Archive | July, 2012

Catskill Mountains

31 Jul

All right, so let’s wait another week before we get into the modern: I’ve got some good skyscrapers in mind.  But for now I’d rather go way back here, as far back as we’ve ever been.  Because there’s something about the onset of spring that really makes me feel like time’s beginning – like inside all of us we carry something of the sentiment of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome; like you can wake up each and any given morning and say, “Shit, today I’m going to create the world.”  Water lapping slowly towards the shoreline, helped by the breeze, the mountains uplifting.  It’s gorgeous out.  You know all my talk during the winter, about trying to enjoy it and everything, finding the beauty of the season specific moment – well you know that was all bullshit right?  I mean, I had to say something!  But the good weather is why we really stay alive I think, to draw our names upon reality.

The Catskill Mountains take their name from the Dutch, who called them the Kaatskils – kils being the old Dutch word for creek, of which the Catskills have plenty.  Early English settlers referred to them as the Blue Mountains, along the vein of Vermont’s Green Mountains and New Hampshire’s White.  Geologically speaking the Catskills aren’t mountains at all but are instead an ancient plateau that’s been eroded throughout the years into the relief we see today.  And before that even the whole area was a giant river delta, standing at the edge of an inland sea, collecting all the deposits that ran off of the large and now extinct Acadian Mountains (around where the Taconic Mountains stand today).  How do people actually know this stuff?  I don’t know.  It’s the springtime and they’re feeling confident.

I was in the Catskills this past weekend and they’re as beautiful as ever, cut through by ravines and waterfalls of varying size.  To me, this is the prototype of wilderness, this is what I think of first when I hear the word “nature.”  It makes sense that the Hudson River school of painting, considered America’s first native art movement, took this area as its inspiration.  It speaks on both the large and small level, whatever parameters you want to set your canvas to you’re sure to find something that’s rewarding.  It’s a nice little lesson: I mean isn’t life all about scale?

The French philosopher Ernest Renan says it better: “Be ready for anything – that perhaps is wisdom.  Give ourselves up, according to the hour, to confidence, to skepticism, to optimism, to irony, and we may be sure that at certain moments at least we shall be with the truth…Good humor is a philosophic state of mind; it seems to say to Nature that we take her no more seriously than she takes us…Saint Augustine’s phrase: Lord, if we are deceived, it is by thee! remains a fine one, well suited to our modern feeling.  Only we wish the Eternal to know that if we accept the fraud, we accept it knowingly and willingly.  We are resigned in advance to losing the interest on our investments of virtue, but we wish not to appear ridiculous by having counted on them too securely.”

But we still try, that’s the important thing.  And it’s fun!  Here’s the same side of the coin, or maybe the opposite side, from Emerson: “If you love and serve men, you cannot by any hiding or stratagem escape the remuneration.  Secret retributions are always restoring the level, when disturbed, of the divine justice.  It is impossible to tilt the beam.  All the tyrants and proprietors and monopolists of the world in vain set their shoulders to heave the bar.  Settles forevermore the ponderous equator to its line, and man and mote, and star and sun, must range to it, or be pulverized by the recoil.”

So to put the two together: it all comes back to you, but who’s to say when?  Maybe by the time it does you’ll be long gone.  Maybe you’re not gonna get it in this life, but whatever, you still gotta try right?  Because we are alive right now, that’s the one certainty.  We look at these rivers, creeks and streams and waterfalls, and they get us riled up, maybe they tell us something.  A thousand years ago would you have jumped into this pond?  Of course you would have!  So why not today?  There’s so damn much to celebrate.  There’s so damn much to learn about.  And still, they tell us that we’re supposed to worry about how to make a living!

(Originally posted Apr. 9th, 2010 on


Madison Avenue & 25th Street

25 Jul

In writing about the Metropolitan Life Tower last week I briefly mentioned their skyscraper next door: the Metropolitan Life North Building. But I was so caught up in the political winds of the moment that I didn’t go into any further detail. So let’s stick around these parts a little longer – in the foothills, if you will, of Manhattan’s high-rise range, getting acclimated – before we head off elsewhere. I don’t know, maybe after this we’ll be ready to scale the vertiginous heights of Midtown. Yikes!

