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Street Scenes on Upper Fifth Avenue

Chalk Games

Arthur Leipzig Chalk Games, Prospect Place, Brooklyn, 1950

THE RADICAL CAMERA: NEW YORK’S PHOTO LEAGUE 1936-51 is a must-see show for anyone who is attracted to street photography. On view at The Jewish Museum until March 25, this important exhibit traces the development of documentary photographs as a powerful medium that we now take for granted. Quite simply, the Photo League members showed life as it was lived on the streets. Their pictures are a vivid record of city life; and the story of the Photo League reflects the mind-set in this country from the Depression through World War II to the Red Scare of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s.

Included in the more than 140 vintage images are brilliant pictures by League members, most of who were first-generation Americans with eastern and middle-European ancestry. Photographers Lewis Hine, Berenice Abbott and Paul Strand were mentors while the younger generation included Sid Grossman, Morris Engel, Arthur Leipzig, Lisette Model, Ruth Orkin, Walter Rosenblum, Aaron Siskind, W. Eugene Smith, and Arthur Fellig, the infamous Weegee.

These great photographers opened the eyes of the world to social problems in the United States and they paid dearly for their commitment when League was officially blacklisted. According to Mason Klein, exhibition co-curator and Curator at The Jewish Museum, “A mixture of passion and disillusionment characterizes the Photo League’s growth, which led photographers away from objective documentary images and toward more subjective, poetic readings of life.”

The League was born out of the Depression and the need to promote reform. Technological changes, including the popularity of hand-held cameras and magazines that provided showcases for photography, showed that documentary photography could be an expressive medium and powerful tool. This view was antithesis of what had been popular —staged portrait photography. The Photo League laid bare the suffering and prejudice that had separated the rich from the poor in the early part of the 20thcentury.

Butterfly Boy

Jerome Liebling Butterfly Boy, New York, 1949 © Jerome Liebling

Elks Parade

Jack Manning Elks Parade, 1938 from Harlem Document, 1936-1940

Photographers captured the essence of street life in New York. One example of their work that is highlighted in The Radical Camera show is The Harlem Project, 1936-1940. This was the League’s group effort, intended as an advocate for improvement. Led by Aaron Siskind, its ten photographers who contributed their work included Morris Engel and Max Yavno. While not shocking depictions of poverty, they are at their essence, unhappy pictures. There was clearly an agenda, and it backfired. After they were shown at the League, the works were gathered in a book of photos, Harlem Document, with commentary by the black writer, Michael Carver. The book which was not published, but on May 21, 1940, Look ran the pictures. The editorial copy didn’t sugarcoat the images, which dwelled on the joyless living conditions. The images and the text were, like the Photo League, a product of prewar liberalism underwritten by the New Deal. In 1981, fifty-one of the photographs were published as Harlem Document: Photographs 1932-1940 by Aaron Siskind (Matrix Publications). The forward was written by Gordon Parks, who described the pictures as “a mirror of my own past.”

Everything changed with Pearl Harbor. Social relevance took a backseat to patriotism. My country, right or wrong. Many of the League’s finest male photographers enlisted and brought the day-to-day tribulations of GI life back home in pictures that appeared on the covers of Life, Look, Yank and other popular magazines. Among the images is the work of Walter Rosenblum, one of most decorated WW II photographers, who recorded the invasion of Normandy in 1944.

Not all the League’s World War II photos were taken on the battlefield, or for that matter, the home front. Taken in 1946 in Shanghai, Arthur Rothstein’s photo, Refugees Looking at List of Survivors, is a great documentary achievement. It is not only aesthetically appealing, it captures the tension of the moment. During the war, more than 18,000 Jews fled to China, one of the few countries that didn’t limit immigration or require visas or passports. Refugees lived in a one square mile area, the Shanghai Ghetto.

With men away, the war opened up opportunities for women photographers who found recognition and asserted their own style. On the walls of the Museum are uncompromising portraits by Lisette Model and empowering civil rights images of Rosalie Gwathmey.

Weegee and his genre are in a class of their own and get a great deal of wall space at the Jewish Museum. There is even a first edition of his famous 1945 book, Naked City. Weegee—who took his name after his seemingly uncanny ability to arrive in a split-second at the scene of a crime in time to capture the horrors of its aftermath. Weegee was famous during his lifetime. He had his own exhibition “Murder is my Business,” at the Photo League in 1941.

Coney Island

Sid Grossman, Coney Island, c.1947 © Howard Greenberg Gallery

The Radical Camera is a wonderful glimpse into New York history. There are flyers and photos of popular Photo League wartime events. Crazy Camera Balls were organized to raise money. For Halloween 1948, guests were invited to “Come dressed as your favorite photograph.” Photo Hunts were another popular wartime activity. Photographers vied for the most obscure, ridiculous, fantastic shots, which were judged by senior members. The League was also a school open to professional and amateur photographers. A catalog from the early 1940’s indicates that novices could take 12 sessions for $15. The advisory board included Berenice Abbott, Margaret Bourke-White and Paul Strand.

The League’s loose association with the radical left, including many Communists, came back to haunt it as its exploration of class and civil rights was seen as dangerous in postwar America. A December 5, 1947 front-page story in The New York Times: “90 Groups, Schools Named on U.S. List as Being Disloyal” proved the beginning of the end for the New York Photo League. The treacherous back-story is that in 1942, the FBI recruited a League member, Angela Calomaris, as an undercover agent to infiltrate the Communist party. She photographed party members who were also in the Photo League, eventually naming Sid Grossman as a Communist. In 1949, HUAC (House on Un-American Activities Committee) named the Photo League as a front organization for Communism. Red Masquerade, Colomaris’ book documenting her adventures, is on display.

As a result of the blacklist, the group was evicted from its headquarters at 31 East 21st Street in 1948 and moved to the basement of the Hotel Albert at 23 East Tenth Street, where it remained until it closed in 1951. The new space was the venue for a large exhibit, “This Is The Photo League, featuring the work of 90 past and present members. The group made a concerted effort to re-brand itself as A Center for American Photography, emphasizing documentary work, and Photo Notes became an influential publication.

Some of the best images in the exhibit are postwar pictures that include Chalk Games by Arthur Lepzig. Taken in 1950 it is a bird’s-eye view of street life. Ruth Orkin’s Boy Jumping into Hudson Riverfrom 1948 captures the daredevil aspect of being a street kid in a city where each neighborhood gang had its own turf. Over sixty years old, this photo captures an aspect of New York childhood that is unthinkable today.

BoyJumping into Hudson River

Ruth Orkin Boy Jumping into Hudson River, 1948

Documentation of social injustice remained a Photo League theme. Lynchings in the South led to rallies in Madison Square Park in 1946 that were photographed by Sonia Handelmam Meyer. Another member Marian Palfi went to The Georgia town where locals were acquitted of a 1949 lynching after a one-day trial. Her book of photos There Is No More Time was never published. Sometimes the resistance was exposing the truth was sadly overwhelming, Rosalie Gwathemey’s husband, painter Robert was harassed by the FBI and after the League was blacklisted in 1951, she stopped making photos and destroyed many negatives.

Many photographers found a new phenomenon to capture in postwar America, as prosperity upstaged the social consciousness. The Photo League closed its doors in 1951, but not before members produced some indelible images.

Women at Perfume Counter

Dan Weiner Women at Perfume Counter, c. 1948 © John Broderick

A poster for the Jewish Museum exhibition, Woman at Perfume Counter 1948, is was taken by Dan Weiner, who was acutely aware that a magazines were now promoting the voyeuristic kind of journalism that is pervasive today. His picture, At the Ceremonies for the Laying of the United Nations Building’s Cornerstone, taken in 1949, spotlights a gang of photographers and newsreel truck. His Autorama Top Hats, circa1950, points to the prosperity of the car-crazy 1950s. Weiner was not alone. Two of the exhibition final pictures, Sy Kattelson’s Untitled photo of Subway car advertisements from 1949 and Arnold Eagle’s Car Passing Car from 1950 spotlight the luxurious sides of postwar life that would become the social norm.

