Monday, November 30, 2009

Lincoln Center Exhibit: Celebrating 50 Years

OCTOBER 15, 2009 - JANUARY 16, 2010

After nearly five decades of artistic excellence and service, Lincoln Center has embarked upon a major transformation initiative to fully modernize its concert halls and public spaces, renew its 16-acre urban campus, and reinforce its vitality. The complex, bordered by Columbus (9th Ave.), 62nd St., Amsterdam (10th Ave.), 66th St. and Broadway, includes the Juilliard School and Damrosch Park in addition to fines arts spaces (Jazz at Lincoln Center is south of the main campus, at 60th St and Broadway, Columbus Circle). Thirteen arts organizations are in residence at Lincoln Center.

To that end, the first exhibition to focus on the evolution and influence of America’s first performing arts center, “Lincoln Center: Celebrating 50 Years” features a collection of some 400 historic and contemporary objects: photographs, correspondence, costumes, set pieces, props and video recordings.

Images and memorabilia from the May 14, 1959 groundbreaking ceremony, including a signed photograph of President Dwight D. Eisenhower on the site as well as the shovel he wielded at the event, are among the items on display. A selection of architectural renderings and photographed models offer a full look at Lincoln Center’s architecture and planning from the original vision of the late 1950s to the current revitalization projects now underway. Rare performance images, video excerpts and personal correspondences are on display, including Leonard Bernstein, Beverly Sills, Julius Rudel, John D. Rockefeller, George Balanchine, Pierre Boulez, Rudolph Bing, Placido Domingo, Leontyne Price, Luciano Pavarotti, James Levine, Lorin Maazel, Wynton Marsalis and Jessye Norman, among many others.

The landmark performances and commissions that have come to define Lincoln Center as one of the world’s leading performing arts centers are documented in photographs and set pieces as well as signed scores, programs, memorabilia and selections of costumes and set designs. Behind-the-scenes photographs, video clips and documents illuminate Lincoln Center’s historic and continuing dedication to innovative technology. From its pioneering role in introducing opera super-titles to its award winning broadcast series Live From Lincoln Center and The Met: Live in HD, Lincoln Center’s pursuit of state-of-the-art technology has been and continues to be a vital ingredient in Lincoln Center’s defining synthesis of innovation and tradition.

Lincoln Center’s strong commitment to arts education is also highlighted. Photographs of artists who trained and studied at Lincoln Center include a youthful Martin Scorsese (winner at the Film Society’s first National Student Film Festival in 1965), a young Darci Kistler in class at the School of American Ballet with teacher Suki Schorer, as well as Kevin Kline and Patti LuPone during their Juilliard years. Also on view are student art work and letters as well a listing of musical cues for a 1962 Young People’s Concert notated front and back with Leonard Bernstein’s own edits.

The Donald and Mary Oenslager Gallery of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center is located at 40 Lincoln Center Plaza (between the Metropolitan Opera House and the Vivian Beaumont Theater; see map below). Exhibition hours through January 16, 2010, are Monday and Thursday from 12:00 p.m. to 8 p.m.; Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday from 11:00 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.; closed Sundays and holidays. Admission is free. For exhibition information, call 212.870.1630 or visit the Library’s website at

On October 1, 2009, the Lincoln Center Revson Fountain, the centerpiece of Josie Robertson Plaza, returned to a fully functioning state. WET Design, the company responsible for the landmark fountain display at Bellagio Las Vegas, redesigned the Philip Johnson original fountain. A ring of water jets that can rise 12 feet high “dances” at various heights and configurations. High pressure water cannons shoot columns of (recycled!) water up to 40 feet into the air.

Friday, October 30, 2009

King Cole Bar at St. Regis Hotel

King Cole Bar
After a $100 million restoration, New York's St. Regis Hotel is just as much of an old-school New York icon as it’s always been. Pass by Italian marble, gilded moldings and a gleaming chandelier in the hotel's lobby to the King Cole Bar, which houses a famous 1906 Maxfield Parrish Art Nouveau mural, complete with "fiddlers three." Mixological lore has it that the so-called "Red Snapper" drink came over from Harry's New York Bar in Paris and eventually morphed into the Bloody Mary, King Cole's signature cocktail. Beyond this claim to fame, this is the place for making good impressions and stimulating conversation, and even if you’re capable of neither, be heartened that the lighting will flatter you, the beer nuts are the best you’ll ever have (almonds, macadamia nuts and green wasabi peas are on offer), and your top-shelf liquor cocktail will be stiff (as will be the bar tab – trust me on this; about $125 for 4 cocktails including tax and tip). The scene can be subdued and tinkling or downright hectic at peak hours, since this is a rather small space. If you're lucky enough to secure a table at the banquette, settle in and sip slowly as the Old Guard and the Well-Maintained parade in and out. They serve the best Cobb salad I've ever had in my life.

