September 3, 2008

Living Now in the New York of the Gilded Age: Inheriting the Built Environment of the Nineteenth Century

Possibly the worst painter I've ever met in my life lived in a gorgeous house built in the thirteenth century in a beautiful town in Northern Italy. It was a cave-like structure with small rooms that spilled into the next, a sequence of charming vignettes. A medieval labyrinth, the house delighted at every turn. The artist liked to cook pasta in his converted Dark Ages kitchen and then set his Renaissance table with a fine selection of wines and fresh salads for his guests. Sitting at the table one could look out the window on a cobblestone road dating from the Roman era and after dinner sit out in the courtyard and enjoy the greenery and water fountain. A rickety staircase near the back of the house led up to his cozy book-lined studio where he busied himself creating garish abstract paintings with a toothbrush. He thought a lot of his "work," and whenever he asked me to comment on a painting, I asked another question about his house.

I tell this story because I've been thinking about what it means to inherit and inhabit the architecture of an older era, in this case, nineteenth-century New York. Even in the midst of the city's current building boom, whole stretches of valuable real estate are still dominated by the visible symbols of Gilded Age extravagance and the aesthetic values of the society that created them.

Even as we process information at lightning speed, untethered to the traditional means of production, we venture forth into a city rich in reviving the symbolic legacy of an even more remote past - Gothic, Italianate, Roman, or French. The more modern we become, the more astonishing the presence of older buildings and their colonnades, caryatids, Romanesque arches, statuary, garlands of embroidered cast iron, and so forth. It's the shock of the past. Anyone that pretends to know the city needs to get a grip on nineteenth century New York and its architecture.

Ladies Mile, south from 15th up to 24th streets and west to east from 6th Avenue to Park Avenue South, is an excellent choice for strolling through the New York of the 19th century, preferably clutching an architectural guide. I recommend the AIA Guide to New York City, Fourth Edition, by Norval White and Elliot Willensky, even though it's weighty. Once the shopping district of choice for the most fashionable of New Yorkers, many of the buildings in this area near Union Square and Madison Square have been repurposed for the needs of the contemporary city.

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple


See New York 1900: Edith Wharton and The House of Mirth, A Walk and a Map for the several related posts.

1 comment:

cindy said...

What a comprehensive article. One is truely transported back to Edith Wharton's day by following the path you have mapped out for us! Thank You, Cynthia Lyons