Monday, April 27, 2009

A New York City Love Letter

As I sit on a five hour flight from DC to San Francisco, it is New York City I’m dreaming about not San Francisco, as much as I adore San Francisco. There will be plenty of time to enjoy Northern California in the coming week. Last weekend John and I spent three days visiting with my friends and roaming around so I could show him my New York. I was a little worried that many of my favorite places and past restoration projects wouldn’t stand up under such close scrutiny (from me more than John!), but was delighted that everything we saw, everywhere we went, seemed magical. The perfect spring weather didn’t hurt either.

Central Park

We bookended a lunch visit to my friends Juliana and Bruce’s new Fifth Avenue Apartment overlooking the Reservoir with walks through Central Park. The walk there was a bit harried since we had gotten stuck in the subway waiting for the C train and decided to emerge at 59th Street and Columbus Circle instead of 79th and Central Park West. The positive, even if we were a little late – was the fresh air, sunshine and a fleeting chance to show John the new (not necessarily improved) architecture of Columbus Circle (see my previous blog on that topic). Central Park is always startling but never so much as the first day of summer-like weather after a miserable winter/spring. Every tulip, daffodil and tree was blossoming. The colors were all surreally alive and beautiful. We roamed up the West Side and crossed over the Great Lawn, so we could have a few glimpses of the Belvedere Castle. Passing the Guggenheim we were both thrilled by how wonderful it looked, since the scaffolding has come down after years of restoration. A view of the reservoir and its fortress-like features gave us the perfect birds-eye view from Juliana’s apartment and got us excited for the slower walk back through the park to the west side for a Broadway night at the theatre.

The turtles were lined up in Turtle Pond, and the Great Lawn and Sheep’s Meadow were filled with thousands of picnickers, sports enthusiasts, kite flyers, bird and dog watchers. It’s always amazed me by what a dog-city New York is. In a city with some of the smallest apartments anywhere, everyone seems to have a dog. And the city loves dogs. Some cities are dog-loving, others are not. Washington, for example, is not a dog-loving city. The Park was exploding with people and pets. When we climbed up to Belvedere Castle so I could show him my handiwork there, we had to wait in line to get into the small folly.

Long Island City

When Sharon and Henry moved to Long Island City 6 years ago, their building was the only residential one there amidst gritty industrial and railroad structures. But their riverside view of Manhattan from the 28th floor, directly opposite the United Nations, Empire State Building and Chrysler Building surpasses any other view in New York. (Adjacent photo.) The small Gantry State Park is now abuzz all the time with musicians, families, dogs, runners and rollerbladers. (See photo below.) Sharon and Henry now seem like urban pioneers. I love Long Island City now as a place to live and were I to go back to NY, I’d look there first, partially of course to be close to my best friends, but also because of the view and the wonderful community feel it now has. There have been some tradeoffs, of course. The former power station has been sanitized, a little too much and not too effectively architecturally, into very high end condos (full disclosure – John and I were intrigued and went to visit them…). Some of the buildings are not very well built yet very pricey. But there is now a “there” there, and since it’s just one stop on the 7 Train from Grand Central, it’s a lot closer to midtown than even the Upper East Side (our former stomping ground).

A New Standard

Since I’ve been reading all about the Meatpacking District lately, our one venture outside of my usual places was here, partially to see the new Polshek-designed Standard Hotel which has been receiving architectural accolades, and partially to remind myself how New York it is to hang out in the current hip location (although if we’re calling it hip, it’s hipness is on the way out!) We met my Columbia roommate Elise and her daughter Issey at Five Ninth for brunch. The food was mediocre but the ambiance was exactly what I envisioned a restaurant in this neighborhood would be – industrial and recycled. The new Standard Hotel, the first piece of the reactivation of the High Line elevated railroad line park, did not disappoint. It’s daring and groundbreaking and its boldness in New York (which of late is rarely known for architecture that is successful and bold at the same time) is refreshing. Its placement atop huge stilts hovering over the High Line and peering out over the Hudson reminded me of Archigram's walking city from 1960s London which I obsessed over in architecture school. We didn’t go inside because we were out of time, but I didn’t need to go inside. I feared that my glee over its exterior might be tempered by an uninspiring interior. So I was content with marching around it from all four sides, particularly admiring the way it meets the remaining railroad structure.

Past Projects

I bored John with tales of my favorite stores, favorite gym, even my favorite bus line as I dragged him from the Upper East Side to the Upper West Side. But I was happy that he was as delighted to see two of my past projects – the restoration of the Belvedere Castle and the interior restoration of the Shubert Theatre. It’s hard to be an architect and go back to look at your work to see if it’s holding up to the test of time and to see whether those decisions you made during design were the right ones. I was more than a little relieved that both projects held up wonderfully. The glu-lam replacement columns I designed for the Northwest Pavilion at the Belvedere were still solid and the only really weathering was on the older sections of the structure that we didn’t touch. The steel windows and doors were still functioning if a bit rusty and after 13 years definitely could use a sandblasting/repainting. But it doesn’t look like either the Pavilion or the Castle have been repainted since our project in 1996.

We went to see Angela Lansbury (at 84!) dance her way through “Blithe Spirit” at the Shubert Theatre. That was my favorite of the three theatre restorations Fran Russo and I completed over a decade ago. It was a very subtle yet expansive restoration involving the usual paint testing and research but also allowed for some creativity with the design of the seating and the missing ceiling murals. We got seats in the Mezzanine so John could see the ceiling close-up – one of the features I spent a lot of time on. The carpet was fraying a little on the edges, but everything else looked like the theatre had just reopened. What a sigh of relief, particularly as I head out to San Francisco to be inducted into the AIA College of Fellows, making me very introspective of late.

As A Friend

I just finished a devastating and haunting jewel of a first novel – “As A Friend”, by Forrest Gander, on the plane. Although it takes place in Arkansas, the setting doesn’t really matter and it transported me back to mid 1990s Manhattan. While it is as spare as Faulkner and Woolf are verbose, the feelings the story and language evoked, took me back to my days of reading Faulkner and Woolf, about the same time I was finishing the restoration of the Belvedere Castle. Reading just one sentence in any book by Virginia Woolf uplifts me because the language is so beautiful. It was the same with Gander. Feeling his characters sadness was so vivid. And that brought me back around to my love letter to New York. For me, that’s what makes New York City so alive and so magical always – its vividness and its soul. It may not always be pretty but it is always alive. Many people feel alone in New York, but what I’ve always felt is that I have a friend – the city is my friend and it never lets me down.

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