The show also included clips from Little Fugitive. The 1953 feature film, made Engel and Orkin, who were married, translates the Photo League’s documentary sensibility to film. Nominated for an Academy Award, Little Fugitive, shot without sound, tells the story of a seven-year-old boy who spends a day alone at Jones Beach. It’s a superb finale to this important exhibit about an artistic collaborative that changed the course of modern photography.

Coming after Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore, presented in September, The Radical Camera, which was organized with the Columbus Museum of Art, is yet another outstanding exhibit at The Jewish Museum on 92ndStreet and Fifth Avenue.

Tchaikovsky Season in New York

Carnegie Exterior

Carnegie Hall with Studio Floor

For 120 years, Carnegie Hall  has been New York’s premier venue for world’s greatest music including Tchaikovsky and The Beatles. On October 5,the legend celebrates itself with the start of the 120th Anniversary season. Festivities begin with the Opening Night Gala tribute to Peter Illich Tchaikovsky. The Mariinsky Orchestra, led by Valery Gergiev, will perform a complete Tchaikovsky symphony cycle in a five-night program commemorating the composer’s appearance on the Hall’s opening night, May 5, 1891, when he conducted his “Marche Solennelle”.

The era when Carnegie Hall was built was a miraculous period of artistic creation, particularly for composers who wrote astonishing music that is widely performed today. This fall, dozens of events exploring Tchaikovsky and St. Petersburg will take place at Carnegie Hall and throughout the city.

At Carnegie Hall, a Discovery Day exploring the cultural world of St. Petersburg in the 1890s will be presented in partnership with The Harriman Institute of Columbia University on October 15 in Weill Recital Hall. Music of the period will be performed in Staten Island by the Russian Chamber Chorus of New York on October 22 and by Ensemble ACJW on October 25 in Weill Recital Hall.

The New York City Ballet will perform George Balanchine’s “Jewels” at Lincoln Center on October 7. Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers” will be performed as part of the Sacred Music in a Sacred Space series at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on October 12. On October 26, soprano Anna Netrebko will make her New York recital debut at Carnegie Hall performing songs by Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky. In addition, Sotheby’s Russian Art Department will look at the influence of Fabergé and other Imperial jewelers, plus avant-garde Russian artists in “Russian Art in the Silver Age,” on October 6. On the same day, New York Public Library will present “Tchaikovsky and the Piano in St. Petersburg’s Gilded Age”.

Last spring, on May 5, I was present at the 120thAnniversary Gala, which featured musical director Alan Gilbert, conducting the New York Philharmonic. Carnegie Hall was a treat for the eyes, as well as the ears. Baskets of red flowers created a festive backdrop for the musicians and the ebony Steinway concert grand piano center-stage. Many in audience who were attending the celebration gala at the Plaza after the performance were dressed formally.

Anniversary Gala, May 5, 2011

120th Anniversary Gala

The actor Norm Lewis was seated next to me. He had flown in from London to support his friend Audra McDonald. The pair is scheduled to open in “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” on Broadway in January. McDonald sang a selection of Duke Ellington songs, including “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)”, which Ellington performed at his second Carnegie Hall concert in December 1944.

Carnegie Hall 2011-12 Guide

Audra McDonald at the 120th Anniversary Gala

Gilbert began the evening with Antonin Dvorak’s boisterous “Carnival” overture, which the Czech composer himself had conducted when it premiered at Carnegie Hall in October of 1892. Beethoven’s “Triple Concerto in C Minor” provided the opportunity to showcase three legendary soloists: pianist Emanuel Ax, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Gil Shaham. After Audra McDonald’s solo, the Philharmonic performed George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” which had its premiere at Carnegie Hall in 1928. Familiar with the piece as performed in the M-G-M movie, I felt that I was hearing it for the first time. Others in the audience may have felt the same. We responded with a standing ovation.

May’s Anniversary Gala and the rest of the Carnegie Hall 2011-12 season celebrate this New York icon, whose history is so tightly interwoven with the city’s greatest musical moments. Over 400 mementos will be on display inside the showcases of the Rose Museum, which will be accessible to the public when it reopens on October 5. A new exhibit The History of Carnegie Hall includes an the engraved silver trowel used by Mrs. Andrew Carnegie to place the cornerstone on May 13, 1890, reportedly accompanied by music from Wagner’s “Das Rheingold”. An online interview with Carnegie Hall’s Museum Director and Archivist Gino Francesconi provides a glimpse of what became “the center of New York’s cultural scene”.

One-Fifty-Six West 57thStreet was originally called the Music Hall when Andrew Carnegie donated the money for its construction. William B. Tuthill, the 34-year-old architect, was an amateur cellist who had never designed a concert hall. He studied European auditoriums and designed the Carnegie Hall interior to provide the best acoustics available in 1890. Carnegie Hall’s elliptical shape, slightly extended stage and domed ceiling help project soft and loud tones with equal clarity and richness to any location in the hall. In addition to the abundant use of velvet, which would absorb reverberations and echoes, the boxes, decoratively laid out in sweeping curves, allowed sound to curve rather than bounce of sharp angles. The ceiling avoided the pitfall of collecting and swallowing sound. Although it did not affect acoustics, the building original mansard roof was removed in 1894 to build the crowning studio floor.

According to The Landmarks of New York III, the stage ceiling was rebuilt, repairing a legendary hole, created during the production of the 1946 Hollywood film “Carnegie Hall” and masked by canvas and curtains ever since. Legend has it that the hole contributed advantageously to the hall’s acoustics, which were never quite the same.

Paderewski Landmark

Plaque on the Buckingham Hotel

From the beginning, Carnegie Hall was a venue for legendary pianists. In November 1891, Ignacy Jan Paderewski made his debut there. The future Prime Minister of Poland spent much of his life in New York, where he lived a block away from the Carnegie Hall at the Buckingham Hotel on 57thStreet and Sixth Avenue. Sergei Rachmaninoff made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1909, playing his “Second Piano Concerto” as guest soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Arthur Rubinstein gave his Carnegie Hall farewell concert in 1976 after 70 years of performances. People lined up around the block in 1965 for tickets to Vladimir Horowitz’s return to performing after a 12-year break. In 1958, the 23-year-old Van Cliburn staged his triumphant homecoming after winning the gold medal in the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.

Early Carnegie Hall Cover

Early Carnegie Hall Program

On an October afternoon in 1917, with a revolution going on in his Russian homeland, 16-year-old Jascha Heifetz made his debut. Since then, the roster of violinists who have played in Carnegie Hall has come to include Yehudi Menuhin, Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Gil Shaham, Midori, and Joshua Bell. The greatest cellists of the 20th century, including Pablo Casals, Gregor Piatigorsky, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Yo-Yo Ma have also taken the stage on numerous occasions.

Benny Goodman

Lionel Hampton, Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa, January 16, 1938

Another red-letter date was December 16, 1893, when Carnegie Hall premiered Antonin Dvořak’s “New World” Symphony in the Main Hall, with the composer in attendance. Arturo Toscanini electrified audiences for 28 years at the helm of the New York Philharmonic and the NBC Symphony. Leonard Bernstein made his celebrated 1943 debut with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, and in later years conducted more than 430 concerts in the Hall. A 1938 swing concert by Benny Goodman and his band marked a turning point, making Carnegie Hall a venue for popular, as well as classical music. It opened the door for nearly every big band that followed, including those of Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw and Ellington. Louis Armstrong, Oscar Peterson and Miles Davis took the stage at the height of their careers, as did Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Nina Simone and Nat King Cole.

Its prestige and acoustics made Carnegie Hall a coveted venue for singers, as well as musicians. Luminaries who have performed over the years include Enrico Caruso, Placido Domingo, Maria Callas, Paul Robeson, Lily Pons, Renata Tebaldi, Leontyne Price, Montserrat Caballe, Luciano Pavarotti, and Beverly Sills. Billie Holiday’s appearances were regarded as milestones during the period of racial segregation. On April 23, 1961, Judy Garland performed a concert that has been called the greatest night in show business history. Tony Bennett’s performance the following year is also considered a popular high point.