For four years, starting in 1909, Met Life had the tallest building in the world – their tower on 24th Street – until the 57 story, 792 ft. Woolworth Building displaced it. The Woolworth Building would hold that title for 17 years, through World War I and the 1920s, until a whole new crop of even higher buildings popped up towards the end of that decade. In a matter of months (in 1930-31) the title of tallest building would be transferred from the Woolworth Building to 40 Wall Street to the Chrysler Building to the Empire State – which at 1,250 ft. ended all discussion for 40 years (1,454 ft. if you count the tip, these things can get a bit confusing). It was the intention of Met Life to get in on the competition. The original plan for their Met Life North Building called for a skyscraper of 100 stories, topping out at around 1,300 ft. and stealing back the title of tallest building in the world.

It never happened. Most of the skyscrapers built of this generation were started during the boom of the Roaring Twenties and finished during the first few years of the Great Depression, and the effects were certainly felt. 40 Wall Street could only manage to fill half its office space up until the end of World War II, and only started turning a profit in the 1950s. The same went for the Empire State Building, known by its nickname, the “Empty State Building,” all through the 1930s. The ambitions of the Met Life North Building were hit particularly hard. In 1933 Met Life decided to halt construction entirely, leaving the skyscraper just 29 stories tall. Work continued in two phases after that, with the building’s current form being reached in 1950, although no further height was ever added. It stands now as a squat monument to thwarted plans.

Because the intention was to reach so high the base of the building had to be gigantic. It takes up the entire block between 24th and 25th Street, fronting Madison Avenue, and even with its severely shortened height it was one of the largest office buildings in the world at the time of its completion, with almost 2 million square feet of space. There’s evidence throughout of its abandoned expectations, including the three-story round arches that mark each corner and look completely outsize for a building of its stature. Inside it holds the 30 elevators that would have been needed to serve the original 100 story plan, creating a boon for current tenants who find they rarely have the need to wait.

In its exterior design the Met Life North Building was similar to skyscrapers of its day, with the ubiquitous set-back style required by the zoning laws, whereby the higher you went the narrower the building had to be – insuring light and air could pass through to the streets below. It accounts for the “wedding-cake” appearance of so many buildings from the 1930’s and before. We’ll have to go to Midtown, especially above 42nd Street, to find some more modern styles that shake up the pattern. I think I’m ready for it. Straight lines! No setbacks! Volume emphasized over height! High-rise architecture as built sculpture! I mean, look at this baby.

Yeah, I think it’s time to get more modern.

(Originally posted Apr. 2nd, 2010 on

Madison Avenue & 24th Street

24 Jul

Man, I don’t even know what corner to write about.  All I’ve been interested in this week is health care reform passing.  It’s amazing!  It’s all I’ve wanted to think about – it’s all I’ve wanted to read about.  Have you ever heard of blogs?  Apparently there are a lot of them, and a lot of them have an opinion on current events.  I’ve been delving deep.  My favorite articles are the ones along the line of exposing the Republican’s tactics, slash, reveling in their stupidity.  They lost in 2006, and they lost in 2008.  The lesson they took from that: we’re not going to work with the majority at all.  So guess what?  They locked themselves out of the biggest social legislation in 40 years.  They could have been in on this!  They could have had a say in creating it.  Instead they tried to make the bill the apocalypse – whipping their base into a frenzy by pumping out one hundred percent disinformation.  They bet their entire strategy on stopping it.  And they lost!  And now what’s their plan?  To repeal it!  Forget the fact that it’s logistically impossible (until at least 2013), they say, let’s double down on this strategy that screwed us in the first place.  I love it!