On my latest visit I noticed a lot of “older” gentlemen in bespoke tailored suits flirting with/being courted by much younger unaccompanied women, if you get my drift. Dress Code: No shorts or sneakers after 5pm. No hats at any time. Don't come here if you can't make an entrance looking like one of the monied set; you'll spoil the ambiance.

If "mere alcohol doesn't thrill you at all," a celebrated afternoon tea is served in the hotel’s Astor Court room to the accompaniment of the requisite harpist.

The St. Regis is a Starwood hotel property located at 2 East 55th Street (at 5th Avenue) in mid-town Manhattan. Built in 1904 by (Colonel) John Jacob Astor IV, the great grandson of the country’s first multi-millionaire, the St. Regis is a Beaux Arts landmark. When it was built, this was the tallest hotel in the city.

The front desk and lobby are all marble and gilt (check out the ceiling frescoes), and even the standard guest rooms boast elaborate chandeliers (and a nightly rate of $850 or so; Internet access is extra, and you’ll have to upgrade from a basic room [lowly shower/tub combinations] if you want a genuine soaking tub). The hotel’s 24-hour butlers wear tails and white gloves and anachronistic charm on their sleeves, but they can also help with any and all modern conundrums, such as hooking up your iPod to play through your room’s surround sound system (in case you left the kids at home). Reassuring, no? The lobby seating areas boast elaborate period paneling and carved marble fireplaces, just like home. In a demonstration of silly pretension, door handles in some of the public spaces are marked with brass rectangles in French, so you’d better know a “tirez” from a “poussez.” I’m not kidding.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Chanin Building - Art Deco Masterpiece

Chanin Building
122 East 42nd Street at Lexington Avenue

Irwin Chanin was an architect and real estate developer who had visited Paris in 1925, taking in the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. He was so inspired when he returned that he immediately set out to incorporate these forms and motifs in his current projects. Not yet a registered architect, he worked with the firm of Sloan and Robertson to fashion his crowning achievement, the Chanin Building, which notably rose 56 floors in 1927 between the extant Grand Central Terminal and the future Chrysler Building. Its construction cost exceeded $14 million at the time, and the entire structure was erected in just 205 days.

The Chanin Building represents a turn away from the Beaux Arts style of Grand Central Terminal towards a more humanistic and modern imagery appropriate to the industrial age. In particular, the facade illustrates the introduction of colored glass, stone and metal on the exterior of tall buildings. Materials such as bronze, marble and terra-cotta are used in inventive and exuberant ways. Inside the lobby, the walls are decorated with reliefs by set-designer Jacques Delamarre and Renee Chambellan that represent "The City of Opportunity" and "The Active Life of the Individual," the latter a reference to Irwin Chanin's own rise from childhood poverty to power and wealth.

Above the base, the building's steel frame is clad in buff brick and terra cotta and is set back (starting at the 22nd floor) in conformance with the 1916 Zoning Law. At the top, it is capped by a dramatic crenelated feature that was once illuminated at night. To attract tenants, Chanin provided centralized services at the base of the building including an underground connection to Grand Central Terminal and ground-floor retail spaces.

The detail on this office building is some of the most exquisite French-inspired Art-Deco ornament ever created in New York. On the outside is a band of stylized terra-cotta with curving and angular leaf-like forms, and a frieze over the storefronts that was meant both to entertain and educate. It depicts the theory of evolution – the frieze starts with amoebae and then the amoebae become jellyfish, the jellyfish become fish, the fish become geese, and there it stops abruptly. At that point, the theory was too controversial to continue! This bronze frieze at street level depicts the sea and the tower rising majestically above it as land. The street level blandness of the Chrysler Building is a poor relation to the rich ornamentation visible to pedestrians as they approach the Chanin Building.