Posters from the new book Carnegie Hall Treasures

Financial challenges in the postwar era threatened Carnegie Hall’s survival. In 1956, the building was put up for sale. A 44-story office building was planned to take its place, but the deal fell through. With Lincoln Center in the planning stages, it was widely believed that New York could not support two major concert venues. The New York Philharmonic would have a new home at Avery Fisher Hall (originally Philharmonic Hall). The dour Renaissance Revival style of Carnegie Hall was considered out of fashion and the building was slated for demolition on March 31, 1960. At the eleventh hour, violinist Isaac Stern led the Citizens Committee for Carnegie Hall that ultimately stopped the destruction. A plaque near one of the 57thStreet entrances commemorates his achievement. The survival of Carnegie Hall was assured when it was designated a Landmark on June 20, 1967.

Isaac Stern

Isaac Stern Commemorative Plaque

Nearly a century of grime was removed during the 1986 renovation. The building was reconfigured and restored by Polshek Partnership at a cost exceeding $50 million. The terra cotta and iron-spotted Roman brick façade was returned to its original ochre color. Six storefronts installed during the Depression were removed. In addition to several restaurants, they housed a barbershop, drugstore, violinmaker, dry cleaner, thrift bookshop and a nightclub, located below the lobby.

A Gala Reopening concert took place on December 15, 1986 with a roster that included Isaac Stern, Vladimir Horowitz, Yo-Yo Ma, Marilyn Horne, and Frank Sinatra. Leonard Bernstein and Zubin Mehta conducted the New York Philharmonic,

Andrew Carnegie made provision for an extension to the music hall that would house 180 studios, arranged in two towers adjacent to the concert venue. He commissioned Henry Hardenbergh, architect of The Dakota and the Plaza Hotel, and Richard Morris Hunt to create the Carnegie Artists Studios, which was built in 1896-97. Painters, dancers and actors thrived in the two towers—one 12 stories high, the other 16. These contained more than 100 studios, some with special skylights installed to give painters prized northern light. According to New York: The Movie Lover’s Guide, the apartments have housed such names as Leonard Bernstein, Isadora Duncan, John Barrymore, Paddy Chayefsky, Bobby Short and Marlon Brando. Everyone from Mark Twain and Theodore Roosevelt to Marilyn Monroe and James Dean worked and studied in the Carnegie Artists Studios.

Today, red scaffolding surrounds Carnegie Hall as the complex adapts to the economic demands of the 21st century. The city owned towers are in the processes of being gutted in a $200 million studio renovation that will include a new Education Wing with ensemble rooms, practice rooms, and teaching studios, as well as a state-of-the-art home for Carnegie Hall’s Archives. A new outdoor Roof Terrace will be constructed adjacent to the Education Wing.

Some critics have remarked that the Roof Terrace will be a party space for wealthy donors. In fact, the entire renovation has been fraught with controversy. According to architectural plans, the old stone-and-cast-iron staircases and some original walls are slated to survive, but the historic studios will become part of Carnegie Hall legend. They will be in excellent company.

Sanctuary of the Immortals on 57th Street

Steinway Piano

Rachmaninoff Rehearsal Room Piano

With its serene neoclassic facade, Steinway Hall is a refuge from the increasingly discordant architecture on West 57th Street. Unobstructed by scaffolding, it is a functioning reminder that for more than half a century, the cross-town thoroughfare between Sixth and Seventh Avenues was the foremost musical center of the country.

The building at 109-111 West 57th Street received Landmark status in 2001. To walk through its portals, which are sheltered from the street by cove-shaped lobbies, is to step back in time. Except for a few computer screens on top of mahogany desks, the structure looks much as it did when Warren & Wetmore designed the building for the Steinway family in 1925.

Steinway & Sons 1925

Steinway & Sons 1925 Photo

The architects, whose best-known work is Grand Central Terminal, clearly planned Steinway Hall for iconic status. A music themed sculpture of Apollo and the muse of music by Leo Lentelli topped the entrance, which was framed with Ionic columns. A frieze with medallion portraits of classical composers and pianists enhanced the design. Above the sculpture, the name STEINWAY was neatly carved into the Indiana limestone façade, evoking pride and permanence.

The design is restrained, yet exuberant. This was, after all, the Twenties. The 12-story elevation culminates in a four-story setback colonnaded tower. Above that, a second, campanile-style tower was constructed with a steep roof in the shape of a pyramid. Adorned with a large lantern, this whimsical ionic temple was the product of the Jazz Age when unusual rooflines bearing clocks and beacons distinguished Manhattan’s skyline. It was designed to be part of a penthouse apartment for the president of Steinway, but was turned into a radio studio

Steinway Rotunda

The Rotunda Showroom

However, the breathtaking two-story rotunda is the real dramatic centerpiece of Steinway Hall. The spectacular 35-foot domed ceiling was hand painted by Paul Arndt, with allegorical scenes of lions, elephants, goddesses and nymphs depicting the influence of music on human relations. The walls are adorned with fluted white Italian marble columns alternating with green pilasters of highly polished Greek marble. Descending from the ceiling is a magnificent, glittering 19th century Viennese crystal chandelier. An ebony concert grand piano sits in the center of the enormous carpeted room furnished with English pieces. It is surrounded by the desks of the Steinway employees who go quietly about their business.

Specially commissioned oil portraits by esteemed American artists depict composers, such as Berlioz, Chopin, Handel, Mozart and Wagner, and legendary pianists, such as Liszt, Paderewski, Rachmaninoff and Rubinstein. Paderewski, who was also the first prime minister of Poland, performed at Carnegie Hall during its first season in 1891. No stranger to the neighborhood, he resided in the Buckingham Hotel, steps away from Steinway Hall.

Showroom Window

Old World Elegance

It is almost surprising to remember that this is a retail establishment. The firm was selling an image of refinement that seldom seen today. A 1929 advertisement links the Steinway name with the phrase “The Instrument of the Immortals.”

In the back of the rotunda, a carpeted, deep green corridor leads to paneled showrooms with French doors and intricate parquet floors. On the walls, surrounding various pianos for sale are numerous oil portraits of Steinway family members dating back five generation.

The room that held my interest contains the Heirloom Collection of vintage Steinways. Among the offerings is a 1925 mahogany baby grand reduced from $88,000 to $59,900 and an exquisite ebonized instrument from 1907 for $72,000. I admit that my pulse quickened at the thought of owning and playing one of these splendid, historic pianos.

Heirloom Steinway

1925 Heirloom Steinway

The paneled elevator opens on the mezzanine level, where the landing is furnished with a Gatsby-era white baby grand. The view of the showroom from the balcony is worth a visit. The mezzanine features new soundproofed rehearsal rooms, named after members of the Steinway family. Each one contains a new, impeccably maintained Steinway piano that is equipped with a PNOscan MIDI record strip for connection to personal computers. The only room not named for a Steinway is the Rachmaninoff room, which contains a large portrait of the virtuoso.

There are two larger receptions rooms on the mezzanine. When I visited, one was in use for a meeting. A second room looked large enough to function as a recital hall. It contained three baby grand pianos. The walls were covered with large photographs of musicians who most likely performed there. During its heyday, concerts were given in Steinway Hall on the third floor. Until it was closed after World War II, Steinway Hall, which sat 240 people, was a major venue for classical music performances.

It was there, on October 27, 1925, that the new 16-story building was dedicated with its first recital, which was simulcast on radio. Members of what would become the Philharmonic Orchestra, Scottish baritone Fraser Gange and pianist Josef Hoffman performed, while the audience contained four Steinway grandsons, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Mrs. Andrew Carnegie, and prominent names including S. R. Guggenheim, DuPont, Drexel and George Eastman. According to The New York Times, invitations were sent to President Coolidge and Governor of New York Alfred E. Smith.

Concert & Artists Dept.

