Concierge: Hidden Cultural Gems

by Louise Mirrer Today, people everywhere envision New York as a crowded skyline of gleaming skyscrapers. To my mind, some of the most interesting and historic buildings to visit in the city are churches and synagogues—or were built to resemble ancient temples. On the following pages, we visit some on a stroll through the past. The Moorish-style Central Synagogue on Lexington Avenue at 55th Street, built in 1870 on the model of a synagogue in Budapest. The building houses the oldest Reform congregation in continuous service in New York City. Its architect, Henry Fernbach, was one of the first Jewish architects to practice in the United States. (Impressions, 215) The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights. Franklin D. Roosevelt launched a massive fundraising campaign to complete work on the building in 1925, the year this poster was issued and more than 30 years after construction began. FDR called it the “shrine of worship for all people.” (Impressions, 168) St. Patrick’s Cathedral stands at Fifth Avenue and 50th Street. It was designed by James Renwick in the Neo-Gothic style (1859-79). After Archbishop John Hughes announced his inspired ambition to build the “new” Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, it was ridiculed as “Hughes’ Folly,” as the proposed, near-wilderness site was considered too far outside the city. Neither the bloodshed of the Civil War nor the resultant lack of manpower or funds would derail the ultimate fulfillment of Hughes’ dream and architect Renwick’s bold plan. Through the generosity of 103 citizens who pledged $1,000 each and the collective “pennies” of thousands of largely Irish, immigrant poor, Hughes’ vision became a shining reality. The James A. Farley Post Office was built by McKim, Mead & White in 1912 and opened for business in 1914. The imposing Eighth Avenue façade, composed of massive Corinthian columns, was originally meant to echo the power of the façade of Pennsylvania Station directly across the street, also designed by McKim, Mead & White but demolished in 1963. The Farley Post Office is considered a jewel of New York City’s architectural history. INTERESTING, TOO, ARE SOME OF THE CITY’S “QUIRKIER” BUILDINGS. FOR EXAMPLE . . . Jefferson Market Clock on Sixth Avenue at West 10th Street, designed by Frederick Withers and Calvert Vaux in 1874-77. This wonderful example of High Victorian architecture would be more at home in London than New York. The building housed criminals and vagrants, whom some complained were undeserving of such ornate surroundings. (Impressions, 225) The 21-story Fuller Building designed by Daniel H. Burnham & Company was nicknamed the “Flatiron Building” after the appliance it resembled. The building, the tallest of its era, would be the first of many skyscrapers to be built in New York. (Impressions, 248) AN ICONIC NEW YORK CITY BUILDING THAT CONTINUES TO SERVE ITS ORIGINAL FUNCTION IS . . . New York’s City Hall, designed by Joseph F. Mangin and John McComb, Jr. (1803-12), is an extraordinary synthesis of Federal and French Renaissance models. The cross that graces the building’s cupola in this print was never actually part of the building. (Impressions, p. 38) NAMED FOR LEGENDARY NATURALISTS/ARTIST JOHN HAMES AUDUBON, ON WHOSE FORMER HUDSON RIVER ESTATE AT WEST 155th STREET IT SITS, AND WHO IS BURIED ACROSS THE STREET . . . Audubon Terrace was commissioned as a visionary urban space by Archer M. Huntington in 1907. Among its architects were Cass Gilbert, Stanford White and Charles Pratt Huntington. The original structures housed the Hispanic Society, American Geographical Society, Museum of the American Indian and American Numismatic Society, followed by two buildings for the Academy of Arts and Letters. A large equestrian statue of the legendary Spanish knight El Cid in the plaza was sculpted by the Archer Huntington’s wife, Anna Hyatt Huntington in 1927. THIS MAY STRETCH THE DEFINITION OF “BUILDING” A BIT, BUT SURELY ONE OF NEW YORK’S “BUILT” TREASURES WOULD HAVE TO BE THE . . . Parachute Jump, invented by Commander James H. Strong and designed by engineers Elwyn E. Seeyle & Company in 1939. Located on the southwest corner of the block between Surf Avenue, the Riegelmann Boardwalk, West 16th Street and West 19th Street in Brooklyn, it reflects the fact that parachuting was a favorite pastime in the 1930s. It was originally designed for the 1939–40 New York World’s Fair held in Flushing Meadows, Queens. HARRIET TUBMAN LED REFUGEES THROUGH THE SECRET BYWAYS OF NEW YORK SO QUIETLY THAT HISTORIANS HAVE YET TO SPECIFY AND ADDRESS WHERE SHE—OR THE FREEDOM-SEEKERS SHE LED—STAYED . . . Swing Low: A Harriet Tubman Memorial, 2007. New York City’s first statue of an African-American woman is a sculpture of Harriet Tubman by artist Alison Saar located on West 122nd Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. Carved on the stone fence that surrounds the statue are the words: ”Oh let my people go. What a beautiful morning it will be! Oh let my people go.” The sculpture received an Excellence in Design Award from the New York City Art Commission. Alison Saar’s model for this sculpture is in the New-York Historical Society collection. THIS 20TH-CENTURY JEWEL OF PARK AVENUE WAS DESIGNED BY ARCHITECTURAL GIANTS LUDWIG MIES VAN DER ROHE, PHILIP JOHNSON AND KAHN & JACOBS . . . Seagram Building, 1956-58. The building, at 375 Park Avenue, Manhattan, was New York’s first fully modular office tower featuring unobstructed views through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Mies’ decision to situate the monumental tower in a broad, elevated plaza was influenced by a movement to revise outdated zoning regulations mandating set-back towers. The tranquility of the plaza extends into the first-floor lobby, designed by Johnson. NO LIST OF NEW YORK’S ARCHITECTURAL TREASURES WOULD BE COMPLETE WITHOUT . . . The Empire State Building, whose great height and towering presence has captured the imagination of artists around the world. In 1931, it was the tallest building in the world (1,250 feet). Until the construction of the North Tower of the World Trade Center in 1972, it was the tallest building in the city, a position it reverted to after the tragedy of 9/11. Designed by Gregory Johnson, the Empire State Building occupies two acres on Fifth Avenue between 33rd and 34th Streets. — Architectural historian Louise Mirrer is the head of the New-York Historical Society on Central Park West and 77th Street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The collections of the New-York Historical Society—encompassing drawings, paintings, prints, photographs, architectural plans, books, manuscripts and more—document New York’s built environment from early days, when only clusters of low-rise buildings hugged the waterfront, up through the present.