The main lobby boasts beautiful elevator doors that use the same goose motif used outside. A client would take one of the elevators to the top floor, to Chanin's office. But before entering his office, the guest had to pass through a pair of bronze gates that were every bit as much a part of the building's story. The gates represented the greatness of the city, with its art and commerce and its tremendous dynamism. Decorative elements included gears, which signify the industrial prominence of a great city like New York. And, at the top, in the center, a violin splits in half, indicating the cultural life of the city. Included are dynamic electrical bolts that shoot through, indicating the city's dynamism. None of this would have been possible without a great deal of money, so these gates rest on piles of gold coins. Amazing. Irwin Chanin ran his real estate empire from his private office in the Chanin Building up until a month before his death in 1988.

There was a private cinema theater on the 50th floor, as well as a viewing roof, neither of which is accessible anymore. At one time a bus depot with a rotating turntable was located on the ground floor. Overshadowed by the neighboring Chrysler Building, Chanin’s glorious edifice still had a tremendous influence on the future Rockefeller Center complex and remains a monument to the Art-Deco style.

In the summer of 2007 a Con Ed steam pipe ruptured within the building, and the explosion resulted in the temporary closing of the Chanin Building. 120 windows were broken, and the New York Fire Department teams caused much damage as they responded to the crisis. As well, there was significant water damage caused by the steam explosion. The building reopened on July 30, 2007, a scant ten days after the steam pipe rupture. No physical evidence of the explosion remains.

In 1915 Brooklyn native
Irwin Chanin (1891-1988) graduated from Cooper Union college, located in the East Village area of Manhattan. In 1981 Cooper Union named its school of architecture after him: The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at The Cooper Union. The school ranks among the top five architecture study programs in the United States. In the span of his 96 years, Chanin designed, developed and built apartment buildings, movie palaces and Broadway theatres. From 1931 until his death, Chanin lived at the Century, a 400-unit apartment building he built in Manhattan.

From bottom to top: bronze, Belgian marble, terra cotta relief.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Standard (hotel)

848 Washington Street at 13th St.
Rooms from $195; 212.645.4646

The Standard Hotel on the High Line is now open. The hotel is a rare bit of concrete construction in NYC, perched up on stilts directly above the High Line, a strip of abandoned elevated railroad track being converted into a park running through the Meatpacking District and West Village. The hotel’s architecture and interior decoration have a strong 1960s retro vibe. Rooms feature floor to ceiling glass windows and bathrooms with glass walls looking into the guest rooms, many of which have stunning views of the Hudson River. Note: Bear in mind that there is no way to eliminate the direct view from the bathroom into the guest room (only the toilets are screened off); this will be considered problematic for some, sexy as hell for others. Each room has a sofa, flat screen TV and free WiFi. Premium-priced corner rooms and suites are especially coveted.

The full length of the High Line park will be open by mid June, 2009. The result will be similar to the popular Promenade Plantée in Paris, a park also constructed on disused elevated railroad tracks.

The runway-like entry path, flanked by yellow plastic picnic tables, continues through the revolving door and into lobby.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Helmsley Building at Park Avenue

The Helmsley Building, designed by Warren & Wetmore, is a 35-story building positioned in the center of Park Avenue. Before being dwarfed by the 1960s Pan Am Building (now the Met Life Building), it served as a visual termination point for Park Avenue at 46th Street, immediately north of Grand Central Terminal. It was the tallest element of the vast Terminal City project of hotels, offices, post office and railroad terminal that began construction in 1912. The Helmsley Building was designated a landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1987.

Built in 1929 as the headquarters for the New York Central Railroad Company (founded by Cornelius Vanderbilt), it was originally called the New York Central Building. When New York Central sold the building to real estate mogul Harry Helmsley, he renamed it the New York General Building. His wife, Leona Helmsley, infamous for her well-publicized tax evasion indictment in 1989, later renamed it the Helmsley Building. Helmsley-Spear Management owned the property until 1998, when it was sold to Max Capital for $253 million. It was sold again in 2006 for $705 million to Istithmar, an investment firm owned by the royal family of Dubai. It was subsequently sold to Goldman Sachs in 2007 for over $1 billion; in nine years the value thus increased four-fold. Stipulations require the name to remain The Helmsley Building, regardless of the owner.

