Copyright Vladimir Kagan 2010To my faithful readers: My apologies for this lengthy Essay and all those photos. Obviously, I am passionate about this subject!
As anyone who’s ever visited New York knows…."It’s a Hell of a Town"!
What most of us take for granted is the city’s diverse architecture, which can be roughly divided into Pre-war and Post-war styles. Pre-war New York architecture can be identified by rich ornamentation and exquisite details from “head to toe”. Look up at the facades of any five storied - twenty storied - thirty plus story building - and they retain an architectural integrity; decorative cornices that we seldom notice; the entrances and first two or three floors embellished with sculptured facades of Lion’s Heads, Classic Mythology faces, Cornucopias of fruits, Greek columns with Corinthian, Doric and Ionic caps. Windows are framed with Palladian Arches.
I am not only talking about the luxury apartment buildings up and down Park and Fifth Avenues. Come with me on any side street from downtown Manhattan up into Harlem and notice that no building has been left untouched by this decorative passion. Admittedly, the interior layouts had less grandeur. (Coming to America in 1938, we lived in one on West 111 Street.) Known as Railroad Flats for their long corridors, which connected umpteen bedrooms that opened onto an air-shaft and finally led to a living room at the far end overlooking the street below. Still, these apartments had high ceilings, kitchen and baths with windows and decorative moldings on the wall.
The Lower East Side’s tenements have less to recommend them as architectural treasures, though they all have exquisitely wrought iron fire escapes…. SoHo, NoHo, Tri-beca abounds with cast Iron buildings (former department stores, warehouses and sweat shops). Only in the late 20th century, were these treasures rediscovered and gussied up as the newest high-rent districts for lofts and boutiques.
Today, we look at Post-war (ugh) soulless facades rising into the sky. Sixty years ago, New York’s building codes demanded setbacks (1916 law), to create more airspace; the resulting buildings were affectionately called “wedding cakes” and Emery Ross & Partners were the master of this genre. White glazed bricks: intrusions into the gentle cityscapes… At the behest of greedy developers and city officials seeking to maximize revenues, codes were changed, and without a cap on height buildings soared straight upwards into the sky without a hint of relief from the vertical monotony. This new architecture was inspired by Gordon Bunshaft’s United Nations building and soon spread throughout the city. Park Avenue became the showcase for these new faceless facades. We rejoiced in their clean uncluttered lines. A landmark example is the Seagram Building by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. Followed by the Lever Building a block north by S.O.M (Skidmore, Owings and Merrill). The city had finally embraced modern.
The noble Seagram Building by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson
Reflections of Park Avenue grandeur in a glass tower.
A pre-war Park Avenue Classic
A Park Avenue Wedding Cake Building on the corner of 57th Street
A typical 50's Wedding Cake, white glazed brick building on Park Avenue.
The Third Avenue El (for those too young to know the acronym EL…It was the elevated subway, which rattled overhead, casting a dark shadow permanently over the avenue) It was demolished in the early sixties, clearing the wide street for a rush of commercial development: Glass and mirrored towers, reflecting heat and keeping their occupants in hermetically sealed boxes. Admittedly, they were sleek and liberating from the 19th century look of New York. Everyone breathed a sigh of relieve when S.O.M. broke the rules and built an oval tower, affectionately labeled the Lip Stick Building. It broke the monotony of the box. The owners splurged on expensive granite, curved glass windows and other luxurious trappings. It became the prestige address on 3rd Avenue.
One block north standing on top of the zip code 10022 Post office is a twenty-story break away from the traditional glass tower. It sprouts hundreds of cookie-cutter cast stone windows in uninterrupted repetition.
The Lipstick Building on 3rd Avenue
The "cookie cutter" building on top of the Post Office on 3rd Avenue.
Dwarfed by all this is P. J. Clarks, a two-story relic of the old El Days, saved by the sale of their air rights to the nearby developer. It has been one of my favorite watering holes ever since I had my store on 57th Street and took my wife, Erica, on our first date. We go back yearly to celebrate our anniversaries. In the early days, high profile models and their chic escorts peopled P.J.’s. The Lavezzo brothers zealously guarded the entrance; their father owned the antique store above the bar. Today it is more egalitarian. You still must shove your way in. (Gentlemen: be certain to check out the latrines: marble relics of the 19th Century) P.J.’s still has the best selection of beer on tap and unsurpassed hamburgers.
Little PJ Clarks dwarfed by it's neighbors
My building on Park Avenue - entrance and garden
The city is full of these anomalies…I will drive you through it with a camera in hand (All the photos illustrating this Blog were done form a moving car…to replicate, you must have a very good driver!) We leave our building on Park and 93rd Street and drive west on 97th Street (a clogged thoroughfare serving the 96th Street Transverse through Central Park.) It is not a first choice residential street. Still, look at the elegantly decorated facades of the tenement buildings lining the street.
We drive west for a quick drive down the beautifully landscaped Hudson River Parkway past the Cruise Ship piers, the Intrepid Museum and down to 26th Street: The new Mecca for the hip art world. Elegant, luxurious galleries are buried inside million square foot warehouses, imposing by their mere size. (A few years ago, you would not have walked these streets.) Today, gorgeous nymphets (gallery staffers) walk fearlessly in their flimsy miniskirts and 3” high heels interspersed with their gay counterparts, dressed in full fashion regalia. The neighborhood has changed…. (And that is what makes New York so vibrant.)
