A beer break

I had expected the Georgian windows in this three-story yellow brick building at the corner of Broad and Pearl Streets. I was surprised that both red and yellow bricks were used, a different colour on each frontage. The hipped roof did not look too out of place. At first sight the chimney was a surprise, although it shouldn’t have been. This version of the Fraunces Tavern came into existence in an architecturally controversial renovation in 1907. The original was built as a family house in 1719, before being sold to Samuel Fraunces in 1762. Fraunces established a tavern which he named the Queen’s Head.

New York City: Fraunces Tavern

I was happy to walk up the few steps from the street into the dim interior. This pub was part of my Hamiltonian walk. The revolutionary war started soon after the New York Chamber of Commerce was founded in this tavern. During the war, the roof was destroyed in cannon fire. Repairs may have been made by the time George Washington hosted a farewell dinner for his officers here. I later learnt of an inglorious board of inquiry which tried to retain slaves who had been set free at the end of the war, and were to sail away with British troops.

The tavern is on the lowest floor. The upper floors are museums run by the present owners, The Sons of the Revolution. I decided that I preferred to nurse a beer. I sat down at a table and tried to choose from their selection on tap. An oyster flavoured stout was something I wouldn’t mind missing. So the choice boiled down to a heavy stout or a lighter porter. I went with the stout.

Do-not-Park Avenue

A funny thing happened on the way to Central Park. When I came to Park Avenue there was no traffic. A family went past me: the husband and wife running, their two children on skates. A man came past me and turned uptown on Park Avenue to run. By the time a bunch of bikers came up to me I was ready to take a photo. I waited for runners and bikers to go past the intersection before I crossed.

New York City: Park Avenue

While crossing I realized that I would hardly ever get a chance to take a photo of this kind of Park Avenue. That’s the one you see above. I found later that the avenue was closed to traffic all the way from Central Park to Brooklyn Bridge between 7 in the morning and 1 in the afternoon on three Saturdays of August. Parking was forbidden from 11 the previous night till 2 in the afternoon. I was lucky to be there without knowing about this. I guess if I’d read about it earlier I might have walked down to Brooklyn Bridge.

Last year in Mumbai we saw some streets given over to pedestrians and the public on several Sunday mornings. It was fun to see the same thing in New York.

Hamilton’s corner

It is difficult not to run into traces of Alexander Hamilton or George Washington when you are in the extreme southern tip of Manhattan. Right at the beginning of Broadway I saw the Standard Oil building (featured image). The beautiful detail over the archway of 26 Broadway attracted my attention. A dragon clutching a globe featuring Asia squared off against an eagle with a globe turned to show the Americas. What did this premonition of the 21st century have to do with Alexander Hamilton? I found later that this address was Hamilton’s home until he died in 1804. In less than a century this plot was owned by John D. Rockefeller, who built a series of buildings here from 1885 on. The one which I saw had been built between 1921 and 1928 by and architect named Thomas Hastings.

New York City: Cunard Lines building

Broadway curves around Bowling Green here, and the facade designed by Hastings curves with the street. You see this by its reflection in the windows of 25 Broadway, another building designed by Hastings. This is the Cunard Lines building where one could buy tickets for trans-Atlantic voyages from 1921 to 1968. Interestingly, the famous Delmonico’s restaurant ran out of this address from 1846 to 1918. I would have liked to walk in to see the famous ticketing lobby, reputedly modeled after Roman baths. But the venue is now rented out for events, and inaccessible.

New York City: detail on the facade of Cunard building

This detail on 25 Broadway is a bit of fiction, since Cunard lines always ran steamships. Samuel Cunard and the engineer Robert Napier started operating trans-Atlantic cruises in 1839. They reorganized in 1879 to make it into the Cunard Steamship Company. For many years the company’s ships made the fastest time across the Atlantic. I had done as much of street-level gawking I could do here. It was time for me to move on.

Above us … a bit of sky

I added to the daily count of three quarters of a million people passing the doors of Grand Central Terminal when I walked in to take photos of the beautiful fixtures which I remembered. When I entered the main concourse, I realized that I had no memory of the gorgeous mural on the ceiling. Drawn in gold on the beautiful blue background are one part of the sky: the signs of the Zodiac from Aquarius to Cancer, Orion and Pegasus, the Milky Way and the Triangulum. If there are any other, I did not notice them. The featured photo shows Gemini on the extreme left, with part of Orion above it, facing Taurus. To the right of this you see Triangulum, and then at the far end, above the northern skylights, you can see Pegasus. Across the centre of the field of view spreads the Milky Way.

of Grand Central Terminal

I did take a few photos of the things I remembered. In the middle of the photo above you can see the grand galleries of the concourse. The lit up clocks are familiar sights to lost travellers: they mark the information booth. There’s a strange nub of metal atop these clocks. Apparently it is meant to represent an acorn, and is a symbol the Vanderbilts had for themselves when Cornelius Vanderbilt had this structure constructed in 1913.

