Sunday, March 24, 2013

53. Monumental New York

         New York City is monumental.  By this I mean that the whole of it is vast and imposing, but also that it harbors many individual monuments.  By “monument” I mean structures that are likewise vast and imposing, but also structures that, while smaller, are impressive for reasons aesthetic or historical.  Clearly, this takes in a lot, and I may even cheat a bit by throwing in a bridge or two.  So let’s take a walking tour though Manhattan, zigging here and zagging there to the sites of my favorite New York monuments, some vanished, some still with us.  My choice is personal and subjective; viewers should feel free to differ, or even remonstrate or upbraid.  I’m tough, I can take it.  At least, I think I can.  So here goes.  First a panoramic glimpse, to catch the effect of early morning light on tall buildings, and then specifics.  

File:Pano Manhattan2007 amk.jpg

          I have already mourned the demolition in 1964 of the old Penn Station in post #49, but I must do it again.  In part, I am atoning for my neglect of the structure when, hurrying to board a train for Philadelphia or Washington, I had no time for architectural grandeur.  Today, seeing photographs of the interior, I am dazzled by the soaring columns, the majestic arches, the vast enclosed space, the Beaux-Arts classicism of the building, a masterpiece by Stanford White's firm, McKim, Mead, & White.  (White himself had been murdered in Madison Square Garden in 1906, four years before Penn Station opened, but that's another story.)  As the noted critic Ada Louise Huxtable has said, this was grandeur such as we will never see again.

The Concourse, two years before demolition.

A footnote:  Madison Square Garden seems to have jinxed Stanford White.  Not only was he killed there, but years later the coming of another Madison Square Garden led to the demolition of his masterpiece, Penn Station.

File:Penn Station interior.jpg
The waiting room, 1962.

    And then ...                          

       Bidding farewell for the moment to classicism, let’s take a look at the Gothic.  The Gothic in New York?  Well, neo-Gothic.  Coming back on West 4th Street from a bargain wine store with a stash of cheap – no, let’s say modestly priced – wines, when crossing Broadway I look downtown and see the Woolworth building, a Gothic skyscraper, and looking uptown I see Grace Church, also Gothic.  I love both.  (But I allow myself only a glimpse of each.  One doesn't linger.  This is, after all, New York.  When the light changes, you could get flattened by traffic.) 

         Erected on lower Broadway near City Hall in 1913 as the corporate headquarters of the Woolworth company, the 57-story Woolworth building was then the tallest building in the world, and remained such until the Chrysler building surpassed it in 1930.  Its interior is said to be sumptuous, but I have never been in it and know it only from a distance, where its soaring summit is visible.  But it’s that soaring summit that I love, for that’s where the neo-Gothic ornamentation is concentrated: spires, pointed windows, flying buttresses, turrets, lacelike tracery, and gargoyles – detail that only birds can fully appreciate.  In 2012 it was announced that the top floors will be turned into luxury condominiums, including a five-story penthouse in the cupola -- disconcerting news to the building’s fans, though presumably the exterior will not be affected.  Imagine living up there with the gargoyles and a panoramic view of New York or New Jersey!  Marvelous, as long as no strike by the building’s staff – or a hurricane -- shuts down the elevators.

Here is the Gothic ornamentation that I love.
Jonathan 71

          And now for a different kind of Gothic...

          Grace Church, the Episcopal parish church on Broadway at 10th Street, introduced the Gothic Revival style to New York when it was consecrated in 1846.  The architect, James Renwick, Jr., who was just at the beginning of his career, had never seen a Gothic church, but studied illustrations of them intensely.  The result was a marvel of neo-Gothic architecture, with a marble exterior and a stonelike plaster interior.  (Sing-Sing inmates cut the marble used in its construction.)  But if the exterior is impressive, the interior, an oasis of calm so close to turbulent Broadway, is a marvel also.  In no time Grace Church became the most fashionable church in the city, and to have your marriage ceremony or funeral service conducted in those hallowed precincts was considered the height of felicity.  Officiating there for many years was Isaac H. Brown, sexton extraordinaire, who when not serving as the gatekeeper, deigning to lead suppliant visitors to a vacant pew on the Sabbath, was decreeing the latest indispensable elements of a fashionable funeral, adornments that might vary from year to year and that only he could determine.  (See post #32.)  Today the beauty of the interior is undiminished.  Added later, the rectory and chantry are in the same neo-Gothic style.