Vintage Sign on Mezzanine

A vintage glass sign on the mezzanine points to the Concert and Artist Department. Here, professionals still arrange to visit the renowned “piano bank” in the basement, where they select instruments for use in concerts, in recordings, and on tour. According to legend, it was in the Steinway basement that Vladimir Horowitz and Sergei Rachmaninoff met for the first time. No ghosts were present during my visit to the basement, but there were many pianos being prepared for shipment. The loading dock opens on to the 58th Street service entrance of the building. I did exchange a few words with a young piano tuner who confided, “This is where the magic happens.”

The building now bears the name of the current owner, the British publisher, The Economist. The property has had other landlords over the years. It was bought by the Manhattan Life Insurance Company in 1958 and sold to CBS in 1972. In 1985, Columbia Broadcasting sold the entire Musical Instruments Division, which included Steinway & Sons, to a holding company trading under the name Steinway Musical Properties. Ten years later the company merged with the Selmer Company, USA, which then took the company public. The Steinway share is quoted on Wall Street under the abbreviation LVB (Ludwig van Beethoven).

Today, Steinway & Sons owns a 99-year land lease on the property. Among the new tenants is the Municipal Art Society, which leased the sixteenth floor in 2009. It is a fitting home for the organization, which helped create the City Planning Commission and the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Steinway Hall Exterior

Neoclassic Facade

With its strategic location down the street from Carnegie Hall, the building has served as an elegant retail showroom for Steinway & Sons pianos for 85 years. It is the firm’s sole sales location in New York City. This is all the more impressive, considering that the Steinway’s presence in the building has been drastically cut back. Like a dowager in reduced circumstances, Steinway & Sons occupies only the ground floor, mezzanine and basement. In the rear of the mezzanine, Dowling Music now has a shop that sells sheet music, CD’s and gifts.

The 111 West 57th Street entrance has its own lobby and tenants. On the top of the building in what may have been the original radio broadcast station, is the Nola Recording Studio, an intimate music production venue. Despite having its “name on the door”, The Economist is nowhere on the premises. Its offices are at 750 Third Avenue.

While the world around it has changed, the Steinway prestige endures. The firm continues to play an important part in the New York music world, as it has from the time the Civil War ended. The first Steinway Hall on 14th Street, with a main auditorium of 2,000 seats, housed the New York Philharmonic until Carnegie Hall opened in 1891. The new uptown auditorium quickly became the axis of the classical music and art world, paving the way for firms like Steinway & Sons to build grand showrooms on 57th Street.

“Today, the building continues to be a requisite stop for anyone interested in playing the piano, including the world’s greatest pianists,” says Ron Losby, President of Steinway & Sons—Americas. It is also an icon for those of us who are fascinated by the visionary architecture of New York’s City’s past.


Rockefeller Rich on Fifth Avenue

Entrance to Living Room

Living Room with Scalloped Boiserie

Before telling you about my visit to Nelson Rockefeller’s former apartment at 810 Fifth Avenue, I offer this quote from the late vice-president and governor, “There are three periods in life: youth, middle age and ‘how well you look’”.

The full-floor portion of the original triplex that I viewed with Kirk Henckels, Senior Vice-President and Director of Stribling Private Brokerage, has clearly reached the ‘how well you look’ stage. Mr. Henckels, who has a knack for selling some of Manhattan’s most impressive residences, was gracious enough to give me a tour of his exclusive listing, which is priced at $27.5 million.

In order to truly appreciate the residence, it helps to have some knowledge of its ‘youth’ and ‘middle age’—and of the powerful man who created it.

As a grandson of the founder of Standard Oil, Nelson Rockefeller’s name was synonymous with robber-baron wealth. This may have worked against him when he unsuccessfully sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1960, 1964, and 1968. It was also believed that his divorce from his longtime wife, Mary, with whom he had five children, and his marriage to the divorcee Margaretta “Happy” Murphy in the early 1960s, put a cap on his political prospects. Nevertheless, he remained a popular symbol of liberalism within the Republican Party, serving four terms as Governor of New York from 1959 to 1973 and as Vice President under Gerald Ford from 1974 to 1977.

Nelson Rockefeller had tremendous drive; and his diverse passions extended well beyond the political area. In 1938, at the age of twenty-nine, he was named president of Rockefeller Center. Seeking a role in national politics, he joined President Roosevelt’s administration in 1940 as the head of a new agency for Latin-American affairs, and continued to guide international affairs under presidents Truman and Eisenhower. He was a renowned philanthropist and assembled a significant art collection that included modern and non-western art. As president of the Museum of Modern Art, his influence was profound. He had a lifelong interest in Latin America and eventually owned a home in Venezuela, in addition to Kykuit, the family estate built by John D. Rockefeller, Sr. in Westchester County’s Pocantico Hills.

Nelson Rockefeller commissioned Henri Matisse to create a stained glass window in the Union Church of Pocantico Hills in memory of his mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, one of founders of the Museum of Modern Art. The window was Matisse’s last work of art before his death in 1954.

Living Room from Library

View of the Paneled Living Room from the Library

Energetic and ambitious, Rockefeller possessed all the personal and financial resources any man could ever need to achieve his goals. He more than succeeded at 810 Fifth Avenue, where he lived for 45 years, first in a legendary triplex and later in a sprawling simplex—with two different wives and a total of seven children.

In 1934, four years after he married Mary Todhunter Clark, Rockefeller purchased the top floor of 810 Fifth Avenue. Designed by J.E.R. Carpenter in 1926 with a discreet side entrance and iron marquee on 62nd Street, it was the southernmost apartment building on Fifth Avenue. As a result, the 13-room apartments offered remarkable views of Central Park and Fifth Avenue down to the new Empire State Building. According to Andrew Alpern in Luxury Apartment Houses of Manhattan, original asking prices ranged from $72,000 to $97,000, with monthly maintenance running about $800 for each suite.

The 26-year-old Rockefeller and his bride, known as Tod, expanded the property into a 30-room triplex by buying the penthouse above and the floor below. He hired the modern architect Wallace K. Harrison to transform the original 810 layout and the 12th floor below it. He then commissioned Jean-Michel Frank, the avant-garde Parisian designer, to decorate portions of the 12th floor.

Original Rockefeller Living Room

Rockefeller Living Room with 1930s Decor

Frank filled Harrison’s spectacular oval living room with cutting-edge furnishings and art, including gilded consoles by Diego Giacometti, candy-colored carpets by Christian Berard, Louis XV-style furniture, streamlined ivory tables and large Picasso paintings. Over the fireplaces, Rockefeller commissioned murals by Matisse and Fernand Leger. The sculptor Hans Arp carved a squiggle-edge chunk out of a ceiling, creating a backlit cove effect.

Harrison made a round dining room out of the original square one, and for its floor, he inserted 18th-century parquet de Versailles into a gray marble border. He also had input into the remodeling of the penthouse, but its Bauhaus-bare interiors were credited to Jan Rutenberg.

When Tod and Nelson Rockefeller were divorced in 1962, she received the top two floors of the triplex—including the 12,000-square-foot terrace—and he retained the building’s 12th floor, which contained the sumptuous oval living room. He then reportedly ordered the connections between the spaces permanently sealed.

Happy & Nelson Rockefeller

Happy and Nelson Rockefeller at 810 Fifth Avenue, 1964. Photo: Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

A year later, Mr. Rockefeller, 55, and the Governor of New York, married Margaretta Fitler Murphy, known as Happy, a 36-year-old divorced mother of four. The newlyweds proceeded to buy an apartment in a building going up next door, at 812 Fifth, and joined it to their portion of the neighboring triplex, creating nearly 12,000 square feet of living space. The floors of the two units were not at the same height, so a half staircase was installed to connect the combined units. The stairs were located behind what is now a bookcase in the library at 810. Mr. Rockefeller and Happy Rockefeller, as well as their two sons, always used the elevator in 812.

In 1979, Nelson Rockefeller died of a sudden heart attack in a townhouse he owned near the Museum of Modern Art. He was in the company of a young aide, Megan Marshack, who, at the time, was not known to be his mistress. When his will was read, he left her the deed to the townhouse at 13 West 54th Street plus $50,000 cash. The scandal was covered extensively when it was rumored he died while having sex with Marshack. Now a widow, Happy Rockefeller separated the two apartments, kept the 812 Fifth Avenue residence and sold the one at 810 Fifth Avenue to the present owners.

