Standard Operating Procedure: WRNS Studio New York finds its Home in an Iconic Building with a Rich History

Standard Operating Procedure: WRNS Studio New York finds its Home in an Iconic Building with a Rich History

Visitors to WRNS Studio’s San Francisco headquarters find themselves in a well-situated, terra cotta-clad concrete building that began its life in 1925 as part of the Schmidt Lithograph Company complex, once the west coast’s largest printing press (it provided labels for canned fruits and vegetables from the Central Valley).

Nine decades later, the building has found new life as a home for tech, design, and media companies who are attracted to the cluster of activity and businesses around South Park and AT&T Park. Our fourth-floor suite started as 8,300 square feet in 2006, grew to almost 10,000 square feet in 2013, and is now nearly 15,000 square feet, or roughly two-thirds of the fourth floor. Our staff and visitors enjoy sweeping views toward Mission Bay and Twin Peaks as well as terrific access to the Bay Bridge, the Embarcadero waterfront, and the larger South of Market (SoMA) neighborhood. The robust concrete frame and exposed slabs speak to the building’s industrial history and provide interior finishes with an authentic character and richness, as well as a wide open floor plan that supports our collaborative studio culture.

When we began our search for a home in New York City, it was important to us that we find a space and a building that had a real sense of local flavor and history, but we didn’t know if that would mean a former printing plant in Brooklyn, a mid-century modern highrise in Midtown, or a 1920s art deco tower in Lower Manhattan. Upon entering the lobby of 26 Broadway, the former headquarters of Standard Oil and once the most famous business address in the world, we knew that we had found a special place. And when we first entered the eleventh-floor suite that is now our new home, with its pockmarked plaster ceiling moldings and double-hung windows overlooking the narrow New Street and one of the building’s two interior light wells, that feeling was confirmed. While the specifics of materials and details and even the quality of light were very different from our San Francisco studio, the proportions of the space were similarly conducive to an open, collaborative workspace. We were hooked.

Just as South Park has adapted to an influx of tech companies from a history based in industrial uses, Lower Manhattan has similarly evolved in recent years to encompass industries other than its traditional financial core – tech, design, and media firms have become ubiquitous. As the World Trade Center site has been reconstructed over the last fifteen years the sheer volume of brand new, Class-A office space has led to the repositioning of older properties with comparatively attractive rents. Architecture firms including SOM, Handel, BIG, Snøhetta and SHoP now call the same stretch of Lower Broadway their home, and WRNS Studio is proud to be the newest addition to the neighborhood.

For a firm that prides itself on a deep commitment to sustainability and environmental stewardship there is a certain irony in adopting the former Standard Oil headquarters as our home. Once a gleaming beacon visible to all ships entering the harbor, the building was very much intended to convey a sense of industrial might. If Manhattan were a ship, 26 Broadway was once its prow, with the kerosene torch at its pyramidal top visible for miles.

Architecturally, 26 Broadway has a complex and fascinating history. It was once the site of a home where Alexander Hamilton hung his hat, and was later where the first Standard Oil building was begun in 1884 after John D. Rockefeller relocated the company from Cleveland. The building designed by Ebenezer L. Roberts was initially only ten stories tall but was expanded in 1895 by Kimball & Thompson to include an additional six floors and an extension on the north side. In 1920, still a formidable operation but reorganized following the historic antitrust decision of 1911, the company embarked upon nearly a decade of construction to expand the building and further increase its prominence. The work, designed by Carrère & Hastings, was conducted in phases and lasted nearly a decade, as retail tenants moved out and adjacent parcels were acquired. Innovators of skyscraper massing in the years following the adoption of the 1916 Zoning Resolution that mandated setbacks for tall buildings, two of the architects who worked on 26 Broadway (Richmond Shreve and William Lamb) later went on to found the office that would design the Empire State Building.

Much of the original building was incorporated into the new construction, including the portion of the façade along New Street within which our suite is located – notably, it remains brick, unlike the more ornate limestone of the rest of the exterior. The result is a sort of architectural palimpsest, with the original building encased within a larger, more imposing structure. The highly unusual plan shape of the lower 16 stories (the base of the building famously follows the curve of Broadway) gives way to a slender 13-story tower that reconciles itself to the wider city by aligning with the regular Manhattan street gird to the North, not the more idiosyncratic set of streets found around Bowling Green. Entering our suite, one passes through an original exterior wall, as the stone floor gives way to wood, the transition clearly evident in the thickness of the wall. The history becomes an important part of the spatial experience of entering the suite.

Rather than replicating exactly the look and feel of the San Francisco studio, our New York space borrows from its function while adapting to a new physical and historical context. The analogs are everywhere: while San Francisco staff can enjoy their lunch in South Park (at least once the current renovation is complete), their counterparts in Lower Manhattan can visit Bowling Green – a century older but providing similarly welcome relief from the dense surrounding urban fabric.

Other tenants at 26 Broadway include The New York Film Academy, The Cornell College of Architecture, Art and Planning, and three New York City public schools comprising the Broadway Education Campus, as well as a number of creative digital agencies. We are delighted to be surrounded by creativity, curiosity, and innovation.

When WRNS approaches any new project, we always begin with a serious investigation and analysis of place in the broadest possible sense. In opening our New York office, we employed that approach as rigorously as ever.