Within An Urban Fabric CDA+urban - Thoughts on Urban Intervention

The Story

We love a good story at Cronk Duch. Creating (or reflecting on) a story becomes one of the key foundations of architecture and initiates an important opportunity for dialog about architecture and urban place. The unique location of Cronk Duch Architecture's St. Augustine Studio, within the 1926 Florida National Bank building on the Plaza de la Constitucion, allows a unique and applicable analysis in our focus on urban fabrics. As historic St. Augustine's first and only Skyscraper (as well as one of Florida's first) it provides the catalyst to our discussion of urban intervention (new buildings within old places) and its effects on Place. This effort is to collectively appreciate, advocate, study and ultimately create responsible architecture within these vital areas of our communities. Our goal in developing these stories is not an academic thesis of the places we visit and work but one of exposure and exploration. Is there a better place to start this dialog than within the first urban fabric and the place we work?

The Context

1586 map of Sir Francis Drake's May attack on St. Augustine - Batista Boazio - the start of the urban plan
1783 map of East Florida's St. Augustine town plan with the Cathedral shown - and the location of the site study

Constitution Plaza on the Bayfront with the Governor's House and the River at opposite ends of the axis. St Augustine's Skyscraper at the center

The Fabric

The Cathedral on the left and the original Bank building on the right. The chosen location for St. Augustine's first and only Skyscraper.

The late 19th century building (certainly not the original) shown is consistent with the scale of the buildings along the Plaza allowing the Religious (Cathedral) and Civic (Governor's House) buildings to remain primary in the hierarchy of the town plan

Plaza de la Constitucion with the Cathedral on the right and The Flagler Hotel spires in the background.

Bayfront with the Cathedral Tower as the prominent feature of the Plaza edge. The architectural spires of the Flagler Hotel can be seen on the horizon

The Intervention

"What is the chief characteristic of the tall office building? It is lofty. It must be tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it, the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exaltation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line". - Louis Sullivan's The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered (1896)

Florida National Bank Building - F.A. Hollingsworth 1926

The definition of a Skyscraper has been highly debated among architects since North America's first in 1885 with Chicago's Home Insurance Building at 10 stories and 138'. While this catalyst building lacks the sizzle of modern examples, it would have clearly presented a contrast in scale, hierarchy and construction methodologies within its urban fabric context. The same was true with the intervention of the 8 story Florida National Bank building above in 1926 within the street fabric of the historic Plaza de la Constitucion

The steel frame construction of the Skyscraper was a defining feature of this new urban building typology as well as its unique proportions - vertical and singular in nature

Original hand drawings on linen by architect F.A. Hollingsworth of St. Augustine.

Entry Facade
Entry Domes

The Impact

1926 was the peak of growth and expansion within established Florida cities and at the same time was careening toward the precipice of the infamous Florida land bust. This period of architectural enthusiasm both sparked the confidence necessary for the approval and construction of such a new bold typology within the historic fabric (America's oldest continuously occupied city) as well as created the ordinance banning any new structures over 35' following the crash. In spite of the new Skyscraper never opening with its original owner Florida National Bank, the building and its various tenants adapted over time to establish the buildings role within the fabric of the Plaza and the surrounding colonial scaled areas. In many rural Florida towns left behind by post war growth, these early Skyscrapers remain as a monument to optimism and architectural creativity. How they will be integrated into their fabrics depends on many variables. Perhaps a continuation of this study?

The building as hierarchy in the streetscape - it's primary public role serves as a backdrop and anchor to the Plaza on the north edge

An Observation

With an intervention of the scale of a Skyscraper dropped into the colonial scale fabric of St. Augustine, and in a time before mechanical systems of air conditioning and ventilation, the architects relied on passive design solutions to provide light and cooling to the public areas of the building sandwiched between existing structures. Unlike the buildings of a similar era in cities like Havana, Cuba where the architects utilized an open internal courtyard (outside-in) to provide light and ventilation from the street up thru the building, the Florida National Bank building took an inside-out approach to the solve the problem as the street front width was limited

With the advent of building systems, air conditioning and efficient lighting, the passive solutions in the building were eventually removed or encased by various building owners over time with no documentation. Only after the recent donation of the original construction drawings to the St. Augustine Historical Society Library as well as a visit from the building maintenance supervisor were we able to understand the original design of the building. During routine maintenance of the core areas of the building, the supervisor and I opened a closed panel and entered into the cavity space between the base of the building and the tower to find the original skylights and transom windows operated by an intricate gear system that had been both covered up from the outside by exterior walls and the inside by a dropped ceilings for electrical lighting

On a 2016 trip to Havana, Cuba, we were able to visit the Royal Bank of Canada (Purdy & Hendersen 1917) with the City of Havana Office of the Historian. The building, which is a very similar scale to the Florida National Bank, utilizes a central open core for light and ventilation and encloses the public bank lobby in a steel/green house.

Watercolors of the Cathedral and St. Augustine's only Skyscraper (by CDA)

The view from the CDA Studio looking east across the Bridge of Lions (1925)

Watercolor by architect Conrad Van Wick from CDA Studio looking north east to the inlet

Cronk Duch Architecture invites you to visit historic St. Augustine and experience the unique urban qualities of the colonial town. And stop by our Studio to say hello! Joe, Cliff and team


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Cronk Duch Architecture - CDA+urban

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