Fifth Avenue & 82nd Street

28 Mar

I’m back in New York City after a couple of weeks in Italy, marveling at how wide all of our streets feel. The reports are true; there’s nothing called Third Avenue in Europe. Or 14th Street. Compared to Rome, Park Avenue is like the god damn Grand Canyon! The Via del Corso, Rome’s main thoroughfare, is probably slimmer than Bleecker Street. But fair enough. The urban reality was different a couple thousand years ago (even a couple hundred). There was no such thing as city planning, for one thing. And most of the buildings that make up Manhattan today aren’t any older than the turn of the last century. You’re looking at a completely different use of space.

Of course, while the buildings might not be any older than a hundred years, the forms they use most often are. New York is full of examples of architectural revival, playing off of styles developed hundreds of years before. But I like how these second-generation movements become significant in their own right. Just as the actual Greeks can be placed in a specific place and time, so too for something like Greek Revival. Or the neo-classical Beaux-Arts style, which seemingly drew on almost everything that came before it, though I suppose there were some guidelines. Amongst other things, it emphasized the example of Imperial Roman architecture between the rule of Augustus Caesar and the Severan emperors. Oh boy, I love that type of distinction, really, and I don’t even know what the hell they’re talking about!

Beaux-Arts was a big deal in the United States between roughly 1885-1920, which lines up pretty well with the creation of the New York of the present day. A lot of prominent NYC buildings are in this style, including Grand Central Terminal, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The same goes for the mansion across the street from the Met, the Benjamin N. & Sarah Duke House on the corner of 82nd Street. This is some conspicuous wealth on display here, none the less so since you’ve got the Metropolitan as your next door neighbor. Now traveling in Italy was a reminder to me that rich folks have been around a lot longer than America (in size alone the Palazzo Pitti has this place beat for sure). But what strikes me as specifically American about the mansion is the fact that it was originally built on speculation – sold on the market to Benjamin Duke of the American Tobacco Company, only after it had been completed in 1901. It tells you a little bit about those times, in the Upper East Side at least, that a house like that could be built with the confidence someone would buy it. I can’t see a Florentine development firm saying the same thing about the Palazzo Pitti – “Ah, the Medicis will probably will take it. As soon as that shipment of Flemish wool comes in this town is going to be rolling in dough.” But hey, guess what? The Medicis did take it, after the Pitti family went broke and they had to sell it all away.

Benjamin Duke sold this house too, to his brother James in 1907, while James was waiting for the construction of his own mansion to be finished. It was, in 1912, and he moved in there, on Fifth Avenue & 78th Street; it’s now the graduate school of art history for NYU. It was James’ endowment to Duke University in 1924 that gave that school its name. Benjamin himself decided he would rather live at the Plaza Hotel. Then he changed his mind again and had a mansion built to order (no speculation this time) on Fifth Avenue & 89th Street. It was later torn down to make way for the Guggenheim. The Duke Mansion on 82nd Street stayed in the family though, even after being subdivided into apartments in 1985. It was only recently sold out of it, for $40 million, down from the asking price of $50 million, which had made it one of the most expensive townhouses ever on the market.

But what’s all that to me? This morning, my big decision was whether to eat the other half of my apple now, or to save it for later. It was a Fuji, which though developed in Japan, is a cross between two American varieties, the Red Delicious, and the 18th century Virginian Rawls Genet. I had the window open. There was a lovely breeze.

(Originally posted April 2nd, 2009 on


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