And look, really, here’s why it makes me happy.  They got greedy.  They kept saying, health care needs reform, just not this reform, but they didn’t even mean that.  They just wanted the seats in November.  They thought they’d found the formula to derail the Obama White House and win big come the mid-term, and that’s absolutely all they cared about.  And they were completely wrong.  And I suppose that excites me because I feel a change coming, or perhaps a renewal of the feeling when Obama was elected.  I don’t think the majority of the American people were upset at Obama because of his agenda, I think they were disheartened because he wasn’t getting any of it done.  And now he has.  And now the Republicans have to run explicitly on saying no, claiming to be the party of retribution for a bill the American people never wanted.  But what if it turns out they do want it?  What will the Republicans say then?  I don’t know.  And I really don’t know, maybe a majority of Americans won’t like this bill, but I find that hard to imagine.  Although I do after all (as Spaulding Gray used to say) live on “an island off the coast of America.”

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been mostly thinking about this week and saying to anyone who will listen (which means mainly my girlfriend – I haven’t gotten out much). Hmmm…..what else have I been thinking about? Skyscrapers!

There’s something reassuring in riding around town recognizing the profiles and names of different buildings, like, “Ah, the Metropolitan Life Tower is shrouded in fog today – it’s lonely at the top.”  It keeps me occupied; kind of like a pop-quiz everywhere you look.  And sure, the Metropolitan Life Tower isn’t the top of the top anymore, but at one point it was.  From it’s completion in 1909, until the opening of the Woolworth Building in 1913, this was the tallest building in the world, standing at an even 700 feet.  That wasn’t the intention of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, or its architect Pierre LeBrun, who’s original plan was about half the size, but once they started building they figured they might as well go all the way.  It made sense for the site, which was small and wasn’t going to yield much profit in square-footage per office anyway.  Instead they could trade-in for the prestige and attention that would come with having the tallest building in the world.  And it seemed to have paid off, as their continued skyscraper expansion can testify: constructing the Metropolitan Life North Building next door in 1933, and purchasing the much larger (and controversial) PanAm Building in 1981.

The tower itself can be seen as the apotheosis of the early 20th century tendency in New York to model high-rises after European buildings.  In design and execution the Metropolitan Life Tower bears a strong similarity to St. Mark’s Campanile in Venice, although the architect denied any direct attempt at imitation.  And in fact St. Mark’s Campanile itself wasn’t standing when the Metropolitan Life Tower was constructed.  The original Venetian campanile, completed in 1514, actually collapsed completely in 1902.  The decision was made to reconstruct it exactly as it was and after ten years of work the campanile returned, at which point the Metropolitan Life Tower was already standing.  Regardless the similarity between the two is undeniable.

So there you go, a little something to distract me from thinking about politics.  I figured I had to throw a little history in here, just to stay on message – the Corner by Corner message.  Like the Republicans!  I hope they stay on message too, all the way until November.  I really do.  What’s their message again?  No! No! No!  How catchy.

(Originally posted Mar. 26th, 2010 on

Charlton Street & Varick Street

23 Jul

I was up in the country last weekend and as often happens when driving back into the city, I found myself imagining the process by which that became this.  I’ll pass by a marshy field someplace with a stand of bare-limbed trees in the background and I’ll think: Manhattan had that too once.  It’s a long time gone, though not that long really, in the scheme of things.  I’m reading a book about Ancient Egypt right now and it will say things like, “Then for 400 years it was the Dark Ages, and shit was crazy.”  That’s 400 years.  That’s 400 years that passed over 4,000 years ago.  People were alive back then!  Probably some days they woke up and said, “Man, what a beautiful morning,” even if it was the Dark Ages.

Pretty beautiful morning around these parts too lately.  It puts me in mind of a walk in the country, with not too much to do.  It must have been nice when the country was a lot closer to the city, when Greenwich Village or the Lower East Side were sufficiently far enough out to build a country home.  By the 1760s such estates lined both sides of Manhattan, heading north.  One of the southern-most was called Richmond Hill, created in 1760 by Abraham Mortier, commissary of the British army in America.  He leased the land from Trinity Church (themselves the holders of most of the West Side from Fulton Street to Christopher) and laid out a 26 acre property on a hill over-looking the Hudson, bounded by present day King, Varick, Charlton and MacDougal Street.  Mortier was driven out of the estate with the coming of the Revolution, at which time it briefly served as Washington’s headquarters for the Continental Army – until they too were driven off the island.  After the war it served for a year as the Vice-Presidential home of John Adams.  His wife Abigail wrote, “In natural beauty it might vie with the most delicious spot I ever saw.”