The cupola-capped pyramid roof is dramatically lit at night:

Before the electrification of the New York Central Railroad in 1912-1913, the neighborhood north of Grand Central Terminal was populated with open-air railway yards and tracks used by steam locomotives. The electrification and covering of the yards enabled the continuation of Park Avenue to the north and the construction of new buildings such as this.

The middle part of the building, flanked by 15-story wings on the sides, rises as a tower to the pilastered top and the pyramidal roof, crowned by a distinctive copper-clad cupola. At night the roof and cupola are illuminated. At the base of the tower, there are two large arched portals on either side of the lobby to provide access for traffic from Park Avenue through the building, to the elevated platforms past Met Life and Grand Central Terminal, and to Park Avenue South via the Pershing Viaduct. Similarly, pedestrian traffic moves through two tunnels with connections to retail space. It is thus a unique drive-through and walk-through building.

The ornate art deco clock was erected 68-feet above street level on the cornice above the portal in 1928. Edward Francis McCartan created the piece during his three-year appointment to the New York City Art Commission. Cut in limestone, the clock features two statues four times life size. The male figure on the left is Transportation, symbolizing the spirit of speed. He rests his arm on a winged wheel of Progress and holds the staff of Mercury. On the right is a female figure, Industry, who embraces a staff in her arm, while resting on a beehive. Several other smaller symbolic figures round out the design including the Liberty Cap, crowning the clock's top. The clock, 45 feet in width and 19 feet high , has a dial with a diameter of 9 feet. Helmsley had the figures gilded, but subsequent restorations returned them to their original stone finish.

The ornate entrance lobby has lavish white travertine and marble decor replete with mirrors and chandeliers. Bronze reliefs above the elevator doors depict a winged helmet surrounding a globe, symbolizing the American empire's global reach. The elevator car ceilings are painted to represent clouds.


Mafia murder: On September 10, 1931, capo de tutti capi Salvatore Maranzano was murdered in his ninth-floor office here by hit men sent by Lucky Luciano and Vito Genovese, ambitious underlings whom Maranzano had ordered killed by Vincent "Mad Dog" Coll.

A view of the Helmsley Building from the Met Life building:

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Gates (Chelsea): Ghost of the Biltmore Hotel

290 Eighth Ave. (between 24th & 25th Sts.)

On May 8, Danny Kane and Rod Surut reopened one of the city’s storied and ultra-lavish spaces, the former luxury dining spot known as the Biltmore Room (the marble walls alone have been valued at $2.4 million). The venue is a super luxury restaurant/bar/lounge, called The Gates.

The marble and bronze interior was transported from the former Biltmore Hotel’s location adjacent to Grand Central Terminal to a townhouse in Chelsea (prior to the Biltmore Room restaurant, it served as a gay male club known as Rome, with staff dressed as centurions, so let’s hope the third time’s the charm!).

The hotel's iron gates and ornate, mirrored bronze door doubled as the grand entrance to the luxurious and chic Biltmore Room restaurant, which opened in 2003 with a month-long waiting list for reservations to sample the Asian fusion cuisine. In mid-2006 the restaurant closed when owner-chef Gary Robins decamped for the uptown Russian Tearoom next to Carnegie Hall.

Still intact, however, are the exquisite bronze detailing, marble floors and a ceiling glittering with crystal teardrop chandeliers. Separated from the more cavernous dining room/lounge by a pair of bronze French doors, the front bar feels intimate and inviting. Another carry-over is the former dumb-waiter that was retrofitted as a booth for cell phone calls – for those times when conversations must remain private.

Cross your fingers and stay tuned.

A corner of the restaurant/lounge shows the many types of marble used in the midtown Biltmore Hotel construction.

The New York Biltmore Hotel (1913-1981, nearly 1,000 rooms) was a landmark luxury hotel designed by the architectural firm of Warren and Wetmore, who also designed the adjoining Grand Central Terminal. Both buildings opened on the same day, February 2, 1913. The hotel was located between 43rd and 44th Streets from Vanderbilt Ave. to Madison Ave., and was one of several hotels built as part of the Terminal City project, a vast complex that included the train station, hotels, a post office and many commercial office buildings, all designed by Warren and Wetmore. The other hotels were the Commodore (now the Grand Hyatt New York) and the Roosevelt (still in operation).

