Near Union Square, Birth of the Cool

On the fifth floor of a circa 1908, 12-story building at Fifth Avenue and 17th Street –  once home not just to factories for toys and flags, but also pied-à-terre for Levi Parsons Morton (1824-1920), one-term governor of New York and vice president under Benjamin Harrison – a Brooklyn-based architecture firm has recast the image of a 21st-century law office.

Studio Tractor Architecture’s work there for Thompson Wigdor & Gilly, a firm full of forty-somethings, is at once bright, restrained and cool.

“They told us they were young and creative, and that they didn’t want to call upon mahogany paneling, tufted chairs and leather-bound books,” said Michael Tower, principal in Tractor. 

“They were trying to redefine what a law firm is,” said Mark Kolodziejczak, his partner.  “Their understanding of materials was part of their branding.  Paint just didn’t fit the bill – it’s appliqué, and transient.  They needed something more permanent.”

The architects gave them a stripped-down lobby layered with white oak floors, white walls, a pair of Shaker-style Mies-tufted sofas, floating dark-stained Douglas fir panels, and a bluestone wall quarried from upstate New York behind the receptionist’s desk. 

A long, bold laminated glass panel layered in blue film, glowing with strip lighting, commands the visitor’s attention.

“They gave us some of their stationery and pointed us to their web site for ideas,” Michael said.  “There’s something stable and masculine about blue – think about Microsoft.” 

The attorneys gave up office space overlooking Fifth Avenue, preferring to use that for lobby and conference room space.  Partners and senior associates in the 22-member firm occupy exterior offices; interior spaces are shared by junior members of the firm.  There are no cubicles.

Throughout, the building’s original Doric columns, painted white, recall its original epoch.

The architects balanced a combination of natural light through windows, with two-inch, floor-to-ceiling, vertical slots of artificial lighting up a long and empty hallway to offer up the illusion of a sunlit space throughout. 

In the end, the attorneys may have proved to be a most unusual and perceptive client.

“Their understanding of materials was part of their branding,” Mark said.

 For more on Thompson Wigdorf and Gilly, go to: 

For more on Studio Tractor Architecture, go to:

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