Wednesday, October 9, 2013

92. Rediscovering New York: West 12th Street and Columbus Circle

     New York City is inexhaustible; I am constantly discovering or rediscovering things in it.  This post is about West 12th Street and Columbus Circle, places I have visited innumerable times but that I have recently rediscovered.

West 12th Street

     It’s only two blocks from 11th Street, where I live, and I go there almost daily, so you’d think I knew it pretty well.  But there are aspects of it I never noticed until recently.  For instance, a hand-lettered sign, about 3 by 5 feet, posted conspicuously in front of 254 West 12th.  It says, in printed letters of diverse colors:

IF  WE  ALL  DO  ONE  RANDOM  ACT  OF  KINDNESS  DAILY  WE  JUST  MIGHT  SET  THE  WORLD  IN  THE  RIGHT  DIRECTION.    MARTIN  KORNFELD                                                                                              

     Who Martin Kornfeld is I don’t know, but presumably a young person, with all the glowing idealism of youth, who lives at this address.  I have passed his sign many times, but only this time did I linger long enough to absorb his message and write it down.  With that message who can argue?

     Just across the street and a few doors down is an old row house fronted by a stoop that I have passed many times but never been in.  Until last week, that is, when an alumni gathering from my high school in was held there, and I attended.  Our host, who welcomed us at the door, must own the whole building, but he managed to host some eighty of us on the parlor floor, where we stood around like penguins, chatting and gobbling the lavish feast he provided.  But this isn’t about alumni, it’s about the apartment, or what I could see of it, in spite of the thronging guests.  It was old, well furnished, spacious.  In back there was a balcony overlooking a ground-floor garden, but what most caught my eye was the ornate marble fireplace in the dining room, a reminder of the tasteful splendor that these old row houses, often drab and undistinguished on the outside, can harbor within.  I regret that I was unable to absorb more of the furnishings, well concealed by the crowd of guests. 

     Where West 12th Street crosses Greenwich Avenue, but a short distance farther on, there looms the hulking monstrosity of what was once the National Maritime Union headquarters, and now is, or at least has been, the Edward and Theresa O’Toole Building of St. Vincent’s Hospital.  Barriers and scaffolding now surround it along both West 12th Street and Seventh Avenue, raising my hopes of its utter demolition.  It should be obvious by now that I, who treasure both old buildings and Modernist monuments like Rockefeller Center and the Empire State Building, am not too fond of this structure.  It needs its own space, shouldn’t be here in the West Village.  Here, I loathe, hate, detest it, long to see it disappear.

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In all its glory, before the current renovations.
Beyond My Ken

     But first, a word about it.  The west side of Seventh Avenue between Greenwich Avenue and West 14th Street has always struck me as a jumble of clashing architectural styles, a blatant example of our American inability to plan harmonious wholes, our willingness to let things occur haphazardly, even if eyesores result.  (Lincoln Center and Rockefeller Center are of course brilliant exceptions.)  Here, in the triangle formed by West 12th Street, Greenwich Avenue, and Seventh Avenue, there was once the looming hulk of an old Loew’s movie palace fronted by a huge marquee.  Next to the Loew’s was I don’t recall what, and next to that a Gothic-style Methodist church, and next to that a soaring modern apartment building, and next to that a commercial building hosting various shops and stores. A more displeasing juxtaposition of edifices I can barely imagine. 

     The movie palace is long since gone, as are the buildings next to it.  In place of those buildings, in the early 1960s, rose the National Maritime Union building.  Since the union was then doing well, it launched an aggressive building program, the first project being its headquarters, the Joseph Curran Building, on Seventh Avenue between West 12th and 13th Streets.  They hired New Orleans-based architect Albert C. Ledner to design some unique buildings for them, and unique is what he gave them.  Completed in 1964, the Curran Building consisted of two ground-floor glass block cylinders topped by four floors whose white walls were rendered as two half-circle scalloped overhangs suggesting portholes or waves, though to many ground-level viewers staring up they looked like gears, or rows of menacing teeth. 
     The ground floor housed the hiring halls, while on the floors above were offices and committee rooms, and on the roof, high above the hurly-burly of the avenue and almost invisible from the street, the executive offices.  The structure clashed violently with all the buildings around it, which is exactly what the architect intended.  The interior, which I never saw, was said to be impressive, but my concern was the exterior, which I took to be a sort of post-Modernist concoction, garish, tasteless, brash.  The structure was hailed by some as a clean break with the stale conformity of Modernism, a daring leap into something new.  Some leap!  From the street, to my untutored eye it looks like an unwieldy ocean liner lumbering ahead on a misguided cruise.

