Walks in New York and elsewhere

My comments on buildings, shops, restaurants that catch my eye as I wander around New York City and other places.

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Location: New York, New York, United States

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

From Lexington Avenue to Park Avenue

Look to the left as you cross Lexington Avenue to catch a glimpse of Central Synagogue, beautifully restored after a disastrous fire.

On the southwest corner of Lexington Avenue and East 57th Street, 130 East 57th, is an interesting brick building with a Kenneth Cole shoe store on the ground floor. It appears to have a six-story building set into a 17 story building. The smaller "building" is capped by an impressive cornice. The newish, and reasonably priced, especially for the neighborhood, Habitat Hotel, is in this building.

Across the street, at the northwest corner, you can't help noticing a granite skyscraper, with what's that in front? That's a tempietto, friends. Normally, it is considered a good thing for a building to follow the line of the street. Curved facades have long been considered artful. Here, since there was no curve to follow, Kohn Pedersen Fox (1987) constructed the tempietto, and curved the building around it -- on the corner of Lexington and 57th Street. Pretentious and overblown, made worse by the choice of polished granite. This is one of the last gasps of post-modernism. That is not to say that it might not look a lot better a generation from now.

The book, New York 1930, by Robert A.M. Stern, et al, which has a chapter of 57th Street, notes that the n.w. corner of Lexngton and 57th Street is a difficult site because there is an underground stream traversing the corner. If that is the case, an argument could be made to justify the jets of water flanking the tempietto as an aboveground expression of what lies beneath, but I'm not going to make it. There is a picture on p. 365 of New York 1930 of the truly innovative, technologically advanced building that was there earlier. It was, unfortunately, much smaller than the zoning allows.

Next door is Alice Kwartler, another one of the many antiques dealers on 57th Street. This store specializes in small goods, mostly silver. If you need a set of distinctive shirt studs and cufflinks, look no further.

Next to Alice Kwartler is a very bad "public space" that builders construct in exchange for being allowed more height than the zoning would allow otherwise. This one appears even worse than it normally would, since there is some construction going on that requires a corrugated metal roof hung with flourescent lights instead of the usual open sky or clear skylight. There are tables, chairs, benches and the inevitable "water feature" to drown out street noise. On one wall is a self-congratulatory plaque lauding the Cohen Brothers, developers.

On the south side of the street is a much-altered row, 116-124 East 57th Street. These buildings all have new building permits from 1875, when the street was beginning to develop into an fashionable residential area, beginning at Fifth Avenue and working eastward, in descending degrees of elegance the further east one got.

At 124 East 57th is the Wally Findlay Gallery. Was Findlay (and there are several) ever taken seriously? I point it out because I walked this block on one of the hottest days in memory, ducked inside to cool off and stayed a while to enjoy some serious air-conditioning. The paintings on the wall were colorful, decorative, representational paintings by artists whose names did not ring a bell. I did like these two small pastels.

At 116 East 57th I noticed a cusom tailor and shirtmaker, Barchi Designs, as well as a dignified harberdashery, H. Herzfeld, at 118. If you prefer china and glass baubles to shirts and ties, just move right along to 114 East 57th, where you can gaze into Leo Kaplan's crystal balls, well, paperweights.

Between Leo Kaplan and the silver at S. J. Shrubsole on the ground floor of a nondescript white brick building wishfully called "The Dorchester," is the restaurant, BLT Steak. On the north side of the street, you'll notice that 115 East 57th Street, a building that has a slanting first story or two. This was supposed to be an elegant shopping "Galleria." Judge for yourself.

At the southeast corner of Park and 57th is a large Borders bookstore. This particular store has been known to have a surprisingly good history section. Borders is in the Ritz Tower a designated NYC landmark designed by Emery Roth and constructed in 1925-27 as an apartment hotel. That meant it could be built, as of right, higher than a regular apartment building. At the time it was constructed, it was the tallest residential buildings in the city. Some of its tenants were William Randolph Hearst, Marion Davies and Greta Garbo.

Emery Roth, one of my favorite pre-war architects, loved ornament. His beautiful work has been referred to contemptuously by some as "cartouche architecture" and Central Park West would not be the same without him. His sons, naturally, turned their backs on ornament, and produced some very good, and some not-so-good buildings in the more or less International Style.