With just one apartment per floor, 810 Fifth is an intimate building. The sedate lobby of what appears to be rusticated limestone features bronze torcheres and elaborate carved plasterwork. A small reception room contains a conservative sofa and chairs. All residents share the same elevator, which is miniscule, even by European standards. Three would be a crowd. However, an upholstered bench could accommodate a small reclining child. “The elevator is difficult if you’re entertaining,” said Mr. Henckels, who is a master of understatement.

It’s a mystery how the Rockefellers managed since both the triplex and the simplex were designed for entertaining on a grand scale. I also wondered if Rockefeller and his rival, Richard Nixon, who lived briefly on the fifth floor of 810, rode in that tiny elevator together. Where would the secret service men have fit?


Gallery and Library Beyond

My thoughts of political protocol dissolved when the elevator arrived at the twelfth floor, where Mr. Henckels and I entered the very large gallery with grey marble floors. Directly ahead, through large double doors is the famous 47-foot-long living room offering Central Park views from large picture windows. The gallery, living room and library all retain the beautiful walnut boiserie installed by Mr. Rockefeller. The same paneling conceals the elevator door, closets and even a bar. Throughout the living room and library, Harrison’s original wood floors remain buffed to a warm glow.

The architect’s circa-1935 ribbon-edge wood motifs are intact. Among the apartment’s most delightful signatures, they add a rococo accent to the major rooms, adorning the doorframes, cabinetry and bookshelves.

The corner double living room is the showcase of the apartment. Two bedrooms were removed to create the south portion. As a result, there are two fireplaces. Unfortunately, the murals Matisse and Leger painted over the mantels in 1938 and 1939 have been replaced with mirrors.

Plaza View

Fifth Avenue and The Plaza

Supposedly, Mr. Rockefeller retained all the luxe 1930′s furnishings when he and Tod were divorced. It is fortunate that these were well documented in photographs because they did not remain when the apartment was sold after his death. Today, the views are the main attraction. You can see above the trees across the Park to the West Side. From the south windows, there are views of Central Park South, the Plaza and Fifth Avenue.

Rockefeller Dining Room

French Dining Room

Tod Rockefeller may have gotten the beautiful round dining room upstairs, but the long rectangular dining room on the twelfth floor is impressive in its own right. The floors are gray marble and the room is flooded with light from tall south-facing windows. Gone is the remarkable Mondrian-style abstract mural that Rockefeller had Fritz Glarner paint on the ceiling and walls in 1964. The room now is pink and detailed with elaborate French-style molding. Served by a vast, though somewhat dated kitchen and separate service elevator, the dining room can accommodate large parties.

Today, the apartment’s private quarters have been reconfigured. Two of the original guest rooms and baths have been combined to create a two-bedroom master suite joined by a single large bath and double dressing rooms. Four maid’s rooms, a bath and staff dining room are now a laundry/family room and one larger staff room and bath.

A new buyer will surely want to renovate this portion of the apartment. According to Mr. Henckels, several well-known architects have viewed the simplex and were intrigued by its provenance and possibilities. He observed that Europeans and extremely affluent New Yorkers seem to feel a particular connection with the apartment.

Lobby of 810 Fifth Avenue

810 Fifth Avenue Lobby

810 Fifth Avenue

810 Fifth Avenue

When the ideal buyer comes along, he or she will be in excellent company. In addition to the Felix Rohatyns and art patron Jan Cowles, residents of 810 Fifth Avenue are believed to include Eric Sheinberg, a former partner at Goldman Sachs; children’s advocate and philanthropist Maureen Cogan; former Archer Daniels CEO Dwayne Andreas and Lazard Frere’s William von Mueffling.

The upper portion of the original triplex is in good hands. When Tod Rockefeller died in 1999, her duplex was purchased by John Foster. The healthcare magnate eventually sold it to David Geffen for $31.5 million. Without moving in or making any alterations, the music mogul quietly put the property back on the market a year later, selling it to Blackstone Group’s Pete Peterson in 2007 for $37.5 million. Peterson has a long history with the Rockefeller family and continues to devote time to their philanthropic and artistic projects. It seems fitting that he and his wife, media executive Joan Ganz Cooney, now reside in the historic duplex.

Although it is not the most luxurious building on Fifth Avenue, prices have remained strong in the co-op, according to Kirk Henckels, who noted that the last sale, probably Mr. von Mueffling’s, was well over $20 million. The former Rockefeller home “is not an apartment for everyone,” he said, again with understatement. “But people who like it are really passionate about it.”

Hopefully a preservation-minded buyer will supply the nips and tucks needed to keep this grand dame looking Rockefeller rich for years to come.



Call to Arts at the Armory

Armory Corridor

Tiffany Craftsmanship

On Wednesday night, I stopped by the Park Avenue Armory for the opening night preview of Antiques & Art, produced by Avenue Shows. Approximately 50 dealers showcased collections, which included furniture from the 17th century through mid-century modern; fine silver; Russian antiquities and art; Asian textiles and art; first-edition books; and vintage and fine jewelry.

Standing on the coat check line in the long central corridor, I was captivated by the magnificent chandeliers, glass and paneling, all designed in the Renaissance Revival style. The Armory abounds with ornate stone carving, metalwork and bronze casting. It’s an eclectic mix that envelopes you in the detail and artistry of New York’s Gilded Age, minus the excess.

I encourage you to explore the reception rooms the next time you attend an event in this incomparable building on East 67th Street, the home of the Seventh Regiment Armory, N.Y. National Guard. Charles W. Clinton, the architect of the Armory, had been a member of the regiment. As a partner in the firm Clinton and Russell, he went on to design prominent residential buildings, including The Apthorp and The Langham on the Upper West Side. Built between 1878-1880 and declared a Landmark in 1967, the Armory contains magnificent interiors, designed by masters of the American Aesthetic Movement. The New York City Landmarks Commission described them as “the single most important collection of 19th century interiors to survive intact in one building,”

It is the only armory in the United States to be built and furnished with private funds. Members of the prestigious Seventh Regiment included Van Rensselaers, Roosevelts, Stewarts, Livingstons and Harrimans. For the Reception Rooms on the first floor and the Company Rooms on the second floor, they selected the most prominent designers and artists of the day including Louis Comfort Tiffany, Stanford White and the celebrated Herter Brothers.

Veteran Room

Veteran Room

The Library

The Library

Take a moment to visit the Veteran Room and the adjacent Library. These were designed in 1880 by Associated Artists, a cooperative group led by Tiffany, with White as the consulting architect. The Veteran Room as been described as “Greek, Mooresque, and Celtic with a dash of the Egyptian, the Parisian and the Japanese.” Against this exotic backdrop, the Regiment members in fatigues often gather for informal meetings and recreation. The Library is devoid of books, but the cases are filled with historic trophies and medals. It is largely thought to be White’s design except for the lighting fixtures and windows by Tiffany.

Albert Hadley, Mica Ertegun, Mario Buatta

Hadley, Ertegun & Buatta

As I entered the large exhibition hall, Bill Cunningham was photographing guest-of-honor Mario Buatta with Christopher J. Cyphers, the president of The New York School of Interior Design (NYSID). Soon, design legends Albert Hadley and Mica Ertegun, who are on the NYSID Board, joined the tableaux. Founded in 1916, NYSID is New York’s only private, not-for-profit college devoted exclusively to interior design education and related disciplines.

Mid-Century Furniture from Gary Rubinstein Antiques

Mid-Century Desk from Gary Rubinstein Antiques

Matisse Lithographs

Matisse Lithos from Dinan & Chighine

After the preview party, a dinner at the Metropolitan Club was to be held in Mr. Buatta’s honor. The NYSID is renaming its materials library and primary student workspace, The Mario Buatta Materials Atelier. Interior designer Richard Mishaan headed up a committee of 30 designers to create innovative “tablescapes” inspired by the Prince of Chintz.

