August 28, 2015 History
Porcelanosa’s Historic Location — Part 2: The 20th Century and the Gilbert Hall of Science

gilbert hall building in nyc history

See: Porcelanosa’s Historic Location — Part 1: The Gilded Age

Porcelanosa will soon open its North American flagship in a landmarked six-story building at the intersection of Broadway and Fifth at 25th Street in NoMad. The primacy of the location and the extraordinary redevelopment of 202 Fifth Avenue is befitting Porcelanosa, the premier European manufacturer of ceramic and porcelain tile, natural stone, hardwood, mosaics, kitchen cabinet, vanities, bathtubs, faucets, shower systems, solid surfaces and more.

The building, built in 1918 and designed by Buchman & Kahn of New York, with Zimmerman, Saxe & Zimmerman of Chicago, was the earliest commission of Ely-Jacques Kahn and was first occupied by the General Outdoor Advertising Company.

In 1941, the most historically interesting phase of the building’s life began when A. C. Gilbert and Company, headquartered in Connecticut, set up its flagship in the building, then in the heart of the city’s Toy District. Gilbert was famous for educational toys, including chemistry sets, telescopes, microscopes, Geiger counters and their most famous toy — the erector set. They also produce model trains and acquired America Flyer trains in 1938.

Gilbert leased all seven floors of the building. The upper floors were used for offices, but the first floor became The Gilbert Hall of Science, a favorite destination for kids of all ages. The Hall had a huge display of trains in a complete landscaped setting as well as exhibitions of all the toys that Gilbert made.

gilbert toys interior at gilbert science hall
The ground floor exhibits in the Gilbert Hall of Science

 

Today it is hard to elicit a sense of the important place that this company and the Hall of Science held in the mind of young Americans of the 20th Century. (Think of Lego’s position today.) The New York Times stated that Gilbert was “… the biggest toy manufacturer in America . . . enthralling millions of youngsters with little metal girders, sleek electric trains and odiferous chemistry kits and more.”   In the Times article, the head of a museum of Gilbert Toys William Brown states that ‘“These toys are pre-television. They take time and concentration.’ He added that playing with Gilbert products taught generations of youngsters how things worked.”

The Gilbert Hall of Science was so prominent in American culture that even Superman visited it in one of his comic books.

superman visits gilbert hall of science

Its founder, Alfred Carlton Gilbert, became a legend when he managed to convince the Council of National Defense not to halt the manufacture of educational games at Christmastime during the Second World War. Faced with the request from the Council to concentrate all production on manufacturing arms during the War, Gilbert argued that the children playing with the toys were the country’s future engineers and architects — even getting members of the Council itself to try out the model construction kits. This story became the inspiration behind the film “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

With the demise of the Gilbert company in 1967, the building became the Toy Guidance Center, followed in 1964 by the home of Frankel Associates, importer of novelties and decorative goods. In the 1990s, the building was taken over by the Commodore and Criterion Christmas decoration showroom, which closed, leaving the building empty for many years.

Then, in June of 2012 as new development in NoMad began to accelerate, it was announced that Porcelanosa, had bought the famous building for $40 million. Over the past three years, the Commodore Criterion Building, as it was previously known, has been beautifully reimagined for Porcelanosa’s use by Foster + Partners, one of the most innovative architectural practices in the world today.

Not only will the building show Porcelanosa’s products in full-scale vignettes, but the interior itself will be fabricated using Procelanosa materials. As the plans of the building and its revitalized façade are revealed, it is clear that this new incarnation will be worthy of this highly visible, historically important NoMad structure, adjacent to Worth Square and Madison Square Park.

 

gilbert kaster kit from gilbert toys

Click image above to display gallery.

 

Sources 

The New York Times, “In an Age Before Television, A Toymaker Made Magic,” By Carolyn Battista, December 22, 1991.
http://www.nytimes.com/1991/12/22/nyregion/in-an-age-before-television-a-toymaker-made-magic.html
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