Sunday, February 27, 2011

A Beginning, a Middle, and an End (1 of 3)

The rhythm of the seasons, the structure of a narrative, and the progress of life itself follow the same basic pattern: there is a beginning, a middle, and an end. Not coincidentally, it is a canon of classical architecture that a building elevation has three parts as well: a bottom, a middle and a top. A well designed wall is said to be treated as an order, which means it's designed in a manner similar to that of a classical column. The three orders of classical columns - Doric, Ionic and Corinthian - are differentiated by the capitals on top, but each has the same basic tripartite structure, which the Western eye has been culturally acclimated to seek since Antiquity.

Even this row of modest, post-Civil War, middle class houses on Lexington Avenue - whose anchoring stoops were long ago replaced by store fronts - reflects the aesthetic imperative of a cornice on top to complete the composition of the facade.

These houses on East 64th Street off Fifth Avenue are grander, but their facades are still balanced by variations on the cornice.

A lot of us, walking around the city streets, don't even look at cornices. They are an often unremarked, unrepaired, and unnoticed part of the cityscape.

Some enlightened souls, like the owners of this house on East 63rd between Madison and Park Avenues, have recreated a missing cornice by exactly copying those on the contiguous buildings. This particular cornice was installed only two years ago, but few passersby would be able to tell it wasn't original.

Even when the cornice is a balustrade, as it is on this Madison Avenue manse, its function is the same: to complete the tripartite composition the Western eye demands. Much modern architecture either rejects outright or considers unimportant this basic architectural tenet. This is why some of us find many modern buildings exciting initially, but oddly unfinished and eventually boring.

BME (2 of 3)

The brownstone cornice comes in a variety of styles, but basically they're all pretty similar. Here's one on Madison Avenue.

Sometimes a row of houses will individually seem quite different, but if they all have the same cornice, then you'll know when first constructed they were identical.

These examples are on houses in the East 60s, because that's where I live. The same designs are all over town.

Metal cornices rust, get shabby, sometimes threaten to fall off, oftentimes are cheaper to pull off and be done with completely. When well maintained, however, they look terrific.

When they are pulled off, that can wreck your building - aesthetically, anyway.

BME (3 of 3)

This handsome old house on East 65th St. looks to me as if it was renovated just before WW I. I'm guessing a sophisticated new owner pulled the stoop off, reused some of the original architectural elements for a new front door (stoops by then being out of fashion), created a better proportioned front room on the parlor floor, a renovated kitchen on the garden level in the front, and a new formal dining room overlooking the garden in the back. The house looks good, but slightly top heavy.

Until the Civil War period, undeveloped Jones Wood, stretching from the East River shoreline into today's East 60s, was a famous resort for picnicking Manhattan day trippers. Had the owners not been such hard nosed negotiators, Central Park itself might have been located here. Since the 1920s, six brownstones on East 66th St between Lexington and Third Avenues, and another six on the same block of East 65th - together with a divine private garden shared by all twelve house - have been collectively known as the Jones Wood Association. The house above, on 66th, is typical of the Association houses, all of which are single family. It is very pretty, although it looks like somebody stole its toupee.

This fine brownstone mansion on East 63rd off Fifth Avenue looks "right" because it has a beginning (an anchoring stoop at the base), a middle (harmoniously related windows on the shaft) and an end (a cornice up top that finishes the composition and assures us that the building is complete).

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Big Old Houses in Palm Springs

I did find some big old places, all of them in Old Las Palmas. I suppose if I knew the town better I'd discover them in other locations as well. As it was, except for this small district hard against the foot of the mountains, the rest of the town looked like a modern shopping center.

I'm told that 60 years ago, there were no palm trees in Palm Springs - or at least very few of them. Such vintage architectural drama as exists around here depends heavily on the foliage.

Here's the sort of "mid-century modern" house that everybody in town raves about. Truthfully, those who rave prefer them even more stripped down than this.

Can you even tell that this is an "important" house? I mean, it's nice and it's definitely got a local look, but unreconstructed me could never live here.

OK, OK, I'll grant there's drama in this entrance.

Joshua Tree National Park

As long as I was so close - about an hour by car - I decided to check out Joshua Tree National Park. Boy, was I glad I did. I'd never seen a Joshua tree, leave alone such a luminously beautiful and, for me, totally unfamiliar landscape. Now I understand why people extol the beauty of the desert. It made me think a lot about the Don Juan books of Carlos Castaneda.

Besides the 50-mile views and the other-worldly vegetation were astonishing rock formations.

Here's the car I rented from Budget at the Palm Springs Airport. You can drive for hours within the National Park and see very little traffic.

Isn't this a gorgeous place?

Here's yours truly on a trail leading to a small dam beside an abandoned gold mine. Twenty-four hours later I was back in Manhattan.

