New York’s Beaux-Arts Blockbusters

Like all New York newbies before me, the only expectations that I had of the Big Apple were what I’d gathered from blockbuster movies, laughing tracked sit coms and rose-tinted instagram feeds. What I, of course, envisioned was stumbling into one movie star to the next and eating my entire weight in bagels – as soon as I’d stepped off the plane. And while I got full from just one bagel (they were HUGE), I was technically successful on the movie/TV star front. You see, it wasn’t the Blake Livelies or Chris Evanses of the world I was hoping to run into. It was the bricked beauties that they come running out of..

Whether you have read my blog post on the role that immigration has played in New York’s earliest infrastructure or not, it’s clear to anyone that walks its streets that it’s a cultural melting pot for all sorts of styles and ideas. In fact, I would go as far as saying that this is what draws many people to New York in the first place. You would be hard pushed to find anywhere that has a greater concentration of juxtaposing art styles. However, like anywhere, it has not always looked or felt this way. Whilst the likes of tenements, the statue of liberty and Brooklyn Bridge, were some of America’s earliest achievements, it wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that NYC really came into its own. And oh boy did it! Often referred to as the gilded age, architecture in America was just becoming a licensed profession requiring schooling. As such, architects that had trained in France at the legendary L’École des Beaux Arts, came over to America, bringing with them their European design ideas.

So, to fill you in, Beaux Arts was a popular but short-lived architectural movement lasting from roughly 1885 to 1925 in the US. During this time, white limestone replaced brownstone and single storied buildings were elevated to allow for dramatic staircase entrances. This movement – if we’re to be anal – is a modern form of the Neoclassical and Greek Revival architectural styles i.e. influenced by European (and old world) ideas. It is best characterised by order, symmetry, grandiosity, and elaborate ornamentation. Well known features include balconies, columns, cornices and triangular pediments. Because of the size and grandiosity of the buildings, however, the Beaux-Arts style was most commonly used for public buildings like museums, railway stations, libraries, banks, courthouses, and government buildings. So, you can imagine that a lot of the infamous buildings we know and love from films are, in fact, a product of this architectural fanfare.

One such building is…drum roll please? Grand Central Station; the setting for that Gossip Girl scene. Yes, the one where Lonely Boy spots Serena Van der Woodsen in the middle of GCS’s concourse. Made of Connecticut Stony Creek granite at its base and Indiana limestone on top, the building is crowned by America’s greatest monumental sculpture, The Glory of Commerce – designed by French sculptor Jules Coutan. The statue, overlooking the hustle and bustle of 42nd St, depicts Mercury, the Roman god of travel and commerce; Minerva, the ancient guardian of cities and Hercules, perched atop a clock bearing the largest example of Tiffany glass in the world. In fact, it has an estimated worth of $10-20 million! Yes, I googled. No one has tried to steal it yet. What really steal’s the show, however, is what lies within the building itself; a heavenly ceiling painted in turquoise and gold leaf. The ceiling bears the eight constellations…backwards; apparently, its French painter Paul César Helleu wanted to depict the stars from God’s point of view. Though interesting, unless you’re an astrologer, I doubt that this is something the everyday tourist or commuter would notice.

Sadly, we almost lost Grand Central Station to the wrecking ball in the 1970s. It is only thanks to preservationists and architecture enthusiasts, that the terminal was saved in a landmark Supreme Court case (yes, that pun was intended). It is the demolition of its rival Penn Station, however, that instigated such passionate protection of NYC’s buildings. Penn’s demise is considered one of the greatest architectural tragedies of American architecture and, in 1965, lead to the founding of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Committee – the committee that helped save GCS. Historically speaking, Penn Station was commissioned first by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. They hired popular architecture firm McKim, Mead, and White, who settled for a Beaux Arts inspired infrastructure. Not to be outdone, the New York Central Railroad hosted a design competition for its own depot (GCS) —two firms, Reed & Stem and Warren & Wetmore, were chosen as winners, and they combined their proposals to create the building that we see today; a masterpiece with a sculptural stone façade and a sumptuous baroque interior. Grand Central was the overall winner wouldn’t you say?