In this photo you can see all of Orion, facing Taurus, and below that Gemini and then Cancer. The view faces west, and shows one of the main problems with this painting. A commuter noticed this very soon after the Terminal was opened: north and south are correctly placed on the ceiling, but east and west are interchanged. The French artist Paul Helleu had made the drawings based on drawings by Johann Bayer in his 1603 book Uranometria. This is deemed to be correct. Apparently the switch was made inadvertently when J. Monroe Hewlett and painter Charles Basing transferred the design to the ceiling.

This painting was damaged by water seepage and was covered over in 1944 with asbestos boards on which a less elaborate picture was painted by Charles Gulbrandsen. At this stage a second triangle was added to Triangulum (you can see this in the photos, and puzzled me a bit before I read about it). Fifty years later this new painting was also darkened, largely by cigarette smoke rising from the concourse. A restoration of 1995 decided not to remove the boards because of a possible asbestos hazard, but cleaned them up.

The church on Wall Street

I walked down Wall Street towards the Gothic Revival church I could see across Broadway. An ice cream truck blocked my way. I stopped, finished my ice cream, and walked on. I knew this was perhaps the oldest church in New York, having been first built in 1697. It burnt down twice, and the present grand structure was designed by Richard Upjohn and completed in 1846.

New York City: Trinity church, east door right

I walked in past an elaborate door. Later I would realize that this is the east door, and was designed by Karl Bitter. I stopped to admire it. Its not very often that I see a door donated by William Astor. Bitter completed the door in 1891, so it must have been one of his early commissions. I took a photo of the right hand door (above).

I’d arrived late. One of the things I wanted to do here was to walk through the cemetery and spot the graves of Alexander Hamilton and Robert Fulton. It was close to 6 in the evening, and the doors were being shut. I would have to come back another day to finish this. I walked around the main nave and apse and headed back out. On the way out I took a photo of the other door (below).

New York City: Trinity church, east door left

I was quite surprised to learn that this building was the tallest in New York until 1890. The era of skyscrapers began about then, and left this more traditional architecture far behind, in terms of height. I walked out and peered at the cemetery. In the middle of the bustle of the crowd at day’s end, it looked green and peaceful.

The Manhattan Purchase

New York City: Battery park monumentNew York City: Battery park monument

The only contemporary record of the so-called Manhattan Purchase are the following lines from a letter written by Peter Schagen of the Dutch West Indies Company to Dutch government and received on 7 November, 1626: “They have purchased the Island Manhattes from the Indians for the value of 60 guilders. It is 11,000 morgens in size.” Everything else is a story or an attempt at reconstruction.

I saw examples of such attempts in the memorial near the entrance to Battery Park from Broadway, photos of which you see above. Dutch is close enough to German and English that one can puzzle out the meaning of the text (or you can type it into Google translate). The date mentioned for the purchase requires no translation. However, this is speculation, since there is no contemporary record of the date on which the sale was made. I made a quick attempt to fact check the image on the monument, and the clothes shown seem to be accurate enough to be of the period. The coat of arms with beavers and barrels is an anachronism, since this was used by the city of New York much after the purchase.

The area was inhabited by the American people who called themselves Lenni Lenape (and were called Delaware Indians later by settlers). I was intrigued by what the tribe would do with 60 Guilders. They could only use the money to buy things from the Dutch. So eventually the trade must have been goods for land. The later purchase of Staten Island for the same amount of money records that this was the value of tools given in exchange for land. Perhaps it was the same for Manhattan.

There have been learned papers about land-use customs and laws among the Lenni Lenape, and their notions of trade. These constrain our imagination, but it is hard from a layman’s perspective today to understand the calculation which would have resulted in land sales of this kind. Perhaps this is a subject waiting for its definitive popular history book.

Lenox Hill

I hadn’t seen the part of New York called Lenox Hill when I read an article about it some months ago. Walking about this neighbourhood, I enjoyed the vibe of a friendly mixed use neighbourhood. I walked through streets with well-maintained row houses, opening out on avenues with nice neighbourhood restaurants and shops. It was also New York in a nutshell: Chinese laundries (like the one in the featured photo) cheek by jowl with bakeries and pizzerias with tables on the pavements. My first distant acquaintance with the feel of New York had come from Nero Wolfe mysteries and their description of row houses on West 35th street. That had disappeared by the time I first visited New York. Today Lenox Hill seems to have the charm that the West 35th Street of the 1930s seemed to have.