A Visit to Palm Springs, CA

It was a business trip, but of course I made a point to check out exactly where the best houses were. Palm Springs has a glamorous image - golf, movie stars, resort hotels, presidential visitors, etc. - but the glamour really depends on whom you go with and/or whom you're visiting. They say today that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Back in the '20s and '30s what happened in Palm Springs' glamorous - if dissolute and largely closeted - film colony stayed here too. Things probably haven't changed, judging from the number of "clothing optional" gay resorts. Who knew Palm Springs was a gay town? I didn't. The mayor, most of the city council members, and half the population are gay. That part of the place I liked; the look of the streetscape, however, was pretty ho-hum. Palm Springs isn't big - a little over 40,000 people - and the mountains and the desert and the palm trees are all sensational. Outside of the occasional vintage building, plus a former movie star district called Old Las Palmas, most of the local architecture is what is flatteringly described these days as "mid-century modern." The town in fact is in a lather about its modern buildings. There was even a "Modern Week" in progress when I was there. If you like cinder block walls, steel and corrugated metal details, lots of glass, undramatic (as opposed to Beaux Arts influenced) floor plans, and an absolute absence of decoration, you'll like it here. Happily, I did find a few cool old places.

The biggest challenge in seeing what's going on, big old house-wise, is the ubiquity of high walls and hedges. They seclude virtually everything residential - humble and exalted alike. This street in Old Las Palmas illustrates the problem.

The city is built at the edge of a pancake flat desert that terminates in a sheer wall of mountains. It's very dramatic, especially in combination with all the palm trees.

This house in Old Las Palmas is about as grand as it gets in the vintage category. I'm betting the gardens and the entrance behind that wall are quite beautiful.

Sometimes you can get an evocative peek of a place that is otherwise largely hidden.

I don't know what the rest of the house looks like, but I like the front door.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Mansion on Riverside Drive

I've had free standing houses on the brain of late (see posts below), so here's another good one on Riverside at 107th. Somebody somewhere seems to think that Riverside, with it's magnificent water views, meandering roadbed and interesting topography, was once a competitor to Fifth Avenue. This notion ignores the principal concern of society people in choosing a place to live - namely, who's living next door. The Upper East Side was full of society people; the West Side simply wasn't. End of story. Some pretty nifty houses were built along Riverside, but with few exceptions they belonged to people like Morris Schinasi, the builder of 351 Riverside Drive. The Schinasi house was designed in 1909 by William B. Tuttle, a man who was not only an architect, but a talented cellist as well. In this latter capacity, Tuttle met and became a personal friend of Andrew Carnegie, who eventually hired him to design Carnegie Hall. Other Tuttle projects include the demolished Hammersley mansion on Fifth Avenue and 84th St., the Princeton Inn, the old Columbia Yacht Club and the First Baptist Church of Red Bank, New Jersey. Schinasi was an illiterate Turk who immigrated to America and became a cigaret mogul. At one time there was a Schinasi cigaret factory with 300 employees on Morningside Heights. Mr. Schinasi set himself up as a sort of Upper West Side pasha, complete with marble mansion and 16-year old bride. Do we wonder why the "400" were nowhere near?

Here's a side view of what otherwise, had this not been a free standing house, would have been a blank party wall. You've got to love all this detail, not to mention the quality of construction.

This is the railing in front of Mr. Schinasi's house. The house in the distance is actually the southern half of a double mansion between 107th and 108th. In 1930 the Schinasi house became a finishing school called the Semple School. In 1960 it was bought by Columbia University and at one point used as a childrens' day care center.

In 1979, 351 Riverside was purchased by the present owner, reportedly for $325,000, a big price at the time. Here's an interior view from a recent real estate brochure. Yes, it's for sale again, reduced from $31- to $20-million bucks.

This is a terrace of houses on 105th St. just off Riverside, built around the same time as the Schinasi house, and very typical of this neighborhood. They have a sort of Parisian feel to them, don't you think? Although to be honest, I'm not really sure what part of Paris they resemble.

Keeping one's perspective

We like to think we have the biggest and best of everything in New York. However, where big old houses are concerned, European cities have us whipped. Here are a few in London - and they're not even palaces - submitted to keep us humble.

This is Apsley House, located on Hyde Park Corner at 149 Piccadilly, and originally known by the wonderful address of No. 1, London. Designed by Robert Adam, this house was built between 1771 and 1778 for Baron Apsley, Earl of Bathurst. In 1807, Richard Wellesley bought it, and after his death in 1817 his younger brother Arthur moved in. Arthur Wellesley is better known - at least to us Yanks - as the first Duke of Wellington, vanquisher of Napoleon at Waterloo. He was the man who in 1828 tacked on that magnificent Corinthian portico. The Wellesley family gave the house to the nation in 1947, on condition they be allowed to occupy the second floor for as long as there is a Duke of Wellington. It was called No. 1, London because it was the first residence after the Knightsbridge toll gate.

Here's Marlborough House on Pall Mall, designed by Christopher Wren in 1711 for Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, and taken over by the crown in 1817. Marlborough House became a center of fashion in 1863 when the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII,'Bertie' to his friends and intimates), enlarged it and moved in with his wife Alexandra. It glittered until his accession to the throne in 1901. In 1953 the present Queen Elizabeth gave it to the Commonwealth Secretariat, which continues in residence today.