In 1794 Richmond Hill was purchased by Aaron Burr, to serve as his country home.  Once he acquired the lease Burr began borrowing large sums of money, from whoever he could, to refurbish the estate in the elegant fashion he preferred.  That included damming Minetta Creek, which ran near the property, to create an ornamental pool by the entry gates.  Maybe that helped give him the water-experience he needed to co-found the Manhattan Water Company in 1799.  The ostensible purpose of the company was to provide the city with a safe and adequate public water supply, something NYC was severely lacking.  In reality the project was a front – a clause included in the contract allowed the investors the right to form a bank, something Burr had been interested in for awhile but feared would be legislatively difficult to bring about.  With the Manhattan Water Company he found a short-cut, and within the year the bank was up and running.  The water project on the other hand quickly stagnated, with just 6 miles of pipe laid serving only about 400 houses.  New York would go another 40 years without a decent water supply.  The bank would go on to become the Chase Manhattan Bank, now J.P. Morgan Chase.

But even the banks profits couldn’t help Burr from falling deeper into debt.  In 1803 he sold the majority of Richmond Hill’s land lots to John Jacob Astor.  A year later Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, across the Hudson river in Weehawken.  He quickly sold more of his land to Astor before leaving the city in disgrace, wanted for murder in both New York and New Jersey.  Astor went on to develop the property into a residential district.  In 1820 he moved Burr’s mansion downhill and opened it as a genteel roadhouse for travelers.  He leveled the hill itself, laid out streets, and then sold individual lots to speculative builders.  Many of the original row-houses that went up at the time are still standing.  Burr’s mansion, which had become a saloon towards the end of its lifetime, was destroyed in 1849.

Aaron Burr was vice-president of the United States when he shot and killed Hamilton, although his political career was already in shambles by that time.  He had been dropped by Jefferson for his presidential re-election bid in 1804, and he had just lost handily in his run for governor of New York state, in part because of the opposition of Hamilton.  Still, killing one of the Founding Fathers didn’t help his case any.  Burr fled west, hoping to find a new start, and would be tried for treason against the United States in 1807, accused of trying to carve out an independent nation on land that included the Louisiana Purchase.  He was found not guilty and eventually, years later, settled back in New York to practice law and live out the rest of his life.  He would remain the only Vice President to have shot a man while in office, until Dick Cheney nailed his friend in the face with a round of bird-shot.

(Originally posted Mar. 19th, 2010 on

St. James Place & Oliver Street

21 Jul

Who knew the fifties were so amazing?  I mean Fahrenheit-wise, not the decade (although also worth some contemplation – get high and think about it).  This past week has been a revelation; it’s already warm enough in the sun to wander aimlessly around outdoors, and the ability to wander aimlessly around outdoors exponentially increases your ability to pass the time with meaning, humor and consideration.  Sorry, I just liked the way those words sounded.  But the fifties rock!

Before winter came along I was getting into the Lower East Side, specifically the area below Canal and Grand Street, where the blocks run diagonal to the east-west grid and public housing tends to dominate the sky-line.  And now it’s warm enough to get back to exploring.  I’m particularly interested in the area known as Two Bridges, between the Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge, namely because of how close it is to the Civic Center.  I tend to think of the Civic Center and the Lower East Side as two neighborhoods that are further apart – first you have to pass through Chinatown, then Little Italy (what’s left of it), then hook a right for the LES.  This new approach is almost like a back door entrance.  Now sure, today this area is basically an extension of Chinatown, but historically it’s always been considered the Lower East.  That very proximity in fact played a role in the creation of the Civic Center to begin with.  The land north and east of City Hall was chosen as the site for various municipal buildings almost by default – the boggy ground (thanks to the old drained and buried Collect Pond) made the area undesirable for high-rise commercial development, and the slums of the Lower East Side made it an undesirable location for anything else.

