Ralph Thomas Walker
Architecture and Landscaping
In 1907, at the age of 18, Walker was apprenticed to Providence, Rhode Island architect Howard K. Hilton. The three year apprenticeship paid one dollar a week for the first year, two a week for the second year and three a week for the third. While working there Walker attended classes at MIT and after two years had moved up to a design position, paying nine dollars a week.
Following his sojourn with Hilton and Jackson, where he met his future wife, Stella Forbes, Walker was employed in 1916 by McKenzie, Voorhees and Gmelin, an important New York firm that was the successor firm to the one begun by Cyrus L. W. Eidlitz in 1885. Walker was to remain there for the remainder of his career. Walker's 1923 design of the Barclay-Vesey Building, now know as the Verizon Building, in New York City is credit as being the first skyscraper in which the New York 1916 Zoning Ordinances were treated as a design asset. His design was to lead to a generation of skyscraper built using the step back principle. This building was also arguably the first art-deco skyscraper.
During the 1930s as art deco waned, Walker was deeply involved with the planning of the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago and in the 1939 New York World's Fair.
Walker was an active member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and became its president in 1949. In 1957, on the occasion of the AIA's 100th anniversary, it voted Walker architect of the century. Three years later, in 1960, Walker resigned from the AIA after a conflict over professional ethics.
Walkers most famous work
New York Telephone Building
(The Barclay-Vesey Building, Lower Manhattan, 140 West St., built 1923, Style Art Deco, Construction steel structure, buff-brick.)
The first office building to be really influenced by Saarinen's design was begun in 1923, the year after the competition, and it is called the Barclay-Vesey Building because it is on Barclay and Vesey Streets. It was the headquarters for the New York Telephone Company. It is an entire square block in a section of the city that was not part of the grid of streets. So it is not a rectangular block, it is on an oddly shaped trapezoidal block. It was designed by the architectural firm of McKenzie, Voorhees & Gmelin. This firm had been designing telephone company buildings since the nineteenth century and although the firm had different names, it was actually the same firm. So when this commission came to the firm, it was no big deal. They gave it to an associate named Ralph Walker, a very talented young associate, to design this building. Walker was very influenced by Saarinen's design and was interested in how to turn the zoning law to his advantage, and how to design buildings with dramatic setback massings that would make the buildings an important and dynamic part of the skyline of New York.
And so Ralph Walker designs one of the great buildings of the 1920s. It has a solid horizontal base and then it has the soaring verticals with window bays between vertical piers just as on Saarinen's design. It has very dramatic setbacks marked by buttresses and sculpture until you reach the top with its limestone detailing and its sculptural work. This building was widely published and it captured the imagination of New Yorkers. It was also very influential in getting other designers to use these kinds of forms on the city's architecture. It was so successful that Ralph Walker became a partner in the firm, which became known as Voorhees, Gmelin & Walker. And Walker designed several other very important skyscrapers in the 1920s.
The top of the building, as you can see, is very dramatic. You were supposed to be able to enjoy this building and experience its drama from both close up and from far away. This building, which, when it was completed in 1926, was right on the waterfront, now cannot be seen from the water because of Battery Park City. It was in an area of relatively low-rise commercial buildings, so this building towered over all the nearby buildings in order to be visible both from the water and from the land. Its top would capture your attention, and on the lower floors the ornament was very complex so you could also enjoy this building from close up. Walker, like Sullivan before him, wanted to use an ornamental vocabulary that was not historically based, and he actually invented his own style of ornament, which has this very complex foliate design in which are interspersed little babies and animal heads. And even in the center, above the door, there is a bell, the symbol of the telephone company.
From the AIA Guide:
"Distinguished, and widely heralded, for the Guastavino-vaulted pedestrian arcades at its base, trade-offs for widening narrow Vesey Street. The Mayan-inspired Art Deco design by Ralph Walker proved a successful experiment in massing what was, in those years, a large urban form within the relatively new zoning 'envelope' that emerged from the old Equitable Building's greed. Critic Louis Mumford couldn't contain himself. A half century later, Roosevelt Island's Main Street used continuous arcades as the very armature of pedestrian procession. Why not elsewhere in New York to protect against inclement weather and to enrich the architectural form of the street? Why indeed, not next door, at 7 World Trade Center?"