Sunday, September 15, 2013

87. From Goats to Grandeur: Fifth Avenue

      Early in the nineteenth century Fifth Avenue was a muddy rutted road leading north from Washington Square, where the city’s most distinguished bankers and merchants had just built handsome Greek Revival houses fronting three sides of the square.  Optimistically, the city opened the avenue to 13th Street in 1824, then to 21st Street by 1830, and to distant 42nd Street by 1837.  But the “avenue”  was at first inhabited by only by those few who, having little need of company, preferred a landscape with rock outcroppings grazed by goats, and clusters here and there of squatters’ ramshackle shanties. 

     This changed in 1834, when Henry J. Brevoort, Jr., was so adventurous as to build a Greek Revival mansion on the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Ninth Street.  Indeed, from about 1830 on the city’s prosperous merchants grew increasingly discontented with their Federal style row houses on Lower Broadway, and were motivated to move north partly by the influx of commerce and the lower orders, and partly by a desire for the greater space and splendor of a freestanding house.  With Washington Square at its base to shield it from commercial inroads, the new Fifth Avenue drew these migrants like a magnet, and in time the wide thoroughfare, now tree-lined and paved with cobblestones, was built up well to the north with long rows of handsome Greek Revival houses, their stoops rising grandly from the sidewalk, and here and there  a Gothic mansion with pointed entrances and windows, and crenellated towers more suggestive of a castle than an urban residence.  By the 1840s the avenue was lined with elegant residences all the way to 14th Street and beyond.

     Then, in 1858, the six-story white marble Fifth Avenue Hotel opened on Fifth Avenue between 23rd and 24th Streets, offering accommodations for 800 guests and such unheard-of luxuries as sumptuously decorated public rooms, a fireplace in every bedroom, many private bathrooms, and that startling new invention, the vertical railroad, later known as an elevator.  “Too far uptown!” proclaimed skeptics, but once again they were proven wrong; the hotel prospered from the start, inaugurating an era when Madison Square, at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Broadway, became the center of the city’s fashionable world. 

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     Already, by the 1850s, a new style had come into fashion along Fifth Avenue and its parallel, Madison, and the cross streets between them: Italianate brownstone, which would characterize these and other thoroughfares for many years.  Brownstone, obtained from quarries in New Jersey and Connecticut, was now viewed as more dignified than wood or brick, though in fact it was used simply to cover over brick façades and give them a dark “romantic” look.  This soft stone also allowed for richly carved façades and lavish ornamentation, in contrast with the elegant restraint of the Greek Revival style, now seen as plain and dowdy.  So from now on, for exteriors and interiors alike, classical simplicity was out; Victorian clutter was in.

Brooklyn brownstones today.  The rage for brownstones spread
all over the city.  The high stoops are typical.

     Who were the inhabitants of these brownstones?  First of all, Knickerbockers, old Dutch families that could trace their lineage back to the days of New Amsterdam, but also old English families that came to the city in colonial times.  They lived tastefully and quietly in homes where the somber gilt-framed portraits of their forebears, governors and mayors and their wives, stared down austerely from the walls.  Some had made fortunes in whale oil and tobacco and sugar, but by now often had transitioned into landholding, which seemed a bit more genteel.  It was a world where everyone knew everyone, who their forebears were, and how they made their money.  They socialized and married among themselves and were leery of the “new” people.  It was a tight little world, conformist, predictable, and dull, but its residents found the dullness reassuring, a bit of stability in a world of endless change.

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A mansard roof
     For change was all about them, gnawing at the edges of their world.  In 1858 William B. Astor, Jr., and his brother John Jacob Astor III, built adjoining townhouses on the northeast corner of 33rd Street and Fifth Avenue, John Jacob’s house featuring a mansard roof, a style fresh from imperial Paris that at once became all the rage.  And who were these Astors?  Grandsons of John Jacob Astor, the German immigrant who came to America and made a fortune in the fur trade before branching out into other profitable fields of endeavor, a man remembered for sharp dealings and the ruthless accumulation of wealth, a philanthropist in his later years, but one who had no time for appeals from the needy or the outstretched palm of a beggar in the street.  As was usually the way in America, the grandchildren and great grandchildren were glad enough to put space between themselves and the founder of the family fortune, who was often more skilled in the ruthless amassing of money than in the social graces.  Whatever the Knickerbockers might think of them, the Astors were now on the scene as exemplars of Old New Money, as opposed to upstarts like the Vanderbilts, foremost in the mounting tide of New New Money.  