But before any of those buildings came along, when the Collect Pond was still a pond and New York City still lay to the south, one small part of this neighborhood was used as a cemetery.  On present day St. James Place, just below Chatham Square, Shearith Israel, also known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue – the first Jewish congregation in New York (and the only one until 1825) – purchased land in 1683 and began using it as a cemetery.  It was actually their second burial ground in Manhattan, with an earlier one dating to 1656, though the location of that first one is today unknown.  As such the one on St. James Place is called the First Cemetery of Shearith Israel.  Burials continued there all the way up until 1833.  By that time development had caught up with the area and the city was beginning to nibble at the property; the cemetery shrank in acreage throughout the years, until only the small section we see today remained.

Well before the First Cemetery closed Shearith Israel opened a second one, on 11th Street just east of 6th Avenue.  When burials first began there, in 1805, 11th Street didn’t exist yet.  Six years later the Commissioner’s Plan was adopted, laying out the city’s grid plan for all future development, and the Second Cemetery lay right in the middle of what would become 11th Street.  Burials continued taking place however, as it wasn’t until 1830 that the street was actually cut through.  At that point the majority of bodies were dug up and moved to the congregation’s Third Cemetery, on 21st Street just west of 6th Avenue.  Only a tiny triangle remains of the original Second Cemetery, on the south side of 11th Street.

The Third Cemetery is by far the largest, taking up a whole lot on 21st Street.  It operated until 1851, the year that a law was passed by the City Council banning all burials in Manhattan south of 86th Street and prohibiting the creation of any new cemeteries anywhere on the island.  That law came just a few years after the Rural Cemetery Act of the New York State Legislature, allowing for the construction of large commercial cemeteries in Brooklyn and Queens.  A lot of graveyards in Manhattan were dug up at that time and the bodies moved to the outer boroughs.  This was partially in response to the cholera epidemics that would sweep through the city and partially an attempt to clear the land for more profitable development.  As such it’s a rare thing to find a cemetery in Manhattan now a days, and the fact that all three of these still stand (at least in some fashion) is pretty amazing.  And they aren’t the only three graveyards on the island, which is also kind of exciting to think about.  Do I sense the beginning of a new list?

(Originally posted Mar. 12th, 2010 on

14th Street & Irving Place

20 Jul

Riding into the city over the Williamsburg Bridge I’ll often glance at the clock tower that rises above Union Square, just to see how I’m doing on time. (I’m almost always early – curse you mama for the way you raised me!)  But what is this clock tower I stare at?  I realized the other day that I had no idea.  That’s one of the funny things about living. I was going to say: “about living in the city,” but I think it’s true everywhere; the city just points it out more.  We can have these daily relationships with various structures we don’t know anything about.  It’s why ideally I would like to learn the history of every building that I walk by, just as I’d like to know the types of trees I pass on every block (a good guess here is that they’re London Plane, or maybe Ginkgo).  For now I suppose I’ll settle for trying to get down the larger buildings, the signposts, the ones that you can’t help but see at various points and angles throughout your day.

The clock tower by Union Square, on 14th Street and Irving Place, is known today as the Con Edison tower.  It was built in 1928, designed by the firm of Warren & Wetmore of Grand Central Terminal fame (and also the original Chelsea Piers).  The tower was just one part of Con Edison’s larger headquarters, which took up most of the block between 14th and 15th Street, and had been in various stages of construction since 1910.  The original architect Henry Hardenbergh, better known for the Dakota Apartments and Plaza Hotel, designed a 12-story and then 18-story building on the site, but as Con Edison continued to grow they felt the need to build ever higher.  They brought in Warren & Wetmore to design a tower that could stand out on the city skyline as a symbol of their company.

The tower was designed with a sixteen-foot-wide clock face on each of its four sides, a recessed loggia above that and on top of its pyramidal cap a gigantic 38-foot bronze lantern, about the size of a four story building.  The tower was lit up at night with colored dials on the clock, a wash of changing colored light on the loggia, and five beacons inside the lantern: one shooting straight up, the others coming out the sides.

