Saturday, October 29, 2016


I started the day closer to home. It was a shorter trip up to Riverside and 122nd Street. I took the subway to 125th and then a short walk over to Riverside Park and the site of Grant's Tomb.
The country's largest mausoleum cradles the tombs of Ulysses S Grant and his wife, Julia. Laying in rest is the general who led us out of the nation's largest and most destructive civil war and then as president began to lead the nation to healing and a state of peace.
Inscribed over the entrance to the mausoleum is the quote most associated with the general, "Let Us Have Peace", a quote as poignant today as it was back then.
As I walk inside I was first struck by the austerity of the space. There's a well located in the center of the floor in a room constructed almost entirely of marble. The railing around the well is a very simple unornamented ring of marble.
As you approach the edge of the well the contrasting dark stone caskets can be seen on the floor below simply engraved with the names Ulysses S Grant and Julia D Grant
but when you look up the view is very different and very inspirational. The carved nymphs, the coffered ceiling and the American eagles all combine in a very patriotic and spiritual way.
It was hard to walk out of Grant's tomb without having your emotions stirred in a good way. Choosing to go to see the mausoleum as the first stop on Sunday morning when I was the only one there was an unexpected gift. The solitude of being in there alone on a day of the week focused on introspection was very moving.

I hadn't put Riverside Church on my original itinerary. Mainly because it wasn't one of the buildings listed on the Open House New York chart of available venues but it was right across the street from the General Grant National Memorial. It was Sunday morning and the service was in full session when I crossed the street so I could only walk into the lobby.
The church was modeled after the thirteenth century Gothic Chartres Cathedral. It was like a trip back to medieval Europe. The church opened in 1930  with financial backing from John D. Rockefeller.
The church has an incredible history of advocacy for social issues with a speaker list including luminaries from around the world. Martin Luther King spoke here about his opposition to the Vietnam War. The church hosts a quarterly support forum for HIV support. Cesar Chavez, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Bill Clinton have all spoken there and Patti Smith and Yoko Ono have made performance appearances.
The Beacon on Broadway and West 75th was considered to be the "older sister" of Radio City Music Hall. It opened in 1929 three years before Radio City. The theatrical impresario, "Roxy" Rosthafel was the man behind both theaters. The original intent of the theater was as a high-end performance venue where ordinary New Yorkers could go to see vaudeville acts, musical productions and entertainers at a ticket price most could afford.
But the interior was anything but cheap. Massive murals adorned the entry lobby with a reference to a bucolic ancient Greece. Gold, marble and stained glass encircled the entrance
As you proceeded to the auditorium you passed through more ornamentation dipped in gold leaf and gold paint. A magnificent chandelier lit by electric candles and crystal beads hangs overhead.
Once inside the theater becomes a trip around the world with Egyptian, Moroccan and Middle Eastern architectural details. There are murals of Eastern nomads with their caravans of camels and elephants.
Thirty-foot tall Greek Goddesses stand sentry on either side of the proscenium. A Moroccan inspired metal canopy thrusts out over the stage supported by huge iron spears.
The stage has held some of the most remembered performances in musical history. It's a New York and national landmark well worth its designation.
There were five Lowe's "Wonder Theatres”.So next I made my way up to the United Palace in Washington Heights. My last stop for the Open House New York event was another long subway ride out to Flatbush in Brooklyn to Kings Theatre on Flatbush Avenue. Built in the same era as the United Palace, Kings Theatre survived as best it could in a neighborhood that was falling into a steady decline. It was able to hold on until the late 70's when the doors were officially closed.
They remained closed for thirty-seven years until area citizen groups urged the city to look into restoration of the theatre. The area's decline had stopped and the community was now on a upward track. It took two borough presidents and $95 million dollars to restore the building to what it once was. And what it was was the most magnificent of the five "Wonder Theaters".
From the minute you walk in you're enveloped in a fantasy of grand scale. A vaulted coffered ceiling reproduced in minute detail hangs over a grand staircase
The multi-leveled entrances into the auditorium each have their own perspective into the theater proper.
Once inside its like walking into a Faberge egg. It's a jewel box encrusted in a renovation one could hardly imagine looking at the deterioration the theater had suffered through vandalism and natural causes.
The remarkable proscenium sits up front with royal beauty crowned with its own jeweled and decorated tiara
The amazing plaster work recreated on the ceiling from molds taken from the various partial pieces that still existed is an architectural miracle. Colors were developed from old photographs and the most minuet flakes that could be found on a handful of remaining pieces.
The Kings Theatre reopened in 2015 and now functions as a performance center for a revitalized neighborhood. If it hadn't been for Open House New York I don't know if I would have found out about Kings Theatre but now that I know I'm on the list for future events and you can bet I'll be there.

Woolworth Building Aglow From Municipal Building, 1916
Edwin Levick, photographer
Available through the New York Times Store

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 fa├žade 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