Saturday, October 22, 2016


The city that never sleeps woke up in 2001 to copy an event made popular by London almost a decade earlier - Open House New York. The model has now spread to cities around the world. This is the sixteenth year New York has opened its doors to significant buildings throughout the five boroughs. Buildings that New Yorkers walk by every day but don't normally have access to walk inside to see what amazing interiors lay behind those facades. This year more than 275 buildings participated offering a glimpse into the magic of what lies inside a vast cross-section of diverse use pieces of significant architecture. Spaces in New York municipal buildings, churches and synagogues, cultural structures, historic landmarks, and residential buildings are all included in the tour. It's impossible to hit even a small percentage of the buildings willing to open their doors so for me, a neophyte, it was particularly hard to put together an itinerary.
A tip for anyone considering doing the tour in the future: sign up for the OHNY's mailing list. Some of the more interesting sites require a reservation. OHNY opens up their lines for reservations a couple of weeks in advance of the event. Some of the more sought after tours sell out in minutes. Since I was new to the whole process by the time I got around to signing up every single venue I had put on my list was sold out. I've learned a valuable lesson for next year.
Still there were plenty of buildings not requiring a reservation. I could fill my two days with eight hours each of pounding the streets and exploring parts of the subway system I'd never done before.
Since there were so many places I went to I'm breaking this event up into two posts, each dedicated to a day of the event
My first stop was to head up to 175th and Broadway in Washington Heights to the United Palace. It was the final jewel in the Lowe's chain of "Wonder Theaters". Built in 1930 the theater is a composite of almost every exotic architectural style available at the time. Like all the theaters in the chain it was more than just an escape to the movies.
When you walked in you became a sultan, a harem girl, a movie star, a princess ascending your own red carpet up a the grand staircase
From the spectacular entrance jeweled in gold and lit by huge chandeliers and a coved ceiling  all made to draw your eye to the painted ceiling
to the 3400 seat interior you were immersed in a world far from your work-a-day life.
Once youwere seated before the movie began you would still be marveling at the details dripping off of every column,
light fixture
and ceiling motif. . Thanks to the purchase by Reverend Ike in 1969. The theater has been given a second life and one all of us can appreciate

From the United Palace it was back on the subway and all the way down to lower Manhattan and The Hall of Records/Surrogate's Court.
The French Neo-Baroque building's façade is capped with a Mansard roof and sculptures of noted prominent New York figures supported by a colonnade of fluted Corinthian columns.
A row of oxidized bronze lampposts stand sentry at the mouth of the building
but it's the interior lobby that is the building's standout feature. A series of arches surround the main floor of the open two-story lobby. A second story gallery provides a view down to the floor below.
The massive nature of the stone and the sheer amount of it give the space a sense of its architectural importance.
The building is the repository of records and archives for the city. Its collection of historic photographs is available to the public and during Open House they conduct a sale of some of the images from their collection.
I'm not one to shy away from a photography sale. This one made it home with me.

The line for getting through the gates of City Hall was more than a block long but it went quickly and the day was beautiful so standing alongside the park that sits in front of City Hall wasn't a big inconvenience.
Inside, once again, it was another grand entry with a floating staircase
leading up to second floor with fifteen foot Corinthian columns balancing a beautiful coffered rotunda and oculus
There were so many standout features here in this Federal building but the one I loved photographing the most was a statue of George Washington statue standing just inside the front doors.
New York's City Hall is one of the oldest city halls still functioning as a city hall where the city council chamber continues to hold its meetings.
The incredible detail in City Hall was a photographer's dreamscape it only you find a bit of real estate that didn't have another body in it
Trying to pack as much into a day as I could I kept my choices down to whatever was in walking distance for the rest of the day. Federal Hall was close by.
Once inside I decided to bypass the historic recreation experience and leave to that those who had the time to focus on history.
Unfortunately I only had time to focus on the architecture. Much of the civic architecture in lower Manhattan was built during a short window of history so there was a similarity in style in much of the architecture. Once again the fluted Corinthian columns came into play as a strong architectural feature of the interior
and once again an exquisite rotunda graced the central hall of the building
A series of rooms flared out from the circular central hall housing historic artifacts from the city's history.
But my favorite piece was the stone standing behind stanchions just inside the entrance to the building inscribed with the information deeming it the stone Washington stood on when he took the first oath of office as the President of the United States.
The last stop on Saturday was the hardest to find even though it was right in front of me the whole time. The Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House hasn't been a customhouse for quite some time. It is now the home of the National Museum of the American Indian so you need to look closely at the engraved sign at the top of the building to know that you've arrived at the correct place. Even my GPS couldn't find it and had me going around in one big circle until I found an information booth. The guy behind the cart pointed at the building I was currently standing in front of and had me look up at the sign to my embarrassment.
There are remnants of the old customhouse still in place in the interior of the building. The oval custom's room with its beautiful glass ceiling and paintings is now a display of the city's history as it relates to commerce through historic documents and photos.
The building's architecture proved to be a real essay in contrasts. On the one hand there was an extraordinary elegance in its simplicity throughout most of the interior architecture. There was a real appeal to the absence of decorative overload prevalent in many of the customhouse's contemporaries.
Tucked away down a corridor that many seemed not to see unless they were looking for the downstairs bathroom was my second oriel staircase. Simpler than the one in Chicago's Rookery but just as striking in its simple repetition of forms.
Way on the other end of the spectrum of simplicity versus excessive ornamentation was the Collector's Room opened to the public only during Open House New York. This room, designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, blows subtly out the window. If you're a fan of embellishment than this is your Christmas candy stocking filled to overflowing. You be the judge.
Wall Street from the roof of Irving Trust Company, 1938
Berenice Abbott, photographer
Howard Greenberg Gallery, NYC

