The Architects Speak

During the 1980s, I was lucky enough through my work to meet several of the architects of New York’s Deco wonders. I published the following account in an exhibition catalog, edited by Tom Killian and Françoise Bollack, called Everyday Masterpieces: Memory and Modernity, which chronicled the modest architecture of the 1930s in both the U.S. and Italy. (None of the architects I interviewed appears in the above photo – but it’s such a classic image, architects dressed up as their buildings – that’s William Van Alen as the Chrysler Building).

Israel Crausman designed many of the Art Deco apartment buildings in the Bronx. Marvin Fine, chief designer for the firm of Horace Ginsbern, designed the Park Plaza Apartments, which seems to be the earliest Deco apartment building in that borough. Louis Allen Abramson designed some of the finest Art Deco Horn & Hardart automats.

I met them under various circumstances. In 1978, working on a proposal for a book on the automats, I looked up Louis Allen Abramson in the phone book (an underutilized research technique), and found him living about 15 blocks north of my own apartment. He was 97 years old at the time, and a little wary of me. But after a first interview, he researched me, and discovered that his former secretary was a friend of my parents, and through her discovered that he had known my grandparents. He then invited me up to his country house for a weekend of additional interviews. He was a wonderful man – kind, intelligent, and the designer of some of my favorite buildings.

I met Marvin Fine while working at the Landmarks Commission, where, in 1981, I wrote the designation report for the Park Plaza Apartments. Turning again to the Manhattan phone book, I found the Ginsbern firm, called up, and asked the receptionist if they had any records regarding the building. “Oh,” she said, “you should speak with Mr. Fine, he’s been here longer than anybody.” I made an appointment, went to the office, and was ushered into Fine’s office. Yes, he knew all about the Park Plaza, because designing it was his first important job with the firm. He’d pulled all the drawings out of the vault, and reminisced about the project, as well as his architectural career.

Israel Crausman I met when we were both interviewed for a documentary film that so far as I know never came to fruition (though it might be out there somewhere). I asked him questions on behalf of the film-maker.

The catalog essay presents shortened summaries of the interviews: Interviews of Israel Crausman, Louis Allen Abramson, and Marvin Fine