Archive | October, 2012

Fifth Avenue & 64th Street

25 Oct

All right people, I think I’m actually going to stick with my regimen, as promised, and see where a tangent from my last post might take us.  Who knows what nuanced, layered connections we may find; what dives into the depths of meditative fancy; what skittering flights along the wild byways of the past  (hey, I’m just like Sebald!)  Although in truth I’m inevitably just gonna write about a building – it’ll be made of stone or brick or metal, maybe have a copper cornice or something, no bigs.  It’s still exciting isn’t it?

We know the architectural firm of Warren & Wetmore built Grand Central Station (their masterpiece) as well as Chelsea Piers, the Con Ed tower on 14th Street and the New York Yacht Club.  But what else did they build?  I have to warn you, the answer is going to involve a lot of rich people, and the slightly less rich people that worked for them.  That’s okay; that’s largely the story of New York’s development….this shit costs money, ya know?

And if you’re speaking about money the Astor family is a good place to start.  We still hear about these guys today.  The founder of this dynasty, John Jacob Astor goes back a ways – even further back than Vanderbilt; in fact he was the first millionaire in the United States, making his money in the fur trade (specifically beaver fur) back when that was all the rage.  The family fortune and bloodline was carried on by Astor’s second son, William Backhouse Astor, who himself had two sons: John Jacob Astor III and William Backhouse Astor Jr.  (I’m picking up on a theme of recurring names here).  John Jacob Astor III would go on to be the wealthiest family member of his generation – actively involved in growing his fortune.  William Jr. was more content to just enjoy the good life, apparently spending a lot of time aboard his private yacht (considered the largest in the world at the time) and standing mostly aside while his wife reigned supreme over New York’s high society.

His wife, Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor (who I’ve mentioned before), came from an old-money New York Dutch family herself, and was known in her time simply as “the Mrs. Astor.”  Her first home (with her husband) was on the present site of the Empire State Building, though it was initially torn down to build the Astoria Hotel, at which point Mrs. Astor moved to Fifth Avenue and 65th Street, in a house designed by Richard Morris Hunt (today the site of Temple Emanu-El) .

A few years later a house was constructed for her daughter Caroline Schermerhorn Astor (again with the recurring names) and son-in-law, Marshall Orme Wilson, just around the corner on 64th and Fifth Avenue, and designed by none other than Warren & Wetmore.  The house, finished in 1903, is massive (by my apartment’s standards at least): 65 feet wide and 5 stories tall, with an amazing blue slate mansard roof replete with five perfectly ornate occuli (them little round windows).   Since 1950 it’s been known as the New India House: the current seat of the Consulate General of India.  Now were the Astors connected to India itself in anyway?  There’s a good chance, given that enough money tends to make you connected with everything, in a certain sense.  And Marshall Orme Wilson’s son may have been a diplomat himself, to Haiti, so that’s a little bit of a connection I guess.  It seems like once you start on this kind of thing, there’s a connection everywhere; it can even get a little tiring.  We don’t have to keep doing it, do we?   I mean, even Sebald probably took a break sometimes, I’d guess; you know: just took a little walk or something, watching the leaves change, thinking about the past.


Fifth Avenue & 44th Street

11 Oct

In addition to trying to show how everything’s connected (does that sound a tad ambitious, hehe) I’ve also come to see these writings as a kind of incidental catalog – a tiny way to make some order out of the endless and overlapping stimulus and artifacts, people and history that make up New York; a way to keep it all straight.  I often think that I should be a bit more systematic about it all: actually make lists and follow them; of neighborhoods for example, or skyscrapers or churches or certain types of buildings, certain architects or influential New York persona.  But the whole point of life I think is that it isn’t systematic; that one can casually pick up some bits of knowledge as one goes along, to be returned to or forgotten as one needs – a catalog made on the run.  That’s how it seems to really work in practice at least, and practice is reality, and reality is fun.  Well is it fun?  Most of the time.

Cornelius Vanderbilt is one of those New York persona I’ve had in mind, since touching upon him when writing on Grand Central Station.  Following the path of his life would bring you in touch with a lot of the city.  Vanderbilt’s life (as biographer T.J. Stiles notes) spanned “the presidency of George Washington through the days of John D. Rockefeller.”  Born on Staten Island in 1794, the pugilistic capitalist made his fortune in steam boats during the laissez-faire days of Jacksonian Democracy, before making an even epically huger fortune in shipping (specifically to California during the gold-rush) and railroads.  He stopped going to school at age 11, and though literate was never much of a speller.  He married his first cousin and had 13 children with her.  When she died late in his life he apparently married another cousin, 43 years his junior.  He was worth over $100 million upon his death in 1877, a record amount at the time, and left almost all of it to just one son.  (Daniel Day Lewis would probably love to play this guy…and he’d only have to shave off his Lincoln beard and keep the muttonchops).

Vanderbilt’s wealth (if not his cultured respectability) allowed him to become an early member of the New York Yacht Club – founded in 1844 by John Cox Stevens.  Stevens was the eldest son of Revolutionary War colonel John Stevens, the one-time owner of almost all of present day Hoboken.  Colonel Stevens and his second son Robert Livingston Stevens where sometime allies, sometime rivals of Vanderbilt – running steamship lines out of New Jersey and up the Hudson.  Robert L. Stevens was also president of one of the earliest railroads in the country: the New Jersey based Camden & Amboy Railroad, which began running in 1833.  That same year saw the Hightstown rail accident: the earliest recorded train accident involving the death of passengers (2 killed when the train de-railed).  Vanderbilt himself was on board and almost lost his life when his lung was punctured in the crash.  It didn’t stop him from riding railroads though, or buying railroads, or racing his steamboats against his rivals.

The New York Yacht Club was founded with racing in mind too, though specifically the more patrician-worthy sail-boat type of racing (their schooner America won the first America‘s Cup in 1851, for which the trophy was then named).  The Yacht Club’s first home was in Hoboken, on land donated by Stevens, changing locations through the years (Staten Island, Mystic Connecticut) as their membership grew.  They didn’t build their current clubhouse on West 44th Street until 1899.  The Beaux-Arts building, replete with some pretty impressive nautical decorations, was the first building designed by Warren & Wetmore (responsible for Chelsea Piers and the Con Edison tower by Union Square), the same firm that would go on design the exterior of the current Grand Central Station.  Grand Central Station: the depot for the various rail-lines Vanderbilt himself owned.  So there you go, right back to old Cornelius again….that same reminder that maybe anyone’s personal history can be a proxy for the greater history around them, although it probably helps if you were the richest person in the country.   But who knows, maybe I’ll stick with this awhile and see where Vanderbilt’s tangents take me.  Yeah, let’s get all systematical!