     Of concern to Old and New Money alike was the announcement in 1853 by Archbishop John Hughes, the leader of the city’s Catholic minority, of plans to build an impressive cathedral far to the north of the settled parts of Fifth Avenue, on its east side between 50th and 51st Street – a location so far to the north that the whole project was greeted by many with skepticism.  But once again the visionary proved right. The cornerstone was laid in 1858, and slowly, very slowly, the white marble walls of the Gothic structure began to rise.  The WASP majority, leery of Romanist plots and the boozy doings of Hughes’s mostly Irish parishioners, began to take note: the construction, however slow, of such an edifice seemed to confirm developers’ predictions that Fifth Avenue, stretching on to the north, would be the city’s axis of elegance. 

     In the 1860s Fifth Avenue’s growing renown as the axis of elegance was enhanced by two developments.  In 1859 the new Central Park was opened, prompting a steady flow of shiny equipages north on the avenue to the park entrance at 59th Street and Fifth, en route to the park’s pebbled Drive, where Fashion went to see and be seen.  Soon after, the outbreak of the Civil War halted construction at first, but by 1863 a whole new horde of parvenus began appearing, their fortunes fattened by war contracts and speculations.  More fancy brownstones went up, clogging the avenue with piles of brick and stone, huge mortar-mixing appliances, teams of workmen, and mountains of barrels, boxes, windowframes, and doors, making the ride to the park an ordeal.  And for whom were  these imposing new brownstones being built?  Gold and cotton speculators, stockbrokers, factory owners, railroad and patent medicine men, patented shirt manufacturers, and occasionally the inspired inventor of a truss.  One can imagine the horror this inflicted on the genteel Old Money residents of the lower avenue.

     The last several decades of the nineteenth century – the so-called Gilded Age -- saw brownstone mansions supplanted in turn by the ornate French chateau style, and a flocking of Old and New Money alike to the Upper Avenue, which came to be known as Millionaires Row.  The social wars that raged there, above all between the Astors and Vanderbilts, will be recounted in a future post.  Suffice it to say that Upper Fifth Avenue was the most elite residential section of the city, the lavish balls and receptions of its denizens much reported on in the press, much envied, and much criticized.

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The William K. Vanderbilt residence, a French-chateau-style
house, flanked by brownstones.

     With the coming of the Twentieth Century the character of Fifth Avenue changed radically, as commercial enterprises moved in and both Old and New Money moved out.  The Avenue was still an axis of elegance, but renowned now not for residences but for fancy hotels and stores.  To assure the proper tone for the Avenue, merchants and residents joined forces in 1907 to form the Fifth Avenue Association, which exists to this day.  A guarantee of elegance and cultural eminence was the completion in 1911, between 40th and 42nd Streets, of the New York Public Library, a magnificent Beaux Arts structure owned by a private nonprofit organization, now rated as one of the five greatest libraries in the world.  I have spent many hours there doing research for this or that project. 

     Flanking the steps of the library’s main entrance on Fifth Avenue are the library lions, two stalwart marble sentinels guarding the troves of information inside.  Mayor Fiorello La Guardia christened them Patience and Fortitude, deeming these the qualities New Yorkers needed to get through the Great 

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Depression.  Much photographed and much reproduced in art, they have been adorned with holly wreaths in winter, floral wreaths in spring, and baseball caps in summer, while witnessing the many parades that now proceed up or down the Avenue.  They are to New York what the four horses of San Marco are to Venice.  But Venice stole those horses from Constantinople, whereas the beloved library lions are most decidedly a work of our own, via the skillful hands of sculptor Edward Clark Potter.

