Fifth Avenue & 82nd Street

16 Nov

Sorry my many loyal and obsessive fans!  I want to try to post these more frequently but it’s been a busy couple of weeks: the hurricane, Obama winning the election (Obama!), the snowstorm, my local deli selling 24oz. Budlight Lime for only $1.60 which means you’ve got to buy as many as you can right now before they realize how cheap that is.  Anyway, I’m trying hard to get on target here.

One great thing about Obama winning is that I can continue to read about the daily and weekly minutiae of politics, which I really enjoy, without the despair of feeling like my country is being run by people with diametrically opposed values from mine.  I like getting up to read the paper – it’s not quite history (do you ever read yesterday’s paper?) so much as the dossier on a specific day, this specific day.  I like to see what I’m gonna find in there.  Though honestly?  I like getting up just to check the five-day weather forecast, the new temperature posted on the horizon.  “Into that from which things take their rise they pass away once more, as is ordained, for they make reparation and satisfaction to one another for their injustice according to the ordering of time.”  Wait a minute: is that what the five-day weather forecast makes me think?  What kind of pompous asshole am I?

I don’t know.  Anaximander of Miletus said that by the way, circa maybe 546 B.C. (I feel like Cormac McCarthy must have it taped above his writing desk.).  It’s funny to think of how many centuries the Greeks were studied and worshipped and referenced by such a large part of Western society and now it’s like “Wuuh?”  Instead we report about what people write on Twitter on the news ­– which I suppose is the modern version of what the Greeks called discourse.  I’m not the only one who finds that slightly scary.

Richard Morris Hunt must have known about the Greeks though.  He was considered the preeminent American architect of his day, or maybe the first great statesman of American architecture.  While a resident of New York City, it’s the unfortunate fact that very few of his NYC buildings still stand.  Among his demolished treasures were the New York Tribune Building (one of the earliest high-rise elevator buildings), Stuyvesant Flats (the first middle-class apartment building, or “Parisian flats” in the city), William Vanderbilt’s mansion on Fifth Avenue and 58th St. and Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor’s house on Fifth Avenue and 65th, which I briefly mentioned last time around; see I haven’t forgotten about the little tangent kick we’re on!  And see, I mentioned the Vanderbilts again!

Still what does survive of Hunt’s works are pretty impressive, perhaps none more so than the Beaux Arts Fifth Avenue façade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, of which Hunt was also a trustee.  He provided the original sketches for the Great Hall as well, finished after his death in 1895 by his son Richard Howland Hunt, and described by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) guide as, “the City’s only suggestion of the visionary neo-Roman spaces of the 18th-century Italian draftsman and engraver Piranesi.”  Damn, I knew something was missing in this town.

Hunt was president of the AIA (after 1869) and worked hard to impose a kind of order and prestige on the architectural profession – for one by favoring trained architects over older craftsmen who had worked their way through the ranks: a distinction that tended to break down along class lines.  No surprises there; Hunt seemed to have an appropriately Greek notion of the importance, necessity and responsibilities of the aristocracy, like so many people of his day.  It was the whole idea of the Metropolitan Museum in fact: a place that simultaneously exalted the treasures and status of the wealthy while being presented as a civic gift to the masses (though built on public land with public money).  Still, it wasn’t all lip service.  As Joseph C. Choate said at its 1880 opening, the museum would be a force of good, that by its “diffusion of a knowledge of art in its higher forms of beauty would tend directly to humanize, to educate and refine a practical and laborious people.”  Now I’m not sure if the Greeks were about that kind of thing exactly – bettering the practical and laborious people – but the upper crust of the 19th century surely were.  It’s cool; I can get behind it.  Well it’s better than just saying “Fuck em,” which is how I would summarize the current G.O.P. stance on things – and ain’t they supposed to be the party of the 21st century’s upper crust?                                      

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One Response to “Fifth Avenue & 82nd Street”

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  1. Park Row & Spruce Street « corner by corner - November 29, 2012

    […] New York Journal, just to name a few of the more famous.  I was reminded of them in writing on Richard Morris Hunt last time around, and his Tribune Building specifically, on Printing House Square at Nassau & […]

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