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, December 19, 2006

Chambers Street

One would be forgiven for assuming that the name "Chambers Street" has something to do with the proximity of courthouses. The connection to lawyers' offices is only indirect; the street was named in honor of John Chambers, a pre-Revolutionary War barrister, alderman, corporation counsel, and justice of the colonial supreme court.

All the classically-styled buildings on the block between Centre Street and Broadway are designated New York City landmarks. The interiors of all but the Sun Building, (n. side of the street, at Broadway)are also designated interiors. The easternmost end of Chambers Street is at the heart of New York City's civic center. Years ago, it extended farther east. Now, Chambers Street begins at Centre Street.

McKim, Mead & White's Municipal Building, 1907-1914, has large arches through which traffic used to pass to what was called "New Chambers Street" on old maps before the construction of Police Plaza.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us The sculpture, "Five in One," seen through the arch, on the plaza, is by Tony Rosenthal.

Looking up at the Municipal Building, one can see the sculpture, "Civic Fame," by Adolph Weinman. If you took the subway here and exited underneath the southern wing, you must have noticed the Guastavino tiles above. Image Hosted by ImageShack.us The building is massive, but New York's municipal government long ago outgrew the space.

The offices of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission have been on the ninth floor of this building since 2001. The windows of the hearing room overlook Chambers Street. I was standing at the window, looking down the length of the street, clear to the Hudson River, when I heard an earsplitting roar and, turning my head in the direction of the sound, saw the fireball near the top of the World Trade Center, six blocks away. If I had been looking 10 degrees to my left instead of straight ahead, I would have seen the airplane strike the building.

On Chambers Street proper, the first building on the north side of the street, is the Hall of Records, also Surrogate's Court, and the new home of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. It took a long time to complete. Work began in 1899, the building opened in 1905 and work continued unti 1911. The building was designed by John Thomas, a largely sef-taught architect, who died in 1901 and was succeeded by the politically well-connected firm, Horgan & Slattery, who had been hired by a newly-elected mayor as consultants. Image Hosted by ImageShack.us
Despite their promises to keep the costs down, by the time the building was completed, cost overerruns exceeded $1-million. The interior of the building is notable for its vast expanse of honey-colored Siena marble and a double staircase that brings to mind the Palais Garnier (the old Paris opera house.)

Even more notorious for grand fiscal excess is the Tweed Courthouse, (New York County Courthouse) on the south side of the block. Image Hosted by ImageShack.us Tweed Courthouse

It was built over a 20-year period from 1861-1881 primarily to a design by John Kellum, with additional work by Leopold Eidlitz. It is generally thought to be NYC's second permanent government building, the first being City Hall. (We'll take a detour to see that; it's right behind the Tweed Courthouse.)

Tweed was a political "boss," (never a mayor) whose "Tweed Ring" used the construction of the building as a deep pocket to embezzle huge sums of money. Justice eventually prevailed and Tweed was tried in a courtroom in this very building, which has never been able to shake his name.

After a lengthy and expensive restoration by John Waite -- there is no getting away from the fact that this building is a money pit -- the Tweed Courthouse reopened as the new home of the Department of Education and the City Hall Academy, a kind of model school housing short-term programs for teachers and students. There had been talk of its serving as a museum for a combined New-York Historical Society and Museum of the City of New York, or as headquarters for the NYC Landmarks Commission. (There was no way that the NYHS and MCNY would merge. Similar as they may seem, they are very different institutions.

On the north side of the street is the former Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank, Raymond R Almirall, 1908-12. It now houses government offices.

At the n.e. corner of Broadway and Chambers is the extension of the former A.T. Stewart store, the earliest section of which is at Reade Street, 1845-46. The original architect was Joseph Trench & Co., whose design was followed for subsequent additions. This was New York City's first department store and it set the tone in style (Italianate) and materials (Tuckahoe marble)for decades after. After 1919, the store having moved uptown, the building became the office of a newspaper, The New York Sun. Most peope refer to the building as the Sun Building. Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

The offices of the New York City Department of Buildings are located in the building. There was a beautiful restoration by Beyer Blinder Belle a few years ago.