Warren was a cousin of the Vanderbilts, owners of the New York Central Railway and builders of Grand Central Terminal. Warren’s partner, Charles Wetmore, was a lawyer by training. Their society connections led to commissions for clubs, private estates, hotels and terminal buildings, including the New York Central office building (now known as the Helmsley Building), The New York Yacht Club, the Chelsea docks and the Ritz-Carlton, Biltmore, Commodore, and Ambassador Hotels. The legendary Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC, is their work, as well.

Unfortunately, the landmark Biltmore Hotel building was gutted in 1981, and The Bank of America Plaza Building, at 335 Madison Avenue, was built from the hotel's steel skeleton. The owner asked in extreme haste, before the Landmarks Preservation Commission could take action to stop him. With no warning the hotel shut its doors on August 14, 1981, and teams of demolition workers arrived the next day. Even so, the owner/developer established a $500,000 scholarship for the Landmarks Commission, chiefly to stave off any further action against him. The bank’s offices, which opened in 1984, still retain the hotel's piano and famous lobby clock. During that time a collector purchased the hotel’s lavish marble and bronze lobby fixtures and reinstalled them in a Chelsea residence, which later housed a restaurant called The Biltmore Room (2003-2006) and now operates as a restaurant/lounge called The Gates (290 Eighth Ave. between 24th and 25th Sts.; 212-206-8646).

For decades the Biltmore Hotel appealed to lovers. Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald honeymooned there so boisterously that they were asked to leave, and the Biltmore’s solid bronze clock was a popular meeting place for amorous couples. Fitzgerald wrote a short story titled “Myra Meets His Family,” which is set at the Biltmore. An American Playhouse TV production of this story, which aired in 1986 on PBS, was called “Under the Biltmore Clock.”

The railroad arrival room under the hotel was called the kissing room, and was the meeting place of many couples who then would proceed to the Biltmore Palm Court for lunch or a drink. On the nineteenth floor the Biltmore had a restaurant with a hand-cranked sliding roof called “The Cascades,” which allowed diners the opportunity to gaze at the stars while having dinner. The circa 1920 advertisement below illustrates the placement of the live orchestra and tango dancers on the floor of the rooftop "Cascades" venue:

An innovation at the time it was built, the hotel was designed in an “H” shape, thus giving every one of its 900+ rooms an outside exposure. As well, The Biltmore boasted one of the first hotel indoor swimming pools and saunas. The Italian Garden between the Biltmore East and West Towers was an open air escape in the summer and served as an ice skating rink in winter. In the 1920s and early 1930s it had its own resident orchestra.

In J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel, “The Catcher in the Rye,” when Holden Caulfield showed up in the Biltmore lobby for a date, he was struck by the crowd of young women. “I was way early when I got there,” he recounted, “so I just sat down on one of those leather couches right near the clock in the lobby and watched the girls. A lot of schools were home for vacation already, and there were about a million girls sitting and standing around waiting for their dates to show up. Girls with their legs crossed, girls with their legs not crossed, girls with terrific legs, girls with lousy legs, girls that looked like swell girls.”


Located immediately west of Grand Central, the Biltmore Hotel had a convenient direct elevator and stairway to the terminal.

In 1970 feminists demonstrated to "liberate" the men's bar at New York's Biltmore Hotel. On August 10 Mayor John Lindsay signed a bill prohibiting sexual discrimination in public places.

Bert Lown’s orchestra enjoyed a long booking at the hotel. In this YouTube video his band performs “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone.” The accompanying slide show includes several interior and exterior images of the New York Biltmore Hotel. In a glaring error, however, the photograph of the lobby is actually an interior of the Los Angeles Millennium Biltmore, not the New York Biltmore.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Café des Artistes

Café des Artistes
1 West 67th Street; 212-877-3500
Open seven days a week, lunch 11 to 3 pm and dinner 5 to 11pm.
$35 three-course prix-fixe dinner offered year round.
Business casual attire (jackets not required for men).

This legendary café, built in 1917, has been a long-time New York favorite, lauded over the years as enchanting, romantic, and transforming. It invokes old world elegance, in part attributable to the famous 1934 murals of female nudes frolicking in the woods and a location in a prewar hotel just off Central Park. This gothic building was created to house artists' studios, and luminaries such as Noel Coward, Norman Rockwell, Isadora Duncan, and Gary Oldman have all resided here. The café functioned as a dining room and kitchen for residents.

