WHEN the 29-story Bush Building at 130 West 42nd Street was finished in 1917, it was a sudden skinny apparition on the Midtown skyline. Now a development group that has owned it for two decades is preparing plans to put up a flanking tower that would be separated by six inches, but would be connected on each floor.
Irving T. Bush, born in 1869 and beneficiary of the sale of his father's oil refinery in Brooklyn to Standard Oil, could have taken it easy. But as a youth he saw the disorganization of New York's port facilities — ships waiting for limited dock space, confused traffic, competition for facilities — and in 1902 founded the Bush Terminal along the Brooklyn waterfront, with a goal of providing coordinated port activities. This complex grew to 250 acres, with 21 miles of railroad track. In a profile in The New Yorker in 1927, the writer Niven Busch Jr., said Bush had the "uneven, angry energy of a man who has been confronted all his life with the opportunity to loaf."
Bush felt he could provide a similar coordinated approach in office and showroom space in Manhattan for his Bush Terminal tenants. In 1916 Bush developed the plans for a 29-story tower on a 50-foot front lot on the south side of 42nd Street between the Sixth Avenue and Broadway. His Bush Terminal International Exhibit Building was conceived to provide office space for importers and manufacturers as well as an expansive clubroom with a library specializing in books on manufacturing and a restaurant.
Bush hired the architect Harvey Wiley Corbett, who had already designed several Brooklyn factory buildings. To Corbett, the idea of a building more than 400 feet high and only 50 feet wide was exhilarating, not silly. He later predicted a city of buildings literally half a mile high, with escalators on the outside. Corbett made the Bush Building a razor blade of the Gothic, one long soaring rise of medieval elements combining into a single vertical. The interior was also Gothicized, with heavy, deep-relief choir-style oak paneling, oriental carpets and antique furniture in the club areas. "One of the truly beautiful things in the city," Vanity Fair said in 1917, when the building was finished. Bush had his office at the top floor of the building.
As he did later with his apartment building at 1 Fifth Avenue, Corbett used brick striping in three colors to give the huge blank side walls a paneled effect. In 1919 the writer Harriet Gillespie singled out this feature for particular praise in the magazine Architecture, contrasting Corbett's design with more typical treatments: "We leave the side wall, the most conspicuous part of our buildings, to bask in unadorned ugliness, while we slather our fronts with every conceivable style."
In 1920 the magazine Literary Digest reported that the building's visitors included a buyer from a Paris restaurant who ordered electric dishwashers, someone from Venezuela who ordered 1,000 dozen portable bathtubs for babies and a woman who started a baby bonnet business from the building and wound up with an operation employing 500 workers. Although never the tallest building in New York, it was for years one of the most admired by critics. In 1926, the architectural historian Talbot Hamlin said that "at night, when floodlights set the delicate detail of the upper portions agleam, there arises the romance of a new American Beauty."
But Lewis Mumford was one of the few unconvinced that Corbett was a visionary. Writing in Architecture in 1927, he noted that Corbett's grand gesture was compromised by his own promotion of urban density; covered by a new building to the west, the Bush Building "no longer has its original aesthetic importance." Mumford questioned the basic premise of skyscrapers: "Congestion on the scale that Mr. Corbett would have it is far too expensive a public luxury," he wrote, especially in regard to the demands of traffic. And in 1933, after he had taken over the "Skyline" column in The New Yorker, Mumford even derided Corbett's trompe l'oeil panel effect, calling it one of Corbett's "notorious clichés."
Bush temporarily lost control of his empire in 1933, but then gained it back and held it until his death in 1948. Later, the Bush Building faded into the general seediness that overwhelmed Times Square. Around 1980 a Lebanese family group bought the Bush Building and modernized much of the interior. Now, with other investors, the owners are working on a new building directly to the west. Marwan Dalloul, a family member, says he was just a child at the time it was acquired, but he is now working on the project, being designed by the architects at Gruzen Samton.
Jordan Gruzen, a partner, says the firm's 23-story building, replacing much lower buildings, is to rise six inches away from the Bush Building — a requirement of earthquake codes — but tenants will be able to make connections at each floor like the accordion connections and sliding metal plates between railroad cars. This will be nearly doubling the 5,000-square-foot floor plates of the original tower. Mr. Gruzen says the new tower will be glass with "a soft receding look," to defer to the older building, where restoration work will replace missing finials and copper details, which have been removed over time. "We want to recreate its original value", Mr. Dalloul said. .