The rectory, built in 1846-47 by Renwick.
Beyond My Ken

         Next, let’s have a look at City Hall, which opened in 1812 and has been altered many times since.  It consists of a central pavilion with two wings, the exterior being French Renaissance, and the interior, American Georgian.  The structure is topped by a cupola, which is topped in turn by a copper statue of Justice that few visitors, alas, are even aware of.  The building’s original marble deteriorated and therefore had to be replaced with limestone and a granite base in the 1950s.  Even so, it is a small architectural gem from another age, albeit dwarfed by the bigger buildings surrounding it.  The front steps leading up to the portico have been the scene of many a press conference and rowdy demonstration.



        Inside, a grand marble staircase leads to the second floor, where Corinthian columns support the dome of a vast rotunda.  Abraham Lincoln once lay in state here, so citizens could file by the coffin to pay their respects.  Later, Ulysses S. Grant also lay in state.

The Governor's Room

        Small as it is by today’s standards, City Hall still houses the mayor’s office and the chamber of the City Council.  The city’s bureaucracy being surpassed in size only by the federal government (Libertarians can comment here), the city’s many agencies are housed in the huge but rather drab Municipal Building nearby, a labyrinth in which I once got lost while looking for the City Archives.  The Blue Room is used for press conferences, where the mayor answers or evades reporters’ questions, and also for bill-signing ceremonies, so as to prove to voters that yes, sometimes, something can get done.  On the second floor the elegant Governor’s Room houses an important collection of nineteenth-century American portraiture and is used for formal receptions. 

         Next, we’ll trek far uptown to the Morningside Heights campus of Columbia University, which is dominated by another Stanford White masterpiece, the Low Memorial Library.  Built in 1895, it was named by University President Seth Low for his father.  The neoclassical structure is in the shape of a Greek cross and incorporates elements of the Pantheon in Rome.  The first building completed on the new campus, it originally housed the university’s library, but today is occupied by administrative offices.  If I emphasize its grandeur now, I’m making up for the years of neglect when, a graduate student in the 1950s, I was too preoccupied with studies and campus social life to give this magnificent structure its due.  Attention of another kind came in the spring of 1968, long after I had departed the campus, when radical  students occupied the building, and most specifically the office of the university president, and were blockaded there by other students opposed to the rebellion, until the occupiers were expelled by the police.  Surviving this and other vicissitudes, Low Library is still the focal point of the campus, its domed majesty and columned front unforgettable.


         Inside the building is a surfeit of classical busts, including one of Athena, goddess of wisdom, presumably to inspire inquisitive young minds.  But the campus statue that I particularly remember is a bronze copy of Rodin’s The Thinker, in front of Philosophy Hall, where I attended many classes.  It is impressive and I and other students did take note of it, but to us it seemed like he was engaged in an activity less cerebral than physiological.

         Another lost architectural gem is the Old Met, the original Metropolitan Opera House, noted less for its Italian Renaissance exterior than for its interior.  Before its opening in 1883, operas were performed at the Academy of Music on 14th Street, but the Old Money crowd there excluded the New Money crowd – Vanderbilts and Goulds and such – from the boxes so desired by the elite of society at the time.  So what did the New Money folks do?  Having plenty of cash and gumption, they decided to build a new and better opera house at a more fashionable location uptown.  The result was the Metropolitan Opera House, occupying the entire west block on Broadway between West 39th and 40th Streets.   The exterior was criticized from the outset as flat and drab, but the sumptuous interior was praised for its elegance and superb acoustics.  I can  testify to the latter, having often sat in the topmost Family Circle, where the acoustics were indeed excellent, as long as you didn’t mind being up near the angels and descending perilously to the front row, where only a low railing shielded you from a precipitous drop.  The view from the Family Circle in the New Met is likewise dizzying.

