become part of a unified, interrelated composition."
Christopher Gray, writes in "An Architect's Flotilla of West Side Buildings," for the New York Times, that, "Even in the permissive '60s, the implicit humor of this unorthodox trio transgressed mightily against the dead-serious modernism of the period. For the architectural elite, a nautically themed hiring hall for rough-and-tumble seamen was not much more than Disneyland." Indeed it is the Joseph Curran Annex / Maritime Hotel's kitschy modernism that make it special even today. Even more importantly, the Joseph Curran Annex retains a great deal of its original character on the exterior. Save for the division and reworking of the original plaza, this site remains much as it was when it was built in 1967-68. Furthermore, with its neighbor, the Seamen's Training School and Dormitory now altered dramatically (its formerly cement exterior has been reclad in a bright. silver material) and with the O'Toole Building's future in the balance, the Joseph Curran Annex, in its almost original and secure state becomes all the more valuable. For now there do not seem to be any potential threats to the building as its very character is what now makes it so very valuable as a boutique hotel - a genre of hospitality who by its very nature values the building's offbeat kitsch.
Brozan, Nadine. "Sailors, Runaways and Now, Bicoastal Hoteliers," New York Times, February 5, 2003.
Chaplin, Julia. "Boite: A Place for Their Kind," New York Times, February 22, 2004.
Gray, Christopher. "An Architect's Flotilla of West Side Buildings," New York Times, November 25, 2007.
Jacobs, Carrie. "A Modernist Beacon in the Post Katrina Night," New York Times, December 21, 2006.
Randall, Kathleen. Backgrounder: Curran/O'Toole Building. Docomomo US, 2007.
Singer, Pete. Ethics Into Action. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2000.
Trucco, Terry. "Travel Advisory; Onetime Home for Sailors Now for Landlubbers," New York Times, April 27, 2003.
White, Norval and Willensky, Elliot. AIA Guide to New York City. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Page 210.