     But not all residents took flight from the Avenue.  In 1914 industrialist and real estate operator William Starr Miller built a handsome red brick and limestone residence with a mansard roof at 86th Street, its quiet restraint contrasting with the ornate palazzos then typical of Upper Fifth Avenue.  In 1944 it was acquired by the eminent socialite Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt III, and today it houses the Neue Galerie, which I have often visited to view its exhibitions of  late nineteenth century and early twentieth century German and Austrian art.  Coming from the subway, I never viewed it from across the street and as a result failed to appreciate what a marvel of architecture it is; I discovered this only now, in preparing this post.

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Even today, surrounded by taller buildings, the Miller
now the Neue Galerie, stands out.

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Dalí with an ocelot.  No ocelot
at Bonwit Teller.
     Meanwhile fashionable upscale stores were coming in, among them Lord & Taylor in 1914, Saks Fifth Avenue in 1924, and Bergdorf Goodman in 1928, all of them clothing retailers catering to an elite clientele.  By the 1930s they were enticing shoppers with lavish window displays.  One memorable incident resulted in 1939, when the artist Salvador Dalí was hired by Bonwit Teller, another high end clothing retailer on Fifth at 56th Street, to do two Surrealist displays.  One display included a buffalo head clamping a bloody pigeon in its jaw, while the other featured a bathtub lined with black Persian lamb and filled with water, and a scantily clad mannequin with real red hair stepping into it.  When the store learned that shoppers on the sidewalk were scandalized, not by the decapitated head and other eerie details, but by the scantily clad mannequin, it replaced it with a store mannequin properly attired in a suit.  Walking by the store the following afternoon, Dalí saw the alteration of his work and was infuriated.  Entering the store, he went to the window and wrenched the bathtub free of its moorings.  As he did so, the tub slipped from his grasp and crashed through the window onto the sidewalk, along with the artist himself.  This unplanned Surrealist demonstration astonished onlookers and led to Dalí’s arrest for malicious mischief, but the judge let him off, making allowances for artistic temperament.

     Bonwit Teller closed in 1990.  Though I myself never set foot in it, I have a story to tell.  When I was a graduate student living on campus at Columbia, the advent of summer brought an exodus of Columbia College students and an influx of public school teachers from all over, but especially from the South, to take courses at the Columbia Teachers College.  There was always a contingent of gay men among them and they made contact with the regulars like myself.  So it was that, in the summer of 1954, I got to know a good-looking young man named Jim, very personable, who had a teaching job in his home community, a small town in the South.  Ours was a social friendship, nothing more, and the second week I knew him he had a tale to tell.

     A young woman from a wealthy family in his home town had arrived in New York for a shopping tour and asked him, an old friend, to escort her to Bonwit Teller, which he was glad to do.  When they entered, she immediately asked for a consultant.  This set the tone for their visit, for it said Money.  A well-dressed older woman was summoned, and the girl announced that she and Jim were engaged, and she needed a whole new wardrobe.  The engagement was news to Jim, but he played along.  “From then on,” he told me, “the you-know-what was flying all over the place.  ‘What a lovely young couple!’ the staff kept murmuring.”  Over the next two hours the consultant, having learned the presumed fiancée’s needs and tastes, showed her a vast array of fashionable outfits, from which she made a large selection; money was clearly no object.  “Would the gentleman also like to see some clothing?” the consultant then asked.  “No,” said the girl, “he already has his things.”  She was then given the bill and wrote a check that was immediately accepted without question.  How the store had checked her credit was a mystery to Jim and me, but she left with a load of high-priced outfits, having arranged to have the rest shipped home.  So ended Jim’s tale, my only glimpse into the world of high fashion and its workings.  I warned Jim that the girl was obviously after him, but, not having seen him in later years, have no idea how the story ended.  Being a young gay man in a small Southern town posed problems enough; as he got older, they would only increase.  Maybe he ended up marrying her and, like many married men, lived a double life.  I think he could have pulled it off.

     I have set foot in Saks Fifth Avenue just once, when relatives from Indiana were visiting and chose to go there.  We weren’t there for long, but I have two vivid memories.  First, a salesgirl sprayed the women with a perfume – just a dash of it, done very courteously with a warm smile -- so as to give them a sample of one of the products.  Second, the men’s room on the second floor had wood paneling and, at eye level just above the urinals, original art.  Which struck me as the ultimate in – in what?  Elegance?  Sophisticated interior design?  Pretension?  Take your choice.  How the artists would feel about it, if they knew, I hesitate to say.

