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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Last Chance: Designing Tomorrow and Currier and Ives at the Museum of the City of New York

If you are looking for something New York-centric to do this Easter weekend, you could take a tour with us -- we still have a few time slots open. But if that's not on your agenda, how about a couple of show at the Museum of the City of New York?

Courtesy of

Designing Tomorrow examines the six World's Fairs held in America in the 1930s, with a particular focus on the 1939-40 fair at Flushing Meadows in New York. Through artifacts, newsreel footage, and advertisements, this show deftly illustrates the hope for the future that these fairs predicted even in the midst of the Great Depression. The show is open only through Sunday, March 31, so it's now or never.

courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

Also on at the museum is Currier & Ives and Other Winter Tales, which draws on the museum's excellent collection of Currier & Ives prints, many of them familiar New York scenes. This show was supposed to close on March 17, but has been extended through the weekend. (Or not -- we just saw it and know it was still up and Time Out has it listed as ending 3/31. But when we called the museum staff, they told us it was no longer up, even though we'd just been there and seen it.)

The Museum of the City of New York is located at 1220 Fifth Avenue and is always pay what you wish.

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Friday, March 22, 2013

St Peter's Church, Chelsea

courtesy of the Library of Congress.
This year marks the 175th anniversary of the opening of St. Peter's Church in Chelsea, which was designed (in part) and financed (in large part) by Clement Clarke Moore, author of A Visit to St. Nicholas (aka 'Twas the Night Before Christmas).

Moore owned a massive amount of property in the area in the early nineteenth century. As we write in Inside the Apple:

Moore was descended from distinguished New York families: his large family estate, Chelsea, which gave rise to the modern-day neighborhood, had originally been owned by his grandfather, Major Thomas Clarke, a veteran of the French and Indian War. Moore’s father, Bishop Benjamin Moore, was the head of the Episcopal Diocese of New York and twice president of Columbia College. 
In 1817, soon after Bishop Moore’s death, the Episcopal Church convened in New York to establish the General Theological Seminary. Jacob Sherred, a member of the Trinity Church vestry, donated $70,000 and Clement Clarke Moore agreed to donate 66 lots from his Chelsea estate to house the school. (The seminary met elsewhere until construction could begin in the 1820s.) Moore, already the author of a well-regarded Hebrew lexicon, was also hired to serve on its faculty, teaching Biblical languages until 1850.

At first, residents of Chelsea attended church services at the seminary. However, as the population in the area began to grow--in part because Moore was making a killing selling property on the newly created Manhattan street grid--it was decided that a proper parish church should be erected.

In February 1831, a handsome Greek Revival chapel was built on land leased to the parish by Moore. Walking by this building today--which serves as the rectory--you'd be hard pressed to realize it once had an ecclesiastical function. Indeed, it had always been built with the idea that it was simply the first building in a complex that would eventually contain a much larger Greek Revival church. However, when construction on the new church began, tastes had changed and the Gothic Revival--formerly shunned in America for being too Catholic--was beginning to take hold. In conjunction with James W. Smith, Moore designed the restrained Gothic church. The new church opened in February 1838, two years before Richard Upjohn's magnificent Church of the Ascension on Fifth Avenue (which is considered by some to be the oldest true Gothic Revival house of worship in New York).

When you visit St. Peter's on West 20th Street, there appears to be a third church on the property as well. It sits just east of the main church, and is today used by the Atlantic Theater Company as their main stage. While this building had a Victorian Gothic refit in 1871 that made it look like a chapel, it always served as the parish hall.

Actually, the oldest part of the complex is the fence. According to the AIA Guide to New York City, this wrought iron gem comes from the second version of Trinity Church, Wall Street. There have been three Trinity Churches on Wall Street; the first burned down during the Revolution; the second was surrounded by this fence. When the second Trinity was felled in the late 1830s to make way for the current incarnation of the parish, the fence was moved to Chelsea.

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Monday, March 11, 2013

125 Years Ago: The Blizzard of 1888

Are you sick of winter yet?

Today marks the 125th anniversary of the famous Blizzard of 1888, which struck the east coast on March 11, moving northward rapidly. Snow began to fall in earnest in New York on March 12 and by the time it was over--three days later--over 40 inches of snow had been dumped on the city.

"A policeman rubbing snow on the frozen ears of a passer-by during the storm." (Courtesy of the NYPL.)


By the end of the first day, the city had been brought to a standstill and the city’s miles of telegraph and telephone wires lay in downed heaps along the sides of the roads. (Though New York had already toyed with idea of burying these wires underground, it was the 1888 blizzard that finally forced the city to act, freeing the city of above-ground wires to this day.) Because of snow drifts across the tracks, rail service was suspended in and out of the city for over a week and staples such as bread and coal were quickly in short supply. In some places (such as the Gravesend section of Brooklyn), snow drifts were as high as 52 feet.

Senator Roscoe Conkling
By far the most famous victim of the storm was New York Senator Roscoe Conkling. An important post-Civil War Republican, Conkling was part of the Stalwart branch of the party that hoped to draft Ulysses S. Grant into running for a third term. When that didn’t happen, Conkling supported Rutherford B. Hayes and was instrumental in creating the commission that ultimately handed Hayes the presidency in 1877. (The controversy of the 1876 Hayes/Tilden election will be the subject of a future post.)

Conkling’s best-known protégé was Chester A. Arthur, who benefited from Conkling’s patronage when he was New York’s Commissioner of Customs, but as president instituted civil service reforms that enraged his former mentor.

Federal Hall National Memorial  on Wall Street (then the U.S. subtreasury) in the blizzard.