The intention of this light display was to advertise the wonders of electricity.  The irony is that when the Con Edison tower was completed in 1928 the company was still known as the Consolidated Gas Company.  Consolidated Gas had formed in 1884, with the merger of six of NYC’s independent gas companies, in large part as a response to the threat they saw posed by electricity.  It didn’t take them long however to realize that they might be on the losing side of history and starting around 1900 Consolidated Gas began buying up their rivals – electric companies – most notably the New York Gas, Electric Light, Heat & Power Company, which itself held a controlling interest in Edison Electric (we’re getting deep into some corporate history here).  Consolidated Gas then combined all its electric utilities into a subsidiary known as the New York Edison Company.  In 1936 they officially changed their name to the Consolidated Edison Company of New York, at which point about 75 percent of their revenue came from electricity.  Today they’re one of the largest investor-owned energy companies in the United States, taking in approximately $14 billion a year.  Well yeah, they send you a bill every month and you pay them.  What else are you supposed to do?

(Originally posted Mar. 5th, 2010 on

Madison Avenue & 72nd Street

18 Jul

It seems like a good week for staying indoors, ideally somewhere with a lot of windows offering a multitude of views of the windy, wet and slush filled street. I’m picturing a giant wooden dining room table covered with hardcover books and the only light that gray and muted color that is the sun diffused through layers and layers of cloud. It’s like a boat on the North Sea, dark and lonely in the daytime, though maybe not lonely so much as just outside the flood. The flood being time. And although snow and rain might feed the flood, as they’re falling they’re something else entirely: they’re the moment, “this life’s howling gale.” Or to quote W.G. Sebald, “Why does time stand eternally still and motionless in one place, and rush headlong by in another? In what way do objects immersed in time differ from those left untouched by it?” I’m picturing a room that’s still and motionless; I’m picturing a room that floats.

Really I’m picturing the Rhinelander Mansion: the Gertrude Rhinelander Waldo Mansion, on 72nd Street and Madison. This place was basically constructed to be haunted, cut loose from time – a rock sticking out of the river, or else just bobbing round and round as in an eddy. It was commissioned in 1895, designed in a neo French Renaissance style that already made it seem much older than it was, and finished in 1898. Then for over twenty years it sat uninhabited.

It was commissioned by Gertrude Rhinelander Waldo (hence the name), of the very wealthy, land-owning Rhinelander family, their New York ancestry dating back to 1696. The Rhinelander’s were one of the big building families of the 19th century, especially on the far Upper East Side, and particularly on the 72 acres of land that had earlier made up their summer home. The mansion (west of those holdings) was built by the firm of Kimball & Thompson and was based on the Loire valley chateaux of the early French Renaissance. It’s size alone made it one of the more notable and imposing of the many palaces going up at the time for New York’s aristocracy. What made it even more notable was the widowed Mrs. Rhinelander Waldo’s decision not to move in when the building was completed. Instead she lived directly across the street with her unmarried sister, until her death in 1914. From there she could look out the window and watch her empty mansion slowly deteriorate. It was also burglarized a number of times; apparently she kept about $200,000 worth of art-work in the unused house – a mark that was too hard for some people to resist.

Just before Gertrude’s death the Dime Savings Bank of Brooklyn foreclosed on the mortgage and began court proceedings to allow the building to become a commercial property. They were successful and in 1921 it was finally occupied, though only partially and not as a residence, when an antique dealer leased out the ground floor. The top four floors were eventually turned into two separate residential apartments, though not for particularly long. In 1971 St. James Episcopal Church right next door bought the mansion to serve as their administrative offices. Then in 1983 Ralph Lauren acquired the lease (though not the deed) for the entire building and after a massive overhaul turned it into his Polo Ralph Lauren flagship store, which it remains today.

So there you go: the classic style of the old wealthy being sold in a mansion of the old wealthy, by a company that’s very wealthy (Forbes listed Ralph Lauren as the 224th richest person in the world in 2009 – that’s out of a world population of about 6.8 billion). So time marches on. The flood catches up with most things (well of course – this is the Upper East Side of Manhattan!) It looks like we’re not going to be able to stand here in the gray light after all, solitary and above the water, even if, right now, it’s snowing out.

(Originally posted Feb. 26th, 2010 on