     By the late 1920s Art Deco skyscrapers were also going up in Manhattan, marking a sharp break with the Beaux Arts style and anything smacking of the Old World and the nineteenth century.  Prominent among them was the Chrysler Building at Lexington and 42nd Street, the tallest in the world for all of one year, until the 102-story Empire State Building at 34th and Fifth was completed in 1931, holding that distinction for the next forty-two years.  To make room for this, the most famous skyscraper in the world and a magnet for would-be suicides (the building staff take elaborate measures to forestall them), the original Waldorf Astoria was demolished.  The Empire State’s distinction in height ended in 1973, with the completion of the World Trade Center towers, two big boxes that in my opinion weren’t particularly needed and never matched the elegance of the Empire State Building.  That building is so much a part of New York that, when passing that way, I used to walk through the ground floor just to soak up the atmosphere, which is probably impossible now, given post-9/11 security.  I have always preferred it to the Chrysler Building, but my partner Bob sees it differently; he prefers the Chrysler, seeing in it a touch of fantasy, whereas the Empire State strikes him as strictly business without frills.  As for Beaux Arts vs. Art Deco, I like both; the library and Grand Central have a sumptuous Old World magnificence, and the skyscrapers have a soaring New World thrust and  grandeur.

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At sunset.  But at any time of day it dominates.
Daniel Schwen

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As seen from Fifth Avenue.
     Meanwhile John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the son and heir of the Standard Oil magnate and philanthropist, was at his own expense building Rockefeller Center, a complex of fourteen commercial buildings in Art Deco style bounded by 48th and 51st Street, and by Fifth and Sixth Avenue, a project of breath-taking magnitude that was begun in 1930, pursued through the worst of the Depression, and completed in 1939, with further subsequent additions.  This was, to my knowledge, the only grandiose project in  twentieth-century New York City that Robert Moses was not involved in.  (For Moses, the Hercules of Parks, see post #78.)

      A must-see for visitors, Rockefeller Center screams BIG BIG BIG, but then, so does the city.  I take the Center in small bites, one feature at a time.  And there are many features: a cluster of soaring skyscrapers; at ground level, flags of many nations flying; on the Fifth Avenue side just across from Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, a four-story-tall, seven-ton bronze sculpture of Atlas bearing the heavens on his shoulders; a sunken plaza that becomes an ice skating rink in winter; and, dominating that sunken plaza, another huge bronze statue, this one gilded, representing the Titan Prometheus bearing stolen fire to mortals.  The installation of a giant Christmas tree towering above Prometheus and the rink is an annual event widely hailed throughout the city, its lighting witnessed by thousands, while thousands more watch on TV.  In winter I love to watch the skaters from above, and in summer, the gardens planted in the so-called Channel between La Maison Française at 610 Fifth Avenue and the British Empire Building at 620 Fifth. 

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Michael Barera 
     When the Atlas was unveiled in 1937, some critics complained that it looked like the Italian dictator Mussolini, then at the height of his power, and one artist suggested that it looked like Mussolini thought he looked.  More recently, a blogger has called it creepy, because it’s a huge pagan nude just across from a church, but I dismiss his objection, since he likens it to a “cereal killer” moving in across from a police station.  As for me, both massive sculpted Titans are a bit too Art Deco, too brazenly big and modern; I prefer Michelangelo’s heroic nudes, the serene and very unfleshy statuary adorning the portals of French Gothic cathedrals, and for bigger-than-life figures, Rodin.  Yet undeniably, the Titans are somehow appropriate for the setting, a grandiose complex that matches in scale and magnificence that other complex on the Upper West Side, Lincoln Center.