The New Met, as seen from the Family Circle.  See why I was nervous?
Andreas Praefcke

          In the old days the lower rings were known as the Diamond Horseshoe, being occupied by millionaire patrons whose opera glasses scanned the boxes opposite as readily as performers on the stage.  What was the point of attending opera, after all, if not to see and be seen?  And what a setting to be seen in!  My partner Bob has vivid memories of the Met interior of the 1950s: the red and gold décor, the huge gold curtain, the red velvet seats, and before the performance began, the glow of the women’s jewelry in the soft amber light.  For atmosphere and intimacy, the New Met is no match.

The Old Met in 1888, back when the Horseshoe was really diamonded.

         The move to Lincoln Center had its advantages as well.  In this setting the Metropolitan Opera House is part of an impressive whole.  To see the plaza at night with all the buildings illuminated, and the fountain spuming upward, is to witness something magical.  On this note I will end -- or almost end -- the walking tour of Monumental New York, though another tour is planned.  

The magic of night.  The New Met is on the left; Avery Fisher Hall, the home 
of the New York Philharmonic, is on the right.
Nils Olander

File:New York Savings Bank Building from east.jpg
                                                               Beyond My Ken

       Note:  Because buildings that once housed banks in time serve other purposes, monumental façades show up in strange places.  At the corner of West 14th Street and Eighth Avenue, not far from where I live, two mini-Parthenons loom impressively, their majestic portals flanked by noble columns.  Blazoned high above the entrance of the one on the northwest corner are the riveting words “CVS Pharmacy,” and over the other one on the southwest corner, “Men’s Spa.”  So classicism is not dead in this city, though Stanford White and others may be shifting a bit in their graves.  A summary of Western civilization: architecture that once housed the presence of the gods, and then the presence of money, now houses aspirin and Clorox and Cheerios.  On this happy note, cheerio!

      Note re post #52:  Last week's post, New York Hodgepodge 2, included a section on the entry fee for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is whatever you choose to pay.  Friends of mine, all on a tight budget, have paid as little as a dollar or, for two, a dollar fifty.  This prompted a comment from Anonymous, an artist also on a tight budget, who so loves what the Met offers that he never pays less than ten dollars.  See what he says (and my brief reply) at the end of that post.  I encourage comments from viewers and hope to hear from Anonymous again.

     Banknote:  The onslaught against my bank and its noble CEO continues unabated.  Hardly a day goes by without a front-page article in the Times assailing Jamie Dimon and his cohorts, while Congressmen grill him over alleged past misdeeds, none of them, so far as I can tell, illegal.  So he lost six billion in a trade.  For a Wall Street wizard like Mr. Dimon, a Midas of Moolah, that's pennies.  Why should stop-and-frisk apply to big banks, which provide money, the lifeblood of capitalism, to our society?  I cannot think ill of him or his bank, when my local branch, in addition to free candy and free pens and a hand sanitizer, now provides a contraption that generates on demand hot coffee or tea.  Yes, hot coffee and tea in my bank, which is fast becoming a nest of beneficence!  As for those Congressmen, know them for the ingrates they are: Mr. Dimon and other bankers have sweetened their campaign coffers with an abundance of cash, and this is the thanks they get.  Which brings to mind again my favorite Occupy Wall Street sign:  TODAY  ONLY:  BUY  ONE  SENATOR,  GET  ONE FREE.  Such are the times we live in.

     Coming soon: Steamboats on the Hudson, more monuments (can't get them all in one post), and a post on farewells and another on the mystery of silence. 

(c)  2013  Clifford Browder

No comments:

Post a Comment