By Bart Boehlert
As the use of the telephone exploded in the 1920s, the New York Telephone Company turned to architect Ralph Walker to design new buildings to house its booming enterprise. While other buildings of the day looked to the past with Gothic or classical themes, Ralph Walker committed to the future, aiming to create architecture “as modern as the telephone activity it houses.”
The setback law of 1916 required tall buildings to recede at the top to allow for light and air ventilation, so Walker designed a high tower that narrowed from a massive base. Inside and out, his constructions were decorated with sleek Art Deco ornamentation that evoked the skyscraper as machine. “His buildings really created a presence for the telephone company,” says Kathryn Holliday, author of the definitive book "Ralph Walker: Architect of the Century" and Professor of Architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Across the city, Walker designed Art Deco telephone buildings including the Barclay-Vesey Building in Tribeca, the BellTel Lofts in Downtown Brooklyn, and Stella Tower in Hell’s Kitchen, which have been converted into luxury residences.
Perhaps the most glamorous is the Walker Tower at 212 West 18th Street in Chelsea. Built in 1929, its exterior was layered with nine shapes of bricks in five different hues. The building was constructed with thick concrete floors and 18-inch thick walls. Telephone equipment necessitated very high ceilings, and big windows were installed because there was no air conditioning. In 2013, JDS Development Group and CetraRuddy Architecture transformed the Art Deco gem into 50 luxury condominiums, and buyers have included actress Cameron Diaz and cosmetics queen Laura Mercier.
Now listed at the Walker Tower with Brown Harris Stevens agent Chris Poore is Apartment #17BC. Offered at $18,495,000, the expansive 4,000-square-foot home is the result of two combined apartments, and features five bedrooms and five and a half bathrooms with radiant floor heating and built-in humidification system throughout. Since it was constructed before neighborhood height limits were enacted, the 24-floor Walker Tower rises high above its surroundings, and the 17th-floor apartment boasts breathtaking views to the north, west, and south through dramatic floor-to-ceiling tilt-and-turn windows.
The high ceilings, oversized windows, and large proportions of the rooms give the apartment a soaring sense of space and light, and a feeling of super-solid construction.
Luxury amenities in the building include a 24-hour doorman, concierge, library lounge, children’s playroom, fitness center with yoga room, sauna, and landscaped roof deck with dining area and covered cabana room. The building’s stunning lobby, with its mirrored walls, glossy black floor, high ceiling, and intricate metal grill work is an Art Deco homage to its designer, Ralph Walker.
Though not as well-known today as other famous architects of the 20th century, Walker was highly regarded by his peers. Frank Lloyd Wright proclaimed that Walker was “the only other honest architect in America.” And in 1957 the American Institute of Architects gave him the ultimate honor as the “Architect of the Century.”