The second beauty on our whistle-stop beaux-arts tour is New York’s Public Library. The set for, Sex and the City Movie; Breakfast at Tiffany’s; 13 Going on 30; Spider Man and so many more. The origins of this remarkable institution date back to the time when New York was emerging as an international powerhouse. The thinking was, if New York is to become one of the world’s great centres of urban culture, it must also have a great library. As such, Dr. John Shaw Billings, one of the most brilliant librarians of his day (I don’t really know what being an accomplished librarian entails), was named director. Billings knew exactly what he wanted – unlike myself, who panics when there’s two things she wants on a menu. His design, briefly sketched on a scrap of paper, became the early blueprint for the majestic structure that has become known for the lions without and the learning within. Billings’s plan called for an enormous reading room topping seven floors of stacks and the most rapid delivery system in the world to get the Library’s resources as swiftly as possible into the hands of those who requested them.

Again, following an open competition – popular during this time – the unknown firm of Carrère and Hastings was selected to design and construct the new library. The result, regarded as the pinnacle of Beaux-Arts design, was the largest marble structure ever attempted in the United States, with grand greek like columns. Once constructed, more than one million books were set in place for the official dedication of the Library on May 23, 1911. The response to the library’s opening was overwhelming. Between 30,000 and 50,000 visitors streamed through the building the first day it was open. In fact, one of the very first items called for was N. I. Grot’s Nravstvennye idealy nashego vremeni (Ethical Ideas of Our Time). The reader filed his slip at 9:08 a.m. and received his book six minutes later! How bloody amazing is that! I love this aspect of history and, indeed, library books. It’s crazy that we leave little remnants of ourselves through the items we interact with. I once found an old photograph tucked in the pages of Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. It makes me wonder what I have serendipitously left behind. Probably nothing more exciting than an old train ticket or credit card receipt.

Last, but by no means least – really, it would take forever if I listed all the Beaux Arts buildings in NYC – we have the marvellous Metropolitan Museum of Art aka the Met. Although I hate to bring it back to Gossip Girl references, if you have seen the show, this is where Blair and her clones ate lunch. It has also been the set for Hitch; When Harry Met Sally; Maid in Manhattan and a whole load of other rom coms. The Met’s roots as an institution, actually, date back to 1866 in Paris, when a group of Americans agreed to create a “national institution and gallery of art” to bring art and art education to the American people. On April 13, 1870, The Metropolitan Museum of Art was established and, on November 20, the Museum acquired its first object, a Roman sarcophagus. Honestly, I find it a surreal that museums – now entrenched in the tourist tapestry – once started with only one or two pieces such as this. My, how collections grow! The Met is now one of the world’s largest and finest art museums in the world.

The architects Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould designed the initial Ruskinian Gothic structure – remnants of which are still visible in the Robert Lehman Wing. The building, however, has since expanded greatly, and the various additions now completely surround the original structure as the museum’s collection continued to grow. It was at the turn of the 20th century that the Museum’s Beaux-Arts Fifth Avenue facade and Great Hall, designed by the founding Museum Trustee Richard Morris Hunt, opened to the public in December 1902. The Evening Post reported that at last New York had a neoclassical palace of art, “one of the finest in the world, and the only public building in recent years which approaches in dignity and grandeur the museums of the old world.” I didn’t get the chance to see the museum’s entirety coz, like the Louvre, that would have taken all day, but I did get my classic on the steps of the met shot…which if I’m honest, is what I really went there for.

Once described as an architectural layer cake, the beauty of New York is one that could never be unfolded in one mere blog post. However, one of the things that did strike me when visiting NYC wasn’t just the size of the city, but its sheer diversity. There are so many buildings that simply look out of place when positioned next to their sleeker and shinier counterparts. I find it interesting to unpick these juxtapositions and ask myself “how and why did we go from that to THAT?!” Akin to a movie or a TV programme, these buildings are products of their time; a result of social forces that have long since been and gone. However, unlike those actors and actresses that come and go, buildings like these Beaux Arts beauties will always be the star of the show. They will be making film appearances for years to come.


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