Lexington Avenue & 51st Street

7 Jul

Well that’s it, seems like winter has officially arrived. We had a good run there – I mean yesterday was pretty awesome. But looking forward it’s only going to get worse from here. We can all kiss genuine happiness good-bye for a little while. (For me genuine happiness is somehow tied up with the idea of not having to wear a shirt.) In warmer weather, it doesn’t matter what you do – if you have time to kill just sit outside. The winter makes us planners, hurrying to get indoors. I just hope I’ve stored up enough corners to write about, so I don’t actually have to go out into the cold and look at them.

But you know, I do like Christmas, so maybe this is a little premature. Isn’t that the general line: that winter is all right until after New Years, and then it should be over with? Isn’t that why Jesus was born on Dec. 25th, to help get us through the darkest time of year, by throwing him a birthday party? Come on, who wouldn’t respond to a nighttime walk by Rockefeller Plaza for example, a light snow falling, the Christmas tree and ice skating rink and that statue of Prometheus? There’s something about Art Deco that really reminds me of the holidays.

ny_chrysler_night

What is that exactly? Well for one, Art Deco is all about ornamentation. It’s like an art design style based on a Christmas tree. But even more, I think it’s the sense of assurance that Art Deco embodies – this was a civilization that knew what it was all about. This was our Empire style, not much different than what they were doing in Assyria or Babylon however many millennium ago. So you know, with so much certainty of feeling, that Christmas must have meant something back then, even if all it meant was commercialization. To see Christmas at Rockefeller Center is to see it in that context.

Just down the road from Rockefeller, at Lexington Avenue and 51st Street, is one of the prettiest Art Deco skyscrapers in Manhattan. It’s the old General Electric Building, and its history is intertwined with its more famous, Christmas-friendly neighbor. The building went up in 1931, originally intended to house the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), a corporation that had itself been founded by General Electric in 1919 (and only sold in 1930 as the result of anti-trust charges). But before RCA ever moved into the building they were wooed away to 30 Rockefeller Plaza (30 Rock), which opened in 1933. NBC, also originally owned by General Electric, leased space in 30 Rock as well, and it remains their headquarters today. That left General Electric free to move into the building at 51st and Lexington, where they stayed till 1988, when they reacquired both RCA and NBC, and purchased 30 Rockefeller Plaza, now called the GE Building. In 1993 General Electric donated their old building to Columbia University. Columbia University, by the way, had been the original owner of the land that Rockefeller Center was built upon, leasing it to John D. Rockefeller in 1928, before finally selling it all to the Rockefeller Group for $400 million dollars in 1985. They now lease out the old General Electric Building to various tenants.

Phew, you follow all of that? The important thing to notice here  is that the rich keep getting richer. And maybe that the rich making all these business deals is how most of the rest of us get our jobs. Is that good, bad, or just reality? I don’t know. They do build some pretty skyscrapers. The main feature of the old General Electric Building is its 50-story Gothic tower, topped by an elaborate crown with lightening bolt motifs. The whole building was designed to blend in with the Byzantine architecture of St. Bartholomew’s Church, which it backs up against on its west side. It does a nice job in that regard. St. Bartholomew’s Church is probably another good place to visit if you want to feel the holiday vibe. You could take a little tour around the block, St. Barts and the GE Building, to encapsulate the Christmas spirit, peace on earth and an electrical appliance.

(Originally posted Dec. 4th, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)

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One Response to “Lexington Avenue & 51st Street”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Prince & Mulberry Street « corner by corner - July 8, 2012

    […] Last week I wrote a bit about Rockefeller Center and Christmas, and that got me thinking about Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, which sits just across the street on Fifth Avenue and 51st Street. And that got me thinking about Saint Patrick’s Old Cathedral, down on Prince Street and Mulberry. And then I thought, I’d rather stay downtown this week anyway, and I remembered how a scene in Mean Streets takes place in the Old Saint Patrick’s cemetery – between Charlie and Johnny Boy – and how Roger Ebert described Robert Deniro’s portrayal of Johnny Boy as, “almost as a holy fool: a smiling jokester with no sense of time or money.” And I wondered, well who wouldn’t want to be considered at least a little bit like that? I mean, I can’t be the only one right? If you want to be holy, or if you want to be a fool, you need to try to work the other thing in there as well, to balance it out a bit, or else you’re probably just an idiot. A holy idiot? A foolish idiot? There’s a wealth of tiny distinctions here. […]

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