Thursday, October 13, 2016

One has to appreciate the immense risk corporate Restoration Hardware took in deciding on the concept for their new Chicago store and the restoration of the building they chose to do it in. The building they picked against the advice of many of their consultants was the former Three Arts Club located in the heavily residential Gold Coast area to the north of Chicago's main commercial action.
The club was built in 1914 but over recent history had become derelict and rundown, still the bones were there for a magnificent building. Yet its biggest negative was not having any foot traffic. Hidden in this residential enclave it would have to become in Restoration Hardware's CEO estimation their "Field of Dreams", make it and they will come.
CEO, Gary Friedman, fell in love with the building's Byzantine decoration, its arched windows and the open interior courtyard that let in so much light. It was his belief, a bet he was ultimately willing to make, that this should and could be the new home of his enterprise. So against the advise of many others the Three Arts Club very quickly became the property of Restoration Hardware.
Now for the concept, it has always been the goal of Restoration Hardware to blur the lines between furniture store and residential inspiration. The new element they wanted to incorporate into their newest venture was hospitality.
The Three Arts Club gave them a footprint that would make this possible. One of their first tasks was to convert the interior courtyard into the spectacular Three Arts Café. The original courtyard was only usable on a seasonal basis so the architects covered the area with a glass and steel ceiling and then put the café into the courtyard, the heart of the building.
It's a brilliant concept in the way they've incorporated dining into the commercial experience. There are other stores that have used this concept but most have done it by placing their restaurants in adjoining spaces usually with separate entrances. Here the lines are blurred. You have to walk through  several of the company's vignettes before you enter the café and then while in the café you have a view of the surrounding vignettes.
The hominess of these views give the entire first floor a vey comfy and inviting feel. I got the sense that there might have been patrons who had come in and spent the majority of their day sipping tea and dining on their signature grilled cheese sandwiches and fries.
In addition to the café the building's first floor includes a coffee and pastry shop and a wine bar.
In deference to the tradition of the original building that promoted the three arts of music, drama and the visual arts, the original stage remains and is open for use as a performance venue.
The store is arranged by floor. Each floor is designated to a particular division of the company's stock.
The first floor in addition to the café, pastry shop, wine bar and performance stage displays a series of lifestyle vignettes highlighting the buildings previous public rooms and the traditional Restoration Hardware offerings.
The second floor is designated as its bed and bath experience along with a design atelier where design professionals are given space and support to work with clients.
The third floor is given over to its children's collection along with its newly developed teen line. This is a big move for any retailer.
Most will allow a much smaller percentage of precious floor space to this category but here the under twenty group is given a lot of play with its own floor.
On the fourth floor you find the company's newest collection directions, Restoration Modern and its new fine art offerings.
The Modern line is a pared down version of its aesthetic with cleaner lines and a more industrial approach. The line includes all the same categories as its traditional line: casegoods, lighting and upholstery.
Each vignette is set up as a room where you are encouraged to sit down, put your feet up and see how it feels. There's no pressure, only smiles and an occasional "if you have any questions please let us know".
The top floor is an open outdoor garden complete with its own refreshments and a place perfect for hosting your own party.
You can take a subway there if you're like me and find yourself in Chicago without a car. I prefer to park my little Ford Focus at the airport in Milwaukee and then take Amtrak into Union Station. That renders me without my own wheels but absent of the headache of trying to drive into the city and find a decent parking place.
There's a subway station only a few blocks away from Restoration Hardware and on the warm day I was there the walk was refreshing but there's always Uber or a cab. Anyway you can get there it is worth the trip.
Now all we need is a client who wants to do a complete RH look so I can go back and purchase everything I coveted and drooled over.
Negro Cabaret, South Side Chicago, 1941
Russell Lee, photographer
Available through Shorpy Historic Picture Archive