Dec 18, 2012

Near Fifth Avenue's Holiday Frenzy, a Repertoire of Worthy Escapes

It takes a brave soul to withstand the holiday bustle in Midtown, especially Fifth Avenue near the glamorous glittery stores. Anyone who has tried to walk quickly on the crowded sidewalk under those famous high-flying flags knows exactly what I mean. The pedestrian drama at holiday time becomes intense and stressful. While venturing inside the 5th Avenue stores can offer a momentary escape from the maddening crowd (but good luck with that), those in want of a quick restoration of sanity should take flight to calmer streets.

This is your brain on Fifth Avenue during the holiday season.

Consider these nearby Midtown spots to add to your storehouse of escapes:    


1. Alywn Court Building and Petrossian Restaurant, or their café, 182 W. 58th St. (at 7th Avenue). On the ground floor of the ornate Alwyn Court Apartments (1907-1909), enjoy caviar and French-inspired food in a spectacular room decorated with Lalique glass and Limoges china. For a more minimalist experience and lighter fare, try the Petrossian Cafe, my go-to choice in the neighborhood. Even their croque-monsieur is handled lightly.

Alwyn Court Building, with awnings for Petrossian Restaurant

Petrossian Café

2. Steinway & Sons Showroom and Dowling Music, 109 W. 57th St., between 7th and 6th Avenues. (NOW CLOSED) This month brought the news that Steinway & Company is selling its 1920s-era building on W. 57th, sending disharmonious notes through the piano-loving public. While it's not clear if and when the showroom may need to move, you owe it to yourself to wander soon through the opulent lobby and the back hallways filled with baby grands and grand pianos. The hushed reverence of the showroom may seem intimidating at first, but press on. If you can play, try out one of the Steinways. You'll never sound as fine as in this setting. Go upstairs to Dowling Music to browse the large selection of sheet music and gifts for musicians.

Steinway & Sons showroom


3. 6 1/2 Avenue: The Pedestrian Arcades of Midtown, between 7th and 6th Avenues. This area of Midtown features several walking arcades, though a decidedly corporate New York version of the Parisian ones of the late 19th century. These thoroughfares, now officially known as 6 1/2 Avenue, break up the long east-west blocks for the benefit of pedestrians, even inviting a sweet short-cut from City Center to Radio City Music Hall. They provide handy cover when it rains.

Now designated 6 1/2 Avenue, one of a sequence of pedestrian thoroughfares in Midtown 

On 6 1/2 Avenue, just pedestrians, no cars

4. The back entrance to MoMA on W. 54th Street, between 6th and 5th Avenues. Cool people (i.e. museum members) enter MoMA from the W. 54th Street side, a less hurried entrance than on 53rd St. This block also sports some elegant Beaux Arts townhouses and nice restaurants. Sneak a peek at the museum's sculpture garden through the slatted fence.

W. 54th entrance of MoMA

7 W. 54th St, originally Philip Lehman House. 1900.

A peek at MoMA's sculpture garden from W. 54th St.

5. Paley Park, 3 E. 53rd St. Moving to the east side of Fifth Avenue, this small pocket park, built in 1967 on the site of the former Stork Club, is considered a model of successful public places. The necessary ingredients of public life are assembled here - a setback from the street, a water feature, nearby food, and moveable chairs amendable to solitude or to company. The waterfall makes loud enough white noise to drown out traffic but not conversation.

Paley Park. Stephen Sondheim's landmark musical Company (1970) includes a reference to this park -
"Imagine being in a tiny, quiet, little pocket of the park right here in the middle of the busy, noisy east 50s. "

6. Lever House and Seagram Building. After so much froufrou architecture (and yes, we started with the highly ornate Alwyn Court), a dose of architectural modernism works well to clear out the visual excesses. The 1952 Lever House is famous for introducing the world to the glass curtain wall, and the building has aged well. The Lever House Art Collection displays works of art in the building's courtyard and adjacent spaces. The tall, dark, and handsome Seagram Building (1958), a monument of modern architecture by Mies van der Rohe with Philip Johnson, is showing off pyramids of Christmas trees in its plaza.

Lever House

The Seagram Building opted for many trees this holiday but minimally decorated, of course.


Know your city, folks. You can play it like a piano.



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Images by Walking Off the Big Apple from the weekend of December 14-16, 2012. Clicking on images enlarges them.