Driving down the West Side Highway, with a huge cruise ship looming above the piers.
A 26th Street warehouse stretching from the river to 12th Avenue...It now is home of some of the art galleries.
an Art Gallery carved out of an existing warehouse
We drive under an abandoned elevated railroad track, a leftover from when railroads delivered their goods and cattle directly into the abattoirs and warehouses. This track system has morphed into the latest N.Y. phenomena: The HIGHLINE, an elevated park weaving its way through the brick canyons of New York. It is tastefully landscaped, leaving the old railroad track and planting a profusion of wildflowers between the trestles. A generous precast stone walkway allows you saunter from Gansevoort and the meatpacking district up to 19th Street and soon to be extended all the way up into the thirties. Chic new hotels and buildings now hug this park.
Highline as seen from 26th Street
Bridge crossing into Highline with Empire State Building in background
The old railroad track left intact with wild flowers growing in profusion
Highline from the West 19th Street entrance
me as tourist on Highline
I couldn't resist this view of the car parks on every cross street under the Highline
....how about the decorative details of the rivet work on the Highline?
A few blocks east we arrive on 6th Avenue and find the old abandoned department stores: exquisitely ornate buildings with marble and granite columns and high Arcadian arched entrances. New tenants, for the most part, have done their utmost to destroy the grandeur with their soulless modernized facades.
Exquisite details of the old Department stores on 6th Avenue
Unwarranted desecration of a nice classic building with a horrid store front.
Turn south on Fifth Avenue and experience Mayor Bloomberg’s charming innovation of a pedestrian park in the middle of what used to be a dangerous intersection between 5th Avenue and 6th, exposing a look at the iconic Triangle Building, now more enjoyable than ever.
Mayor Bloomberg's pocket-park in the middle of the 5th and 6th Avenue intersection at Madison Square Park.
Looking East and there is the splendid New York Life Building
Looking to the right on 5th Avenue and find this classic entrance and street clock
...and in front of us is the magnificent Flatiron Building....(Photo taken before the pedestrian park!)
Unsung heroes of the neighborhood.....
Unsung heroes of the neighborhood.....
A corner building on West 18th Street,wedged into an unwieldy piece of real estate...look at the glorious details of columns and windows.
...a metal clad building on a downtown side street.
Turn left on 20th Street to Gramercy Park to relish the turn-of-the-century brownstone homes that served the New York Art community and thankfully, are still a landmark destination without being becoming a Disneyland.
The new Cooper Union Extension by famed architect, Thom Mayne
One block south rises Carlos Zapata’s tame by comparison, Cooper Square Hotel. A complete wanabees Gehry, right down to the curved walls and frosted glass façade. It is a mirror image of Gehry’s IAC Headquarters Building on the Hudson River waterfront.
….And then we come upon the Ghost building: The New Museum, by the Japanese architectural firm, Sanaa (winner of last year’s Pritzker prize). A stack of boxes wrapped in white (without even a slit for the eyes). It reminded me of the old Palm Beach Hotel wrapped in colorful cloth ready for Termite extermination. Carlos Zapata's Cooper Union Hotel
Carlos Zapata's Cooper Union Hotel
(Creeping south on the Bowery, we pass the still vacant property of my “masterpiece” in the sky… Regrettably, other buildings are springing up like mushrooms while my design festers in limbo.)
The New Museum by Japanese Architectural firm, Sanaa, wrapped in a white "gauze"
....and the Palm Beach Hotel wrapped in stripped fabric ready for Termite extermination.
.....and here is my proposed building for Great Jones Street and the Bowery. My clients instructed me to design "a flower amongst the weeds"!
One of my favorite buildings in New York City, The Bowery Savings Bank on The Bowery and Grand Street.We finally drive home up Park Avenue through Grand Central Station, the monumental McKim Mead & White building, and continue on through the Helmsley Building, which opens up to the modern Park Avenue. Our destination: an afternoon coffee in the bucolic gardens of the Cooper Hewitt Museum on 91st Street…formerly the private residence of Andrew Carnegie, the visionary industrialist, who made philanthropy his lasting mission. This building is a sixty-four-room mansion with decorative Georgian details and is one of the last remaining mansions of the Titans of industry. Too many have been demolished for the ubiquitous high rises abounding in the city. Go down Fifth Avenue and still standing is the exquisite Frick Museum, the Metropolitan Club, the University Club, and the New York Public Library and of course The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The very grand Grand Central Railroad Station on Park Avenue by McKim, Meade and White.
Emerging from the Helmsley Building onto Park Avenue
The Andre Carnegie mansion - Now the Cooper Hewitt Museum (I didn't take this photo from my car!) The lovely garden of the Copper Hewitt Museum for afternoon tea or coffee.
The Andre Carnegie mansion - Now the Cooper Hewitt Museum (I didn't take this photo from my car!)
The lovely garden of the Copper Hewitt Museum for afternoon tea or coffee.