Browsers in Sable

Sable Slinging


Palm Beach Color

The gems at Hollis Reh & Shariff and Waldmann Van Lennep received particular attention from the well-turned-out crowd, which was a mix of designers, real estate professionals and socially prominent New Yorkers. HWPR doyenne Harriet Weintraub seemed to know everyone and Anne and Amanda Young of Brown Harris Stevens headed up the real estate contingent.

Picking up bits and pieces of conversation, I noticed an inescapable buzz that seemed to involve square footage and amenities. Considering the number of designers and brokers in attendance, perhaps this was only natural. However, the almost giddy atmosphere suggested that some New Yorkers are ready to get in the game again.

Neon Nights across the East River

Pepsi-Cola Sign

East River Landmark since 1938

When I take Sherlock for his evening walk to the end of East 52nd Street, the spectacular Pepsi-Cola sign across the East River always captivates me. The dramatic Art Deco script outlined in ruby-red neon reminds me of a legend about a famous River House applicant who didn’t make the grade.

It was rumored that Joan Crawford had the Pepsi-Cola sign strategically planted in Long Island City—in full view of River House residents—as retaliation when her application was vetoed. The president of the co-op board at the time was Robert Woodruff, the former president of Coca-Cola. The actress was the widow of Pepsi CEO Alfred Steele and served on the board of directors. She was an early proponent of brand placement; and the gesture would have been a triumph. As tempting as it is to believe, the tale is pure fiction.

Joan Crawford

Pepsi's Star Board Member

Designed by the Artkraft Strauss Sign Corporation, which created many Times Square dazzlers, the sign had topped PepsiCo’s Hunters Point bottling plant since 1938. Capitals “P” and “C” stood approximately 44-feet high. Smaller letters ranged from 15-to-18-feet high. The logo was modernized in 1942 when a dash was inserted to replace the “double dot” colon, which appeared with the original Pepsi name.

To complete the billboard, a 50-foot-high, filled and capped Pepsi bottle stood to the right of the brand name. The bottle was hand-painted onto cutout metal and illuminated by two 400-watt, high-intensity lamps. Red neon tubing also trimmed the bottle’s outer edges. Originally, the oversized bottle cap advertised “5 cents” next to its brand name. When the price increased, the bottle cap was replaced with a full bottle as the sign’s end piece.

In 1994, Artkraft Strauss completely refurbished the Pepsi sign. When the Pepsi plant closed in 1999, Rockrose Development Corporation acquired the land and the bottling plant. The area is currently being transformed into Queens West, a mixed-use complex of apartment towers, a middle school, offices, retail stores and a waterfront park.

When word got out that the Pepsi plant would be demolished, support for preserving the Pepsi sign immediately surfaced in community meetings, mail-in campaigns and petitions. The sign was even submitted for Landmark consideration. It was re-erected to a temporary location overlooking the East River, just 500 yards from the Pepsi-plant rooftop. Finally, in 2008, it was dismantled again and moved slightly north to it’s permanent home in Gantry Plaza State Park, in front of a 24-story apartment building being constructed by Rockrose.

Silvercup Studios Sign

Studio Business in Queens

Domino Sugar Sign

Upcoming Revival in Brooklyn

Like the celebrated Silvercup sign—and unlike the animated Swingline Staple sign—Pepsi’s branding symbol is one of few remaining monuments to an era when manufacturing was a part of Long Island City. At that time, the river must have been a busy thoroughfare for boats hauling cargo, including sugar from Havana for delivery to factories like Pepsi, which made it’s own syrup, and Domino, which converted raw cane into refined sugar. The latter company’s original 40-foot-tall sign will eventually be mounted on top of the Landmark 1884 refinery in Williamburg, which is being turned into an 11-acre riverfront complex similar to Queens West.

Early residents Sutton Place, Beekman Place and River House enjoyed far more picturesque views than those who live there now. In his 1996 column in Advertising Age, James Brady, who had just attended a party at Alexandra Penney’s apartment in River House, summed it up nicely: “In Paris, if you have a river view you see the Tour Eiffel across there. In London, you might see Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. In Manhattan, a river view gets you the Pepsi sign.”

Today, River House may not be the first choice ‘for those you think young’, but like that other 1930s icon blazing across the river, it’s here to stay.


Refuge from Reality on the East Side

Gated Entrance to River House

Gated Entrance to River House

When I was the Associate Editor of Quest in the late ‘90s, I wrote a story about River House for my “Open House” column. The building, at 435 East 52nd Street, had long piqued my curiosity. I was aware that it was home to some of the city’s most powerful players and that it was extremely difficult to crack the River House board. I also knew that it contained enormous layouts with spectacular East River views. But mostly, I was attracted to the location. Situated at the end of a cul de sac overlooking the river, it is a vast, handsomely proportioned property with a gated cobblestone courtyard, two 14-story wings, and a graceful 26-story tower with setbacks. River House advantages also include full-time drivers for hire. Scores of maid’s rooms (many with 14-foot ceilings and courtyard views) are spread throughout the building and available for shareholder rental.

Scene from Dead End

Queensborough Bridge in Dead End

Adding to my fascination was the rumor that the co-op had been the inspiration for the luxury apartment building in Dead End. The dilapidated area off 53rd Street is believed to be the cul-de-sac that inspired Sidney Kingsley’s 1935 play, which hinged on the contrast of rich and poor. In the drama, as in reality, the well-heeled residents of a River House-style apartment building called “River Terrace” live side-by-side with impoverished, tenement dwellers. The Broadway hit was adapted for the screen in 1937 by Lillian Hellman, starring Humphrey Bogart, Joel McCrea, Sylvia Sydney and, of course, the Dead End Kids. The set for the film cost $90,000 and was built inside a Goldwyn Studios soundstage in California, complete with an immense tank to reproduce part of the East River. Dead End received 1937 Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Art Direction, Cinematography and Supporting Actress— Claire Trevor as Bogart’s prostitute girlfriend, Francey.

Poster Art for Dead End

Poster Art for the 1937 Film

Bogart and Claire Trevor in Dead End

Bogart and Claire Trevor

Just two years after writing about River House, I moved to an apartment in a neighboring building that was constructed in 1931, the same year that River House was erected on the sites of the Cremo Cigar plant and the Nahon & Gianini Furniture factory. Fifty-third Street included the back of River House, shabby tenements, a gravel plant and a loading pier that children used for diving into the East River on hot summer days. The neighborhood was home to primarily Irish immigrants long before the area became fashionable. The riverfront was lined with coal yards, breweries, wharves and slaughterhouses. The slums were removed and the piers were replaced with picturesque parks when the FDR Drive was constructed between 1938 and 1940.

Kids Swimming on East 48th Street Pier

East 48th Street Pier in 1938

The William L. Bottomley design, neo-Georgian with a courtyard base of River House, is regarded as a milestone in the evolution of the New York skyscraper apartment house. The 40,000-square-foot River House contained only 64 apartments. Those in the two main wings were eight to 13 rooms, many adorned with loggias and balconies. The tower, from the 16th to the 26th floors, consisted almost entirely of 17-room, seven-bath duplex apartments.

On the top three floors, Bottomley created a triplex with 17 rooms, nine baths, multiple terraces and a private elevator. The palatial drawing room was 46 feet long and 22 feet in height. The asking price: $275,000. When 19-room apartments on Park Avenue were being sold for $20,000, River House’s least expensive unit was offered at $37,000.

Of special distinction, however, was the private marina and yacht landing—a frequent mooring for Vincent Astor’s Nourmahal. Several resident tycoons commuted to their Wall Street offices by motorboat until 1938, when the landing, along with the remaining tenements and wharves, gave way to the FDR Drive.

Dock at River House

Floating Motor Boat Dock in the 1930's

On the East River side, the building drops three stories below courtyard level. When Bottomley deemed the space unsuitable for apartments, society decorator Dorothy Draper came up with the idea of creating The River Club, which she likened to a “country club in the city.” She decorated the comfortable facilities and expanded them to five floors. The River Club still contains a drawing room, dining room, ballroom, bar and bedrooms, plus a gymnasium, swimming pool and two tennis courts that are beautifully maintained.