The six murals are the work of Howard Chandler Christy, an illustrator and portrait painter who was a resident of the hotel in which the café was housed. His fame spanned the entire first half of the twentieth century. The Café celebrates the murals with cocktails named after them. Two are "The Fountain of Youth" (Poire William scented champagne with spiced pear) and "Swing Girl" (Corazón Tequila, orange liquor and pineapple juice).

The restaurant caters to a mature clientele in a location convenient to Lincoln Center.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Library Way - East 41st Street...

...a celebration of the world’s great literature.

Library Way, located on the two blocks of East 41st street between Park and Fifth Avenues, displays 96 bronze plaques designed by sculptor Gregg LeFevre. Each contains different quotations from literature and poetry. The plaques lead to the doorstep of the grand New York Public Library Humanities and Social Sciences Library, where the famed stone lions "Patience" and "Fortitude" guard its doors. The official dedication of Library Way was held on May 27, 2004.

In 1996 Grand Central Partnership, along with the New York Public Library and New Yorker Magazine, convened a distinguished panel of literary experts and librarians to select the quotations from prominent works of literature. These quotes have been brought to life by urban sculptural artist Gregg LeFevre in vivid bronze plaques that have been set into the sidewalks. In honor of the project, New York City Mayor Bloomberg enacted “Local Law 34 of 2003" on June 3, 2003, that ceremonially designates this two-block stretch of East 41st Street as “Library Way.”

A directory of the plaques may be found at:

Friday, April 24, 2009

Grand Central Terminal

87 East 42nd Street at Park Avenue
midway between the Chrysler Building and the New York Public Library
Closed for fours hours each day (from 1:30-5:30 am).

The four-sided clock atop the low, round Information Booth in the middle of the main hall gives the best viewpoint to see most everything on the Main Concourse. A world-famous rendezvous spot, the circular marble and brass pagoda in the center of the Main Concourse has a hidden, spiral staircase leading to the Information Booth on the Lower Level. During the recent restoration the clock (made by the Seth Thomas Company) was moved slightly to align with the compass points of the building. The clock’s faces are made from opal, and it is said that it would cost millions of dollars to duplicate it today.

As you glance around this vast concourse, you should perhaps first contemplate a bit of the rail history at this location, dating back to 1871. Click photo to enlarge.

Shipping magnate "Commodore" Cornelius Vanderbilt purchased property between 42nd and 48th Streets, Lexington and Madison Avenue for construction of a train depot and rail yard. On this site was the first Grand Central. This depot, designed by architect John B. Snook, was built at a cost of $6.4 million and opened in October 1871. Virtually obsolete on the day it opened, it was grandly reworked and reborn as "Grand Central Station." The reconfigured depot’s most prominent feature was its enormous train shed constructed of glass and steel. The 100-foot wide by 650-foot long structure rivaled the Eiffel Tower and Crystal Palace as the most dramatic engineering achievement of the 19th century. The updated station also featured a neo-classical façade, a 16,000 square foot waiting room and distinctive ornamentation, including monumental cast-iron eagles with wingspans of 13-feet (one of which was recently salvaged and will rise again above Grand Central Terminal’s new entrance at 43rd Street and Lexington Avenue – the other one can be found on the corner of 42nd Street and Vanderbilt Avenue).

With the demise of steam locomotives (which needed an open-air rail yard), the tracks could be moved underground to accommodate electric trains. By 1902 plans were in place to demolish the existing station and create a new double level terminal for electric trains. Excavation, which began in 1903, was an enormous undertaking, as the grade of the rail yard was lowered to an average depth of 30 feet below street level. The old rail yards were paved over all the way north to 49th Street. A stunning new Grand Central Terminal debuted in 1913, after ten years of construction at a cost of $80 million – roughly $2 billion in today’s dollars. At its heydey in 1947, over 65 million people – the equivalent of 40% of the population of the United States – traveled the rails via Grand Central Terminal. From the 1950s, however, Grand Central entered decades of decline, as the automobile replaced trains as the public’s main means of transportation.

In 1967, New York City's recently established Landmarks Preservation Commission (formed in response to the demolition of Pennsylvania Station) designated Grand Central Terminal a landmark, subject to the protection of law – blocking its planned demolition and redevelopment. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was an outspoken advocate against the demolition and redevelopment of the site. In 1976, the National Register of Historic Places named Grand Central Terminal a National Historic Landmark. During the 1980s plans were made to update and restore the landmark structure. This restoration, costing hundreds of millions of dollars, began in 1992. A gala Rededication Celebration of Grand Central Terminal took place on October 1, 1998.