     Perhaps its construction was an act of hubris.  In any event, with the decline of the Port of New York the union’s fortunes waned, and in 1973 it was obliged to sell the building to St. Vincent’s Hospital, which was expanding from its base on the other side of Seventh Avenue.  Not that the hospital tore the building down; no such luck.  Instead, they renamed it the Edward and Theresa O’Toole Building and incorporated it, incongruous as it was, into their complex of buildings, moving their faculty practice offices and out-patient clinics into it.  So the eyesore – icon to some – remained.

     Is the site jinxed?  St. Vincent’s seemed to be expanding vigorously, but financial problems developed and in 2005 it shocked the West Village by filing for bankruptcy, then emerged from bankruptcy only to file for bankruptcy again in 2010 and shut down all its services.  In 2011 it sold its property to Rudin Management Company, a real estate developer that got approval from the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to gut the O’Toole Building so as to create a full-service emergency care center on the site.  The reconstruction is currently underway, while Rudin is demolishing the other St. Vincent’s buildings to make room for – alas! -- luxury condos.

     I share the outrage of Villagers at the loss of St. Vincent’s Hospital, the only full-service hospital in the area, but I thought that, by way of compensation, the O’Toole Building might vanish from this earth.  My rediscovery in this case is simply an updating on the status of the building.  Alas, only the interior will be demolished; the exterior, in all it garish glory, will be preserved, and the unwieldy ocean liner will continue to lumber on.  Those who see the building as an icon of post-Modernism can cheer; I do not.

Columbus Circle

     Going to my dentist’s office on Central Park South, I emerge from the subway at 59th Street and Broadway to negotiate several lanes of onrushing traffic.  Some hardy souls jaywalk here, but I do not, denying myself this time-honored privilege of New Yorkers because the Circle is a roaring surge of vehicles swirling about, entering and leaving the Circle when you least expect it.  I do not plan to exit this world a traffic casualty in the midst of this savage maelstrom of traffic.

Columbus Circle, seen from the west.  Columbus towers atop his column in the center.
To the left, in front of the Park, is the Maine monument.


     This wild scene is surveyed from on high by the marble statue of Christopher Columbus that gives the Circle its name, perched atop a granite column in the center of the Circle.  The statue was erected in 1892 as part of the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of that doughty mariner’s “discovery” of the Americas, a landfall celebrated by everyone except the “discovered” native peoples, whose woes date from that event.  I don’t suppose I’ve ever seen anyone staring up at that statue; even the pedestrians here are in too great a hurry, too preoccupied with getting to the dentist or some other worthy destination.

     Following my last visit to my dentist I decided to catch a bus up Broadway to the Fairway supermarket at 74th Street to buy extra virgin olive oil at a bargain price, and so embarked upon a short journey of rediscovery.  What I above all rediscovered – having passed it countless times before without paying it much attention – was a massive monument at the southwest corner of Central Park, facing Columbus Circle.  There are always surging crowds here, but no one seems interested in the monument, a solid block of limestone with a gaggle of statues at its base and, crowning the top, another gaggle, gilded, of the same. 

File:USS Maine Mounment (1913), New York, NY (P1010836).JPG
The Maine monument, rarely noticed by passersby, except as a place to sit and catch your breath.

     On this occasion I took a moment to survey the monument and try to decipher what it was all about.  At its base is a diaper-clad youth, quite charming, with arms outstretched, atop what looks like the prow of a ship, with three other figures behind him, one of them serenely erect, and still others on the right and left sides of the monument.  Pegging the whole shebang as a Beaux Arts endeavor, I decided the diaper boy, on whom pigeons sometimes perch, was probably a Cupid, though there was no bow in sight, and the other figures assorted pagan gods.  As for the gilded figures at the top, they seemed to be a chariot with horses, and so, being on a classical kick, I opted for Apollo driving the chariot of the sun.  But this was all just a guess; I hadn’t a clue as to what the work really signified.

     And so, when I got home, I consulted that modern repository of knowledge, the Internet, and found what I needed to know.  Yes, it’s a Beaux Arts monument installed in 1913, but it has little to do with the gods of antiquity, since it commemorates the loss of American lives when the battleship Maine was blown up in Havana Harbor in 1898, precipitating the Spanish-American War, the “splendid little war” that Teddy Roosevelt yearned for … and got.  “Remember the Maine!” was the battle cry of that era, though I suspect that few passersby today, at the southwest corner of Central Park, have the slightest idea what that affair was all about.  At the time we blamed the Spaniards, who ruled Cuba, for the disaster, though today it seems likely that the explosion was internal, an accident and not the work of foreign agents, whether Spaniards or rebelling Cubans. 