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Skaters, Prometheus, and the tree.
Gabriel Rodriguez

     But a magnificent library, fancy stores, tall buildings, and an overwhelming cluster of Art Deco structures aren’t the Avenue’s only distinction, since Upper Fifth Avenue from 82nd to 110th Street is lined with museums both old and new, now ten in all, earning it the name of Museum Mile.  To mention all the structures of that mile would require one or several posts, far more than can be undertaken here, so I’ll mention only those I have visited: the granddaddy of them all, the Metropolitan

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art, main entrance; the beginning of Museum Mile.Arad
Museum of Art at 82nd Street, presenting a Beaux Arts façade with neoclassical features, through whose labyrinthine halls I have often wandered; the Neue Galerie, mentioned above, at 86th Street; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum at 88th Street, a strange spiral-shaped affair designed by Frank Lloyd Wright; the Jewish Museum at 92nd Street, where I went once to see Sarah Bernhardt memorabilia; the Museum of the City of New York at 103rd Street, whose collections I have visited and whose library I have used; and finally – a new museum that I have yet to visit, but which now ends Museum Mile, the Museum of African Art at 110th Street, opened in 2012.

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Frank Lloyd Wright's snail, the Guggenheim, forming a sharp contrast with
everything around it.  Which is probably what the architect intended.

Ad Meskens

     So the history of Fifth Avenue goes from muddy country lane to Millionaires Row to Museum Mile, an amazing trajectory accomplished in a mere century and a half.  The Avenue is absolutely essential to the city’s image as a center of fashion and culture; who could think of New York without it?  As for real estate values, in 2008 Forbes magazine ranked it as the most expensive street in the world.

     Note on Frank Lloyd Wright:  I have seen another of Wright’s curious spiral-shaped works, the Dallas Theater Center, where a play of mine was given a staged reading long ago.  What accounts for this architectural obsession?  In his childhood maybe he was frightened by a snail.  But the results are remarkable.

     Marianne Moore in the Village:  Old Village buildings often bear a small plaque giving historical information about them and, being a history buff, I stop to read them.  Last Sunday I encountered one on a nine-story residential building near the PATH entrance on Ninth Street:  “35 West 9th Street.  Last home of Marianne Moore, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, baseball enthusiast, and lifelong New Yorker.”  I had no idea that she had been a resident of the West Village.  Glad she could afford the rent.

     Electioned out:  Last Tuesday was primary day for New York voters and, yes, I voted,  but frankly I’m all electioned out, tired, tired, tired, and fed up.  We Americans are so proud of our democratic elections, but things can go too far.  For weeks our mailbox was crammed with glossy appeals from candidates, and as the magical date approached, we got endless phone calls as well, some recorded and some not, the first especially annoying, since there was no one to shout back at.  On the night before the election, the phone was ringing every eight or ten minutes, until I finally took it off the hook.  As for the mail, at first I made an effort to scan it and absorb a few facts, but as it piled up I finally discarded all incoming appeals, no matter who from, till the wastepaper basket was overflowing.  Especially culpable were the women candidates for Manhattan borough president: Jessica Lappin, Julie Menin, and Gale Brewer, who obviously have too much money.  My revenge: I didn’t vote for any of them.  In fact, I didn’t vote for Manhattan borough president at all, having no idea what the position involves.  Nor for male district leader.  Is there a female district leader?  A transgender district leader?  Who are these people, what do they do, and why must I or anyone vote for them?  A bit of democracy is fine, but let’s not overdo it.  Yes, I’m all all electioned out, tired, tired, tired, and fed up.  And this was just the primary; the real election lies ahead. 

     Wienie roast:  The above note was written before the election results were in.  It seems that our new mayor is Bill de Blasio, whose fifteen-year-old son with an Afro did him a world of good on TV.  As for Anthony Weiner, the would-be comeback kid asking for a third (or fourth? or fifth?) chance, after his resignation from the House following revelations of his e-mail sexploits, he got only 5 percent of the votes.  Following his concession speech, he seems to have given a reporter the finger (the middle finger, that is), which is not the most genteel of gestures.  Adieu, Anthony.

     Coming soon:  Next Sunday, The House of Death, the Mystic Rose, and Avenoodles.  After that, Who Really Runs This Country? with a glance at conspiracy theories and one of the richest men in the world.

     ©  2013  Clifford Browder

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