Entrance to the River Club

The Five-Floor River Club

The “100% co-operative” was dubbed “the latest addition to the increasingly popular riverfront residential district.” Cornelius “Sonny” Vanderbilt Whitney, Marshall Field III, William Rhinelander Stewart, Jr., Huntington Hartford, Harry Cushing, James A. Burden, Jr., and yachtsman Harold S. Vanderbilt, the inventor of contract bridge, were early residents. In 1937, Henry and Clare Boothe Luce leased a 15-room duplex with five bathrooms. Before she married the founder of Time, Inc. and after her divorce from millionaire George Brokaw, Clare had lived in high style at River House, gathering inspiration for her 1936 play, The Women, while in residence.

Recent former dwellers have included Dina Merrill; Blackstone Group’s Pete Peterson and his wife Joan Ganz Cooney (Sesame Street); Robin Chandler Duke; former head of Tiffany & Co. Walter Hoving; Susan and John Gutfruend ; and Barbara and Gerald Levin, the former Time Warner CEO. As of last December, the 14-room duplex maisonette of Broadway producer Marty Richards (Chicago, Sweeney Todd) was in contract after being on and off the market for a decade.

During election years or when the UN is in session, town cars fill the courtyard and the line-up outside Le Perigord, the old-guard French restaurant up the block. The inhabitants of River House continue to be a mix of finance, politics and society. They include longtime residents, Henry and Nancy Kissinger; and William McCormack Blair, Jr, former ambassador to Denmark and the Phillipines, and his socially prominent wife, Deeda. Muriel Siebert, the first woman to buy a seat on the NYSE, was also a groundbreaker at The River Club. One of the most impressive apartments at River House is the duplex tower home of former WorldCom CEO Francesco Galesi. The eight-bedroom apartment has 66-feet of river frontage, 11-foot ceilings and 360-degree views.

Tower of River House

The 26-Story Tower

You will rarely see an apartment in River House advertised for sale; many residences change hands privately. The board is so publicity shy that their by-laws disallow listing brokers from mentioning the name of the building or street address. Among current offerings is the 15-room apartment of romance novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford is now offered at $15.9 million. It has four bedrooms, each with a dressing room and bath.

It takes more than a great deal of money—the cash requirement is 50 percent—to be accepted by the board. River House was thrust into the spotlight in 1980 when Gloria Vanderbilt was not even granted her board interview and sued the board, lodging a complaint with the Commission on Human Rights, claiming that her friendship with the entertainer Bobby Short had exposed her to discrimination. In the 1970’s, Diane Keaton, who had been dating Woody Allen at the time, was turned down at River House. It is rumored that Richard Nixon was also refused.

New Dead End Sign

Fair Warning on East 52nd Street

I was fortunate to gain access to River House from Alexandra Penney, who was then riding high as a best-selling author. The former editor of Self magazine had agreed to chat with me in her riverfront apartment. I remember walking through an elegant lobby with glossy black floors and being shown to a bank of private elevators. The doors opened directly into Penney entrance hall, paneled in gleaming pearwood.

Penney sold her apartment in River House long before losing all her savings to Bernie Madoff. She has written about this in The Daily Beast, describing herself as a “bag lady”. Other River House denizens may have met a similar fate, but somehow I doubt it. As one resident said, dismissing the Vanderbilt contretemps, “we’re not one of your chichi buildings; we don’t like the limelight”.

Toyland Revisited in the Flatiron District

The Toy Center

The Toy Center with Connecting Bridge, 1960s

Known for decades as The International Toy Building, 200 Fifth Avenue occupied a special place in my life. Fronting Madison Square Park on a full block between 23rd and 24th Streets, it was, for me, a wonderland filled with marvels worthy of Santa’s workshop. My great uncles owned Gund, the plush toy manufacturer and my father, who was their nephew, functioned as the firm’s General Sales Manager.

Dad and Pluto, 1950

Samuel Kay with Pluto and Mickey in 1950

His office in Suite 226, faced the park, which was a rundown version of the Madison Square Park we know today. However, the view was splendid, with the Met Life Tower illuminating the skyline and the Flatiron Building jutting on to 23rd Street.

One of the impressive features of The Toy Building was the sleek Chase Manhattan Bank that could be entered from the lobby.

The 200 Fifth Ave. Club Matchbook Cover

1960s Matchbook Cover

I opened savings and checking accounts under the supervision of my father’s banker. My first deposit was a paycheck I received for working in the showroom during a spring break. All I recall of that experience was making certain that Mickey, Minnie the rest of the toys were arranged to look alluring on the thick glass shelves.

Though Madison Square Park was off limits, I did spend lots of time at The 200 Fifth Ave. Club, the executive dining room located in the building’s lobby. It had paneled walls, dark carpet and white linen cloths on tables set with china bearing the Club logo. I remember eating my first Western omelet there. It arrived under a heavy metal dome to keep it hot.

1909 ad for 200 Fifth Ave with old Fifth Avenue Hotel

Vintage ad for 200 Fifth Avenue with Fifth Avenue Hotel

Designed by Robert Maynicke and Julius Franke in 1909, the prestigious Fifth Avenue Building was built on the site of The Fifth Avenue Hotel, which dated back to 1856. With a staff of 400, an elevator, private baths, and fireplaces in every room, it was a meeting place for Gilded Age movers and shakers. Jay Gould and Commodore Vanderbilt were among the robber barons who held court there. Other denizens included Boss Tweed and a group of New York’s Republican leaders, who managed city business and cut deals from a nook known as the “amen corner.” Edith Wharton was born across the street from the hotel and mentioned it in her novella New Year’s Day. In 1909 the future Toy Building was home to one lonely vendor. It wasn’t until World War I curbed the flow of imports to the United States, that the American toy industry began to boom. Nobody who worked at 200 Fifth Avenue called it The International Toy Building. It was simply The Fifth Avenue Building—that’s what my father and uncle’s called it, and the name appeared on Gund’s announcement that it had leased office space there in the 1938 edition of the trade magazine, Playthings. The Fifth Avenue Building name is on the Landmarked clock outside the front entrance, and the interlocked initials “F.A.B.” were still in the building’s elevators as of 2003.

Gund page, 1938 Playthings

Big Move in July 1938

In 1952, the firm took over an adjacent suite and modernized the showroom in time for the Toy Fair, which, in my family, rivaled a political convention in importance. The 1950s and 1960s were the heyday of the toy business. Many companies, including my father’s, built factories in Brooklyn and Queens. 200 Fifth Avenue was filled to capacity and had a waiting list. The building was joined to the one north of it with a ninth-floor walkway, creating a complex called the International Toy Center.

Gund 1952 Expansion

The New Showroom in 1952

Today, 200 Fifth Avenue is a 15–story premier class A office building in the Madison Square-Flatiron district. L&L Holding Company, which purchased the property in 2007, hired Studios Architecture to revive the 1909 showpiece at a cost of $135 million. The building was designed with large “U” shaped floors, which now surround an expansive bamboo-filled interior courtyard that will, in time, visually connect 200 Fifth Avenue with the greenery of Madison Square Park. This modern vertical garden, created by Landworks Studio, re-establishes what was once a signature feature of this property that provided tenants with maximum daylight. The building has sustainable assets, earning it LEED Gold certification for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. 200 Fifth Avenue is attracting high-profile tenants. In April, Tiffany & Co. leased four-and-a-half floors for corporate headquarters. Grey Group, who took 360,000 square feet of space for its worldwide head office, worked closely with the architect and developer and provided for energy efficient lighting, cooling and electrical power. Students of architecture and anyone who is interested in the transformation of 200 Fifth Avenue into a 21st century building should read Metropolis magazine’s April 2010 cover story, “Mix It Up” .