On the first day of the blizzard, Conking was at his law office at 10 Wall Street. Despite the severity of the storm—which made catching a horse-drawn cab impossible—Conkling decided to walk from his office to his club on Madison Square, even though it was 6:00 PM and already dark. He made it up Broadway as far as Union Square where he (as he later put it): “got to the middle of the park and was up to my arms in a drift…. For nearly twenty minutes I was stuck there and I came as near giving right up and sinking down there to die as a man can and not do it.”

But somehow Conkling freed himself and continued up Broadway to Madison Square, where the people at the New York Club could “scarcely believe” he had walked from Wall Street.
However, while Conkling was quick to credit his three-hour walk to his strong constitution, all was not well. He soon developed an ear infection, which in turn became mastoiditis, and by April doctors were draining pus from his skull. He died on April 18, 1888, about a month after the blizzard.

Conkling is memorialized in a statue in Madison Square Park. (Apparently the city fathers balked at commemorating Conkling in Union Square amidst George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.)

[The bulk of this post originally appeared on our blog on March 2, 2009.]

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Friday, March 8, 2013

Happy Birthday, Pan Am Building

It only came across the Inside the Apple newswire late last night that yesterday was, in fact, the fiftieth birthday of the Pan Am Building (or, if you must, the Met Life Building) that stands atop Grand Central Terminal. Significant for a plethora of reasons--not least of which is that it is the only building by the Bauhaus’s Walter Gropius in the city--it has long been the building that New Yorkers love to hate. Or simply hate.

The Pan Am tower came into being in the mid 1950s. As America’s transportation needs shifted from railroads to automobiles and airplanes, the owners of Grand Central Terminal and the surrounding Terminal City needed to find ways to increase revenue. After rejecting plans for a skyscraper that would have required demolishing the station, developer Erwin Wolfson proposed a three million-square-foot tower to stand between the terminal and the railroad’s headquarters, the 1929 New York Central Building. In 1958, Emery Roth & Sons submitted designs for a slender tower for that spot in keeping with their other Park Avenue skyscrapers, such as the Uris and Colgate-Palmolive buildings. Wolfson, fearing this new tower lacked architectural panache, brought in Gropius and Pietro Belluschi to enliven the 49-story building.* Gropius and Belluschi changed the building's massing, created its unusual octagonal shape, and, most noticeably, shifted its axis so that it stood completely blocking views up or down Park Avenue.

When the building opened on March 7, 1963, it had more interior square footage than any office building in the world. Twenty-five percent of those offices were leased to the building’s name tenant, Pan American airlines, which also installed a helicopter landing pad on the roof. This allowed commuters to land at any of the area’s major airports and be whisked to the heart of Manhattan. Due to construction delays and lack of public support, the helipad did not open until 1965 and then was only used for three years. After nearly a decade, it reopened in 1977; on May 17 of that year, the landing gear on a helicopter failed just after it had touched down on the roof of the building. The resulting accident killed five people and closed the helipad for good.

The building was derided from its opening. Then New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable famously called it, "gigantically second-rate." In 1987, New York magazine conducted a poll of New York City leaders to discover what was the worst building in the city. Pan Am topped the list. In 1991, the airline--which was already on life support and occupied only a fraction of its original office space--left the building, and the skyscraper's owners, the Metropolitan Life Insurance company, replaced the iconic Pan Am logo with their own. Though that logo remains, Met Life sold the building in 2005 for a record $1.72 billion to a consortium headed by Tishman Speyer, but which also includes the New York City Employees' Retirement System and the Teachers' Retirement System.

So, if you are in midtown today, instead of raising your fist at the shadows cast on Park Avenue, raise a glass instead to this monument to modernity. 

* Pan Am stands 808 feet tall -- approximately 59 stories -- but the bottom ten stories don't exist in order for it to float over Terminal City.

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Friday, March 1, 2013

Charles Scribner's Sons at 597 Fifth Avenue

photo by epicharmus on flickr
A century ago, the architect Ernest Flagg was at the top of his game. Just five years earlier, in 1908, he'd completed the tallest building in the world, the lavish (and, sadly, now demolished) Singer Building in Lower Manhattan. Today, Flagg's name isn't remembered as well as some of his contemporaries like Stanford White and Cass Gilbert, but many of his buildings remain. In 1913, he completed what is one of his finest achievements, the Charles Scribner's Sons bookstore and offices at 597 Fifth Avenue.

The publishing company started life in 1846 as Baker & Scribner. When founder Charles Scribner took over the firm, he renamed it the Charles Scribner Company; later, when management moved to his sons, they changed the name again to reflect their new ownership. Though they published books from the start, the company was best known early on for its magazines, including St. Nicholas Magazine, The Century Magazine, and Scribner's.

photo courtesy of Princeton University library
In 1893, the firm hired the then-unknown Flagg to design a corporate headquarters for them on lower Fifth Avenue at 21st Street. (This squat Beaux-Arts building from the beginning of Flagg's career, still stands.) Less than two decades later, the publishers rehired Flagg--now an architectural star--to create a soaring space in midtown to house not only the company's headquarters but also their corporate-owned bookstore on the retail level. This move reflected not only Scribner's growing fortunes, but also the rapid development of Fifth Avenue above 42nd Street as a prime shopping district.

Flagg's soaring Beaux-Arts exterior was matched by the retail space's opulent interior, including a Carrara-marble staircase, gorgeous iron railings and balustrades,and--of course--row upon row of books.

In 1984, what was then known as the Scribner Book Companies was purchased by Macmillan, which in turn was folded into Simon & Schuster in 1994. The bookstore closed in 1988; the retail space currently houses a Sephora. Because the interior has been landmarked, much of the original fixtures remain inside and it is well worth checking out, if only to imagine what shopping for books must have been like a century ago.

photo by bjmccray on flickr

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