New York City: Trinity Baptist Church, 61st Street

The history of the area intrigued me, but there seemed to be no way to get a bite. I kept coming to the story of Robert Lenox who bought land here in 1818, and his son, James Lenox, who made a killing selling it off in the 1870s. Then I saw the beautiful Art Deco facade (photo above) of the Trinity Baptist Church on 61st street. This was an opening into the story of Lenox Hill. The website of the church said that the beautiful brick structure was designed by Martin Gravely Hedmark, and completed in 1930 (it is worth walking in). This was a initially a Swedish congregation. The Lenox Hill Hospital nearby was earlier called the German Hospital. So, starting from the 1870s to early in the 20th century, this area must have been full of recent immigrants.

New York City: Subway, Lexington and 63rd

This connected with another bit of history I found while researching the artwork in the Lexington and 63rd Street subway station. The beautiful mosaics by Jean Shin (one of which is in the photo above, and another I’ve written about before) depict the lives of people who lived here when the subway was an elevated train. The low-income households of an earlier time began to give way to today’s higher-income mix in the 1990s.

New York City: Neighbourhood cafe in Lenox Hill

After inspecting the wonderful market below Queensboro Bridge, I could have taken the Madison Avenue Bus from York Avenue to the 59th street subway station, but I walked. The neighbourhood is full of nice little espresso bars. The one you see above is run by a pair dedicated to the cause of coffee. I had a very nice cuppa here before moving on.

Goatic New York

How did I miss noticing Goatic architecture earlier? It seems to be a shadowy phenomenon seen across the world. First in Montjuic Barcelona, next in Bryant Park New York. Interestingly, both these locations were redone in the 1980s. I don’t know the dates of these sculptures. There are more goatic wonders in store for aficionados, I’m sure.

Concrete Art

The morning was overcast, warm and humid. I walked down to Central Park where I wanted to look at an installation by Liz Glynn. The descriptions I read presented it as a cerebral piece of art: recreating a gilded-age private ballroom in the open. There are opposites paired up here, the opulence of the Whitney Ballroom in the large public space it once stood next to, Louis XIV chairs reproduced in cast concrete. All this is meant to be appreciated as a comment on the rising inequalities in today’s world.

New York City : Open House installation by Liz Glynn

I wanted to see how it worked. Reproductions of the elegant window frames of the ballroom look like doors in the square. As you approach the installation, they seem to frame a stage set. People were sitting on the chairs when I arrived. I waited for a moment when they were free so that I could take a photo. There were nice patterns on the chairs, and I wondered how Glynn had created those. It turns out that she had copied the patterns of historic damask cloth, 3D printed them, and then converted it to a mold.

The concrete blocks are copies of copies. Stanford White, the architect of the now vanished Whitney Ballroom, bought a few Louis XIV chairs, and had local artisans copy them for the financier William Whitney. Glynn said in an interview that she chose the medium of cast concrete since it was used by Le Corbusier to build mass housing.

Do we have to know all this to appreciate the work? Can it not stand by itself near the south-eastern entrance to Central Park? A lot of public art in New York manages to stand on its own, irrespective of the artist’s intentions. Is Liz Glynn’s Open House one of those? Perhaps the fact that the exhibition is temporary will prevent it from taking on its own identity in the minds of people.

Straight lines in red white and blue

The tree-shaded Zucotti Park is special in many ways, and one of these is the combined visual effect of art and architecture around it. The oldest of these is the Red Cube, a sculpture by Isamu Noguchi. The 7.3 meter tall piece was installed in 1964. I stood at the corner of the open plaza on Broadway, where it sits, and tried to frame it in my camera. The photo above seemed to be the best way to take it (the man in the red shirt was a welcome coincidence). Later I read that Noguchi planned this piece to draw your eyes up towards the vertical architecture surrounding it.

Noguchi is often quoted as saying “The spaces around buildings should be treated in such a way as to dramatize and make the space meaningful.” From a student of Brancusi, this does not sound pompous. Even less so when you stand near this painted block of steel and see how effectively it manages to fulfil this manifesto. The cylindrical hole in the middle of the piece is a widely used visual trope in such monumental sculpture which is meant to make it lighter, both visually and in actual fact.

New York City: 4 World Trade Center

At the other end of the park is a usable sculpture which is 298 meters tall. This is the building called Four World Trade Center, designed by Fumihiko Maki following an overall redevelopment plan for the area by Daniel Libeskind. The building was completed in 2013. It seemed to shimmer and disappear into the sky as I looked at it. I later discovered that this is part of the design, accomplished by tapering the facades gently. The use of optically thin glass sheets also floods the interior with light. I walked around it: the building covers a whole block on each side. There are many interesting things built into the design, including rainwater harvesting, and partial use of clean energy. The 69th floor was initially opened to street artists, eventually giving rise to a controversy. Forbes and one of the artists, Hyperallergic, give two sides of the story. There could be others.