Eataly Salumeria

Salumeria at Eataly

What makes the building really come alive is the street level food hall, Eataly. Billing itself as the world’s largest Italian food and wine marketplace, it is the creation of Mario Batali and Lidia and Joe Bastianich. On the 24th Street side of the building, where Madame Alexander dolls were once displayed in couture splendor, the windows showcase Italian gourmet groceries. Comprising approximately 50,000 square feet, Eataly contains individual retail departments offering all things Italian: pastry, bread, a butcher, a fishmonger, pasta, cured meats, cheese, hand-made mozzarella, vegetables, wine and coffee, some of which are directly connected to cafes and sit-down restaurants with waiter service. You can stop by Caffe Lavazza for an espresso or buy a terrific take-out lunch. I sat at the La Pizza & Pasta counter and ate a delicious bowl of spaghetti cacio e pepe. Manzo, a white-tablecloth Italian steakhouse with 80 seats, is the only restaurant that takes reservations.

Spaghetti cacio e pepe

Spaghetti cacio e pepe

The revival of 200 Fifth Avenue is a prime example of an iconic building that has been re-adapted as a leading commercial destination for the 21st century. Situated across from one of New York’s most inviting parks, it offers prestigious tenants the tranquil views that Wharton and Vanderbilt enjoyed and my uncles envisioned when they moved into The Fifth Avenue Building 73 years ago.

Hell of a Ride on Third Avenue

Ray Milland under the El

Hell under the El: Ray Milland's Don Birnam

Have you ever wondered why Third Avenue has so many undistinguished postwar high rises? Or why the Third Avenue façade of Bloomingdale’s looks basically like a block-long warehouse. The answer is the Third Avenue El, which was not torn down until 1955. The elevated train, which dated back to 1878, made the avenue undesirable for real estate development. The same was true of the Second Avenue El, but it was demolished between 1940-42. Pressure from real estate interests to demolish the Third Avenue El began with the creation in 1941 of the Third Avenue Elevated Noise Abatement Committee, which consisted of what the New York Times described as “men in the real estate business.”

The negative effect that the Third Avenue El had on the character of the neighborhoods East of Lexington Avenue was captured for posterity in benchmark film, The Lost Weekend,

The Lost Weekend title frame

The 1945 classic was shot on location on the East Side

which opened at the Rivoli theater in November 1945. Directed by the great Billy Wilder, it stars Ray Milland as Don Birnam, a desperate alcoholic who goes on a five-day binge. The film won 1945 Oscars® for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Screenplay. It was also nominated for Cinematography, Score and Editing.

The Lost Weekend, adapted from the novel by Charles Jackson, is an outstanding film in many ways, particularly the cinematography by John F. Seitz. It was one of the first studio films to use New York for extensive location photography. It offers a glimpse of what Third Avenue actually looked like in 1945.

Wilder pulled no punches in showing the degradation of his protagonist. The Birnam character is a failed writer and in a desperate attempt to get enough money for liquor, attempts to hock his typewriter in the pawn shops that lined seedy Third Avenue. Sietz’ camera captures Milland desperately staggering on harsh sun-lit streets past shuttered storefronts. The deep focus keeps the looming El in these scenes, adding to Birnam’s sense of claustrophobia. The trek, from 55th Street to 110th Street, was filmed on a quiet Sunday morning. According to Celluloid Skyline, New York and The Movies by James Sanders, “Wilder placed his cinematographer, John. F. Seitz, inside a packing crate just large enough to hold a man and a camera; other cameras were hidden in nearby bakery trucks and laundry vans.” Because the cameras were not visible, some takes were ruined when bystanders walked up to Milland and asked for an autograph.

Ray Milland and Third Ave. pawnshop

Birnam finds pawnshops shuttered on Yom Kippur

The scene in which Birnam finally asks a man why all the pawnshops are closed is a nice, New York touch. The character, who has a European accent and is carrying a prayer book, explains to him that it’s the Yom Kippur holiday.

Birnam’s neighborhood bar is called Nat’s in the film, but Wilder actually had Seitz shoot the scenes at PJ Clarke’s Saloon at 915 Third Avenue on 55th Street. Because it remains a low-rise building surrounded by modern skyscrapers, PJ Clarke’s in a true icon of old New York that has been updated only slightly over the years. Unfortunately, the noise from the El rendered many of the scenes unusable and the bar had to be carefully recreated, so that the scenes could be reshot in Hollywood. The dialog between Milland and Howard Da Silva, who plays the proprietor, Nat, is riveting. Birnam, describing how he feels, when he’s drunk, says, “out there it’s not Third Avenue any longer: it’s the Nile, Nat, the Nile — and down it moves the barge of Cleopatra.”

PJ Clarke's on Third Ave.

PJ Clarke's was called Nat's in the film

Another location is Bellevue Hospital, where Birnam ends up in the alcoholic’s ward. The interior was probably shot in the studio, but we see him escaping at dawn, in a robe and pajamas, on to First Avenue. In his autobiography, Wide-Eyed in Babylon, Milland reported that he spent a night at the hospital to prepare for his role. Also in the psychiatric ward that night were about 15 men, most of them (he was told) veterans of the advertising profession. One man was once a big city mayor. He was awakened by screams and swearing. Milland wrote, “Then from across the room a long undulating howl started, the sound coyotes make at night in the high deserts of Arizona.”

The Lost Weekend was shown recently on TCM; that’s where I saw it. I advise renting the DVD when you’re in the mood for something dark. This is film noir, without a murder.

Worth viewing on the Internet, is the award-winning documentary, 3rd Ave. El, which was nominated for an Oscar® in 1956. Producer-Director Carson Davidson takes you on a circa 1910 elevated car as it snakes along Third Avenue. You feel that you are along for the ride, looking at the other passengers and gazing out the open windows into surrounding neighborhoods and buildings. Blending surprisingly well with the images is the lively soundtrack, which consists of Wanda Landowska’s harpsichord recording. This film, like The Lost Weekend, is a gem that recaptures a piece of lost New York that is regarded with little fondness, but which shaped the city until the mid 1950s.

Bowery Message Mix

Bowery & Great Jones Street Signs

353 Bowery condo from Bowery and Great Jones Street

On frigid days, stainless architecture reflects the snowy streets and takes on a stark profile under clear winter blue skies. Once the kingdom of forgotten men, the Bowery and the rest of NoHo is being transformed by new construction. There is a strident element to the architecture, which is at odds with this very old part of the city. On Great Jones Street, amidst empty storefronts and scaffolding, you will find vestiges of cobblestone charm.

Wall Lamp in The Future Perfect

Lamp at The Future Perfect

The Future Perfect, the Williamsburg decorative arts shop that opened a Manhattan outpost at 55 Great Jones in 2009, remains a showcase for innovative design. Alex Randall’s Squirrel Wall Lamp caught my eye, but I was unsure how my chihuahua would react to the stuffed rodent, poised to leap from its wire perch.

If you’re in the mood for Cajun comfort food, you’ll find much more appetizing fare at the Great Jones Cafe, the downtown haven at 54 Great Jones Street. Well-priced shrimp gumbo, red beans and rice and a spicy Cajun Mary hit the spot.

Great Jones Café

Cajun Comfort Food at Great Jones Cafe

353 Bowery & Cooper Square Hotel

Cooper Square Hotel and Cooper Union Building

From the corner of Great Jones Street, you can see 353 Bowery, the 15-story Robert Scarano-designed condo, which also has the address of 52 East 4th Street. The aluminum-clad Cooper Square Hotel designed by Carlos Zapata Studio and the dramatic new Cooper Union academic building at 41 Cooper Square complete this trifecta of modern architecture.

Cooper Union's New Academic Building

New Academic Building at Cooper Union

Founded in 1859, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art has been a radical model of higher education. The new academic building continues that tradition. Designed by Thom Mayne of Morphosis Architecture, it is the first academic structure New York City to meet Platinum-level LEED standards for energy efficiency. Highlights include a full-height Grand Atrium, prevalent interior windows and floating interior skyways. It houses The Cooper Union’s School of Engineering and Art.

Carl Fisher Building and One Astor Place

The Carl Fisher Building and One Astor Place

Across Cooper Square, the mysterious shadow play of Gwathmey Siegal’s One Astor Place condominium against the painted clef on the side of its prewar neighbor, The Carl Fischer Building, punctuates the paradox of this architecturally evolving neighborhood. The Carl Fischer, a prestigious office building erected in 1926, is now also a condo.