Looking Back: Remembering the Early Days of Metropolis

Akiko Busch recalls how Horace Havemeyer III’s innate understanding of architecture informed the early issues of his magazine.

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Metropolis founder and publisher Horace Havemeyer III (1941-2014) at the magazine’s first offices, located in the landmarked Hugh O’Neill Building in New York City.

All photos courtesy Eugenie Havemeyer/Metropolis Archive

In the winter of 1981, several months before its first issue was published, Metropolis took up residence in the Hugh O’Neill Building on Sixth Avenue at 21st Street. Once a dry-goods department store that was a landmark of the Ladies’ Mile Historic District, the 1887 Italianate building was in poor order. The dust-like gray of its cast-iron facade was matched indoors by many layers of the real thing. A grand interior staircase needed refinishing and a view over a small courtyard cemetery revealed a tangle of weeds and toppled stones. Although one editor—between girlfriends and apartments—sometimes slept at the office, the amenities of the place were primitive, and we guessed that Steven Holl, whose office was down the hall, probably showered at the McBurney Y. Limelight had not yet taken up residence in the deconsecrated church across the street, which then still housed Odyssey House, a drug-rehab program. All of which is to say it may have been the eighties, but it wasn’t really the eighties yet.

The building might have been in disrepair, but Horace’s interest in architecture included the knowledge that buildings have a hold on their pasts despite generations of varied uses. Something in the history of this one appealed to him, and it likely had to do with the way a once-bustling emporium that sold hats, flowers, perfume, lace, rugs, and clothes became, a century later, a place given to the commerce of ideas. A few desks were moved in, a couple of IBM Selectric typewriters purchased, shelving built, phone lines installed. It was a logical place for a start-up. Maybe it was Horace’s background as a practiced sailor, but he knew something about working with essentials, the economic use of space, the apparatus for tight rigging. In the dot-com days that followed almost a decade and a half later, start-ups—or incubators as they were then quaintly called—took up residence in everything from slaughterhouses to freight terminals, the seeming incongruity of uses all part of the charm. But this was before all that.

Horace had made full acquaintance with the possibilities of the printed page.

If the space was rudimentary, the pages that took shape there were anything but. Horace understood how a page could look. Having spent a decade working in production at Doubleday, he had made full acquaintance with the possibilities of the printed page: its size; the weight, texture, and finish; typography; graphics; layout; photography. He understood how these components could engage human perception and imagination.

And how they might affect the way the words were read, images viewed. With then-editor Sharon Lee Ryder, the story ideas collected—among them sweat equity in urban homesteading, reasonable misuse in product design, teaching city planning, the implications of a solar electric chair, and a proposed community for the swamps of the Meadowlands.

How to decide what went on the page? When I interviewed earlier in 1981 for the job of associate editor, Horace quizzed me on my thoughts on the theoretical disputes between the New York Five, alternatively called the “Whites”—Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey, John Hejduk, Richard Meier—and their presumed contentions with the “Grays”—Robert Venturi, Robert Stern, Charles Moore, and others. We didn’t stay on that topic long. It was clear even then that he was more interested in the kind of magnanimous ingenuity and human engagement practiced by thinkers such as Bucky Fuller, whom he admired. Fuller’s interest in the organizing principles of nature, his determination to bridge the sciences and humanities, his notion of creating “an operating manual for Spaceship Earth”—all of these were of greater note to Horace than rhetorical stylistic debates about architecture and its club allegiances.

He was interested in the kind of magnanimous ingenuity and human engagement practiced by thinkers such as Bucky Fuller.

A few months later, the magazine moved to a rooftop space on West 25th Street. The letters on the elevator were PH, but I can’t recall anyone ever thinking of it as a penthouse. The elevator doors opened onto the roof, and you stepped out onto a terrain of blacktop, tar paper, skylights, and a couple of water towers, then walked across to what all these years later has been transformed by memory into a little urban chalet amidst Manhattan’s steel-and-glass Alps. It was 12 floors above street level, a modest height that, in retrospect, seems about right—the small cabin had a sense of elevation and slight remove, but it was still of the city, a good place to take in a broad view of the metropolitan landscape, which that year included the colonization of Tribeca, Philip Johnson’s proposal for a Chippendale pediment on the former AT&T building, Richard Serra’s tilted arc in Federal Plaza, and St. Bartholomew’s Church proposal to cash in on the air rights to its garden and community house.

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