Here's the entry facade of Marlborough House. What a good looking place this is. One can just imagine all of Bertie's good looking friends climbing in and out of gleaming carriages and walking in this door

Here's Clarence House on the Mall, designed by John Nash in 1825 for the Duke of Clarence (later William IV) and now the London residence of Prince Charles. In 1840, Queen Victoria's mother, the Duchess of Kent, moved in and remained here until her death in 1866.

I thought this was an interesting shot of Clarence House in the mid-Victorian period. Nash's building is still mostly here, beneath a superimposition of "architectural doilies." Prince Albert, younger brother of the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) was in residence at the time of this view. After he died, a succession of royals occupied the place until 1942 when Princess Elizabeth (the present Queen) took over. Shortly after that the house was hit by Nazi bombs. When Elizabeth became Queen in 1953, her mother (widow of "King's Speech" George VI) moved into a restored - really rebuilt - Clarence House. If anything had been missed in that renovation, it was put to rights in a total overhaul in 2002 when the current Prince of Wales moved in.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Free standing

There are plenty of old free standing houses in the five boroughs of New York, but not so many on Manhattan. Some - like the Frick and Carnegie mansions on Fifth Avenue - are famous, but I wanted to dig up something obscure for my blog. The image above was taken in the early 1890s on a Harlem street called St. Nicholas Place. It's hard to see, but West 150th St. intersects St. Nicholas Place at about midpoint of this view. These streets were laid out on a hill above Harlem in a district that, during the Harlem Renaissance, came to be called Sugar Hill. In 1900 you could see the same sorts of bulky free standing mansions on the streets of Rochester and Cleveland, Boston and Pittsburgh, Detroit and Chicago, and in New York along parts of Fifth Avenue or Riverside Drive. Over the years almost all of them were torn down and replaced with apartment houses. "Free standing" came to convey an image of considerable luxury - read that, a lot of space. In 1888, the man who created the "Greatest Show on Earth," Barnum & Bailey's James A. Bailey, built the limestone house with the conical tower at No. 10 St. Nicholas Place. You can see it slightly to left of center above. New York society, we should note, wouldn't have been caught dead this far north on Manhattan, but the merely prosperous liked the big lots, sometimes with big views, on roads that at least were traversed by the smart set in their expensive coaches. The architect of the Bailey house was Samuel B. Reed, a mid-Victorian practitioner whose opus was much maligned by subsequent generations.

Here's a relatively recent view of 10 St. Nicholas Place, taken before a fire in 2000. Happily, the fire didn't do much damage, and practically none to the exterior. The neighborhood today is no longer one of spacious Victorian mansions. In fact, almost from the moment he moved in, Bailey lamented its invasion by apartment houses. His mansion today stands in the middle of a tiny island of old houses whose survival defies both logic and probability. Bailey stuck it out on St. Nicholas Place until 1904, when he moved to Mt. Vernon, New York. For much of the 20th Century, the house was a funeral parlor. It stood derelict for 9 years after the fire.

In 2007, 10 St. Nicholas Place was put on the market for $10 million. Two years later it closed for $1.4 million. Some wondered whether the new owner would - or could - undertake the considerable restoration. This is what it looks like today, so presumably the answer is "yes."

According to the reports I read, the fire didn't do a lot of damage but in the course of putting it out a lot of windows were broken. Why they were allowed to remain broken, I don't know. But they were. Result: horrible water damage throughout the, until then, amazingly intact interior. Here's a shot of the main stair, minus Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable. The damage isn't so visible on the lower floors.

The water damage is more obvious in this view. How about all this original detail? You don't have to like it to admit it's pretty amazing

Also Free Standing

If the Bailey house is not well known, the house next to it is even more obscure. Somehow or other, this old brick mansion has clung to its corner lot at the foot of 150th Street, gazing from a clifftop perch above Colonial (now Jackie Robinson) Park to the hills of High Bridge in the Bronx.

It's not a great house perhaps, but it's the sort of big old pile that people come to love. It's roomy and solid, full of personality, and it hunkers down reassuringly on the corner of West 150th St. and Edgecombe Avenue. According to the landmarks plaque out front, it was designed in 1890 by William Schickel for an importer of religious books named Nicholas Benziger. Eloquent of changes in the neighborhood over the last hundred years, it has since 1989 provided permanent housing for homeless adults.

Here's a detail of the gable. These bedroom windows have the aforementioned view of the Harlem River and High Bridge, the latter neighborhood formerly filled with houses just like this one. Note Schickel's polychrome brickwork, an Arts and Crafts touch.

But for the Benziger house, the leafy suburban look of old Edgecombe Avenue vanished long ago. A great deal of residential New York City looks much like this - endless palisades of late 19th to early 20th Century 5- and 6-story apartment houses. They have eradicated the former reality of the streets on which they stand, rendering the past almost unimaginable.