File:USS Maine National Monument - DSC05929.JPG
Victory (topped by a pigeon), backed up by Peace (standing), a muscular nude Courage (to the left),
and a well-garbed Fortitude consoling a victim (to the right).

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A very triumphant Columbia.
     The figures at the base of the monument are said to represent Victory, Peace, Courage, Fortitude, and Justice, though which of these worthies is which I couldn’t at first begin to say, least of all which one the charming diaper boy at the prow of the ship represents.  Finally, after diligent research, I can report that the diapered youth is Victory, the standing female behind him Peace, the male to the left Courage, and the female to the right Fortitude, while the figures on the side of the monument represent the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans (on the left and right respectively).  (As so often in life, Justice seems to have gotten lost.)  As for the gilded bronze figures perched on top, they represent Columbia Triumphant in a seashell chariot pulled by three hippocampi, signifying our dominance of the seas; they are said to be cast from metal recovered from the guns of the Maine itself.  Yes, we had demolished two antiquated Spanish fleets, one off Cuba and the other in Manila Bay, but as for our dominating the seas, the British Navy of the time might have had a word to say. 

     The façade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Grand Central Station, and the Public Library at 42nd Street are all Beaux Arts manifestations, but I don’t find them pretentious, whereas this monument, to my eyes, smacks of pretension.  Well, it reflects the jingoism of the time, when Teddy Roosevelt charged up San Juan Hill and right into the White House, where as V.P. he succeeded President William McKinley when that eminence was assassinated.

File:Trump International Hotel and Tower (New York).jpg     Continuing on my journey of rediscovery (remember my journey of rediscovery?), I passed the Trump International Hotel and Tower, an imposing high-rise situated on Columbus Circle between Central Park West and Broadway.  This soaring edifice is a reincarnation of the Gulf and Western building, which was stripped to its skeleton and given a new façade in 1995-1997.  I once worked on the Harper Collins World Anthology in that earlier incarnation and remember it as the building that swayed in the wind.  Hopefully, after Mr. Trump’s intervention, it stays still.  Outside the tower is a huge steel globe that I had never looked at closely, a tangle of wires in the form of a sphere representing the globe that Columbus navigated.  Like anything coming from the hand of Mr. Trump, it is grandiose; personally, I prefer globes that are solid, not skeletal, but perhaps that’s too old fogey for today.

     Pressing ahead on this journey of rediscovery, I reached my bus stop, and there, right across the sidewalk, smack against an embankment fronting the Trump Tower, was Occupy Wall Street.  I thought they had more or less vanished, but no, there they were, a dozen or so, reclining on sleeping bags and looking rather unwashed and bedraggled.  Announcing their presence in bold print were their signs:



            The signs were bold, but they themselves looked to be off duty and just a bit tired.  I thought that they had all but vanished, but no, they’re still around … sort of.

     So ended my little journey of rediscovery; my bus came and I took it.

     Yes, New York is inexhaustible.  A diaper-clad Victory, and Columbia triumphant among sea shells, dolphins, and sea horses; Mr. Trump’s super modern globe; and the remnants of Occupy Wall Street: not bad for a casual fifteen-minute walk.  Of course there is more to Columbus Circle than what I mention here, but I’m covering only what my short walk rediscovered.  I encourage all residents and visitors to undertake a similar journey, to discover or rediscover the unconcealed secrets of the city, those things in plain sight that we all breeze by without really noticing.  Even if our rediscoveries include an eyesore like the Maritime Union Building that I so love to hate.  It’s all a part of the grandiose jumble, the dazzling conglomeration of buildings, statues, people, and events that make up the challenging, exciting, and ever changing city of New York.

     A passing thought:  Now that all the federal museums are closed, and the national parks are shut down tight, I wonder if Congress is denying itself any of its perks.  Hmmm...  Let's look into it.

     Coming soon:  Next Sunday, Brooke Astor, Aristocrat of the People – a woman who could host President Elect Ronald Reagan (and have him on his hands and knees, looking for her lost diamond earring) one day, and visit a school in the slums of Harlem, or get a hug from a museum janitor, the next.  After that: the Living Theatre, Quentin Crisp, and maybe the last of my posts on famous streets, Wall Street.

     ©  2013  Clifford Browder

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