The stunning result of this structural and architectural refurbishment stands before you. Completely restored to its original 1913 splendor, Grand Central has become a midtown destination for five restaurants and cocktail lounges, 20 casual international eateries in the lower level Dining Concourse, gourmet foods from the Grand Central Market and the 50 specialty shops throughout the concourses, all in to addition to its main function as a commuter train transportation hub (67 tracks served by 44 platforms, the largest train station in the world by number of tracks). Grand Central is also a major subway station (second busiest in the system). First, pick up a Grand Central Map and Directory at the "I LOVE NEW YORK" information window in the Main Concourse.

The Beaux Arts interior of the Main Concourse measures 275 feet long by 120 feet wide, and the vaulted ceiling is 125 feet high. The arch windows are 60 feet high at each end. The floors are paved with Tennessee marble, and the walls are covered with buff colored stone with wainscots and trimmings of cream-colored Botticino marble.

The most notable feature of the Main Concourse is the great astronomical mural, from a design by the French painter Paul Helleu, painted in gold leaf on cerulean blue oil. Arching over the 80,000 square-foot Main Concourse, this extraordinary painting portrays the Mediterranean sky with October-to-March zodiac and 2,500 stars. The 60 largest stars mark the constellations and are illuminated with fiber optics, but used to be lit with 40 watt light bulbs that workers changed regularly by climbing above the ceiling and pulling the light bulbs out from above. Soon after the Terminal opened, it was noted that the section of the zodiac depicted by the mural was backwards. For several decades lively controversy raged over why this was so. Some of the explanations offered were that it just looked better, or it didn’t fit into the ceiling any other way. The actual reason is that Paul Helleu took his inspiration from a medieval manuscript, published in an era when painters and cartographers depicted the heavens as they would have been seen from outside the celestial sphere.

In the original 1913 architectural plans there were supposed to be two grand staircases. In true Beaux-arts style, they were to be balanced, but with a few small differences. But when Grand Central was opened on February 2, 1913 there was only one staircase. The team of architects – St. Paul based Reed & Stem and New York’s Warren & Wetmore – somehow decided against constructing the planned second staircase. During the recent $200 million restoration the second staircase was finally built. Just in case you are wondering, the staircase on the west side of the building by Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse is the original staircase and the staircase leading to Métrazur on the east side of the building is new. The Eastern balustrades are slightly less elaborate to differentiate the old from the new. Both sets of marble steps, sweeping from the Main Concourse up to the mezzanine level, are modeled after the grand staircase of the Paris Opera House (Palais Garnier).

There are melon shaped chandeliers on both sides of the Main Concourse and several more in Vanderbilt Hall. They were always thought to have been bronze, but they had been covered with dirt for many years. The chandeliers were taken down and cleaned recently. Remarkably, with just one cleaning the glistening gold was revealed. Note the bare light bulbs. In 1913 electricity was new and not widely used by normal households, so the New York Central Railroad wanted to give the sense of grandeur, luxury, and opulence to its train terminal, and did this by showing off the nickel and gold- plated chandeliers with electric light bulbs.

As you walk around the building, notice the design in the stonework of the water fountains, above the entrance to the railroad tracks, in the design of the chandeliers, and in the green metal windows frames seen from the Main Concourse and Vanderbilt Hall – Grand Central is filled with acorns and oak leaves. Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt had a rags to riches story. He did not come from a rich family and therefore did not have a family crest as many wealthy families of the 18th century did. As Vanderbilt’s fortune grew, so did his desire for a family crest. He chose the mighty oak tree’s acorns and oak leaves, referring to the old saying “from an acorn a mighty oak shall grow!”

Two ramps lead down to the lower level, joining in front of the famous Oyster Bar (closed Sundays), which has been open for all of the Terminal’s history, in continuous operation since 1913. These ramps were hidden for almost 70 years. Back in 1927, the New York Central Railroad, the operating company at that time, decided that they needed more office space, so they built an eight-foot wooden ceiling over the ramps. This made the ramps dark, narrow, and gave a tunnel-like feeling as you walked down to the Lower Level train tracks. These ramps were opened up and brought back to their original splendor.

Photo at right:
On the balcony level the former private office and salon of 1920s tycoon, John W. Campbell has been refashioned as The Campbell Apartment, fully restored to its original splendor – and reborn as a cocktail lounge that has been cited in the national media as one of "the best bars in America" (open daily from 3:00 pm). Proper attire is required (no baseball caps, t-shirts, athletic shoes, etc.). If for no other reason, you should visit Grand Central Terminal to have a drink at this lounge. Note: The Campbell Apartment is frequently rented out for private events, so be sure to call before you stop by. 212-953-0409.

The Whispering Gallery, located at the end of both Oyster Bar Ramps when heading down to the Lower Level, is one of the bigger attractions in the Terminal and offers a phonic treat. Get two volunteers and put them in opposite corners facing the walls. A person can whisper into one of its corners and be distinctly heard diagonally across the gallery on the other side.

The Biltmore Room, known as the “Kissing Room,” was located right under the old famous Biltmore Hotel (now the Bank of America building) and was where the famous 20th Century Limited train arrived. Celebrities, politicians, and soldiers would get off the trains to meet their loved ones and hug and kiss in the middle of the room before going up stairs into the Biltmore Hotel.

Walk outside the building to see the sculpture “Transportation” by French artist Jules-Alexis Coutan that sits atop Grand Central Terminal's south facade. You will see Mercury flanked by Minerva and Hercules. Minerva is the goddess of wisdom and represents all the thought and planning put into this building. Mercury is the god of speed and represents both the speed of commerce as it grew up into midtown Manhattan from the financial district and, of course, the speed of trains. The mythological hero, Hercules, represents the strength of the men who built Grand Central. Carved out of Indiana limestone, the group stands 50 feet high and 60 feet wide, weighs 1,500 tons, and surmounts a clock 13 feet in diameter. This clock contains the world's largest example of Tiffany glass.

During the 1930s, a secret platform, number 61, was constructed under the station. This was built to convey
President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his limousine directly into the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, in order to hide from the public and press his disability, caused by polio.

The Seth Thomas clock company, manufacturer of the valuable four-faced clock atop the center kiosk of the Grand Concourse, went into receivership in January of 2009. The company was founded in 1813, exactly 100 years before Grand Central Terminal opened its doors. The company web site states that there is a new owner, and to revisit the site at a future time for further information.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

South Street Seaport Museum

New York City's maritime past is celebrated at South Street Seaport Museum, located in the 19th century waterfront district that today is home to six historic ships and exhibitions of maritime art and artifacts. Designated by Congress as America’s National Maritime Museum in 1998, South Street Seaport Museum sits in a 12 square-block historic district that is the site of the original port of New York City.

The area's cobblestone-paved streets surround a complex of restored 19th-century buildings along the East River at the southern tip of Manhattan island. From here it is possible to sail around New York harbor on a twin-masted schooner. The two block area of short brick buildings are a sharp contrast to the looming modern skyscrapers of downtown Manhattan. The port is as much an outdoor mall as it is a museum; galleries, housed in restored buildings, are in three locations within the seaport's borders, while the rest of the space is occupied by stores and restaurants. Except for South Street itself, the area is closed to automobile traffic, and the overall sense of the seaport is similar to other historic parks like Colonial Williamsburg.

The exhibit on board the Peking, one of the two tall ships at South Street, offers an impression of what life on an old sailing cargo ship was like. The galley, crew quarters, officer’s staterooms and captain’s cabin have all been restored to their original condition.

The onshore galleries feature a broad range of topics, everything from antique clocks to old charts, including the alarmingly inaccurate 16th and 17th century maps drawn by early European explorers. There is also a large assortment of model ships on display.

The best time to arrive is between 10:30 and 11:00 am.
The area sometimes smells bad because of the nearby active fish markets.
A visit to South Street will take at least half a day, excluding a harbor cruise.
There are exceptional views of the adjacent Brooklyn Bridge from this area.

Interactive map of South St. Seaport area:

Sunday, April 12, 2009

High Bar in Hell's Kitchen

High Bar
251 W. 48th St (near 8th Ave.)
Open 5 p.m. to midnight Sun.-Wed.; until 2 a.m., Thur.-Sat.

A popular spot for private birthday parties of the hip, young and rich. Be nice and patient with the doorman, and don't be put off by the decidedly unglamorous residential building which must be navigated in order to access this popular rooftop lounge outfitted with sofas and cabanas.

The West Side view from High Bar: