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EVERY NOW AND THEN, I need a photo workshop to help me look at things afresh. In Europe last month, I was so busy chronicling all I saw as straight-up reportage that I rarely took time to be creative with my camera — or iPhone, in my case (I’ve given up carrying anything heavier).
This morning, at the Municipal Arts Society offices in Midtown Manhattan, I took a two-hour class called “Getting the Shot” taught by Timothy Schenck, a photographer specializing in art, architecture and construction. Tim ran through an astonishing amount of information in an hour. His reminders about basic mindfulness (“focus on the task”) were not lost on me, and I loved being given permission to experiment (“tap into your individual vision,” “try the unconventional”), along with composition (eliminate visual clutter, use negative space, remember the rule of thirds) and technical tips.
I asked how to take photos of a building besides just standing in front of it and holding the camera up, something I often find myself doing. Among Tim’s suggestions: try a very low angle to take in, say, the cobblestones on a street; use ‘leading lines,’ like a row of houses diagonally pointing toward the subject building; look for a convenient bell tower for a high vantage point; take close-ups of a weathered door or interesting knob; tell a story about the building in a series of images.
All very helpful, so when our group of about 25 — most with SLR cameras, some with point-and-shoots, a few with cellphones — marched the 10 blocks south to Grand Central Terminal to put Tim’s tips into practice, I was feeling inspired. The image, top, taken on 42nd Street just in front of the station, may be my favorite of the day.
It was crowded inside the station, with more tourists than commuters. I interpreted the part of the lesson about weeding out visual clutter to mean people — people en masse, at any rate. I gravitated toward quiet corners and was surprised there were some, even inside Grand Central on a Saturday afternoon. And when there weren’t, I found that if I waited, a wave of humanity would pass and for a few seconds the coast would be clear to grab a shot of the station’s grand Beaux Arts architecture.
THE LAST SURVIVING HISTORIC PIER IN NEW YORK CITY, Pier A at Battery Park in lower Manhattan, was ripe for adaptive re-use. Built in the 1880s, with a clock tower added in 1919 as a World War I memorial, it was used by the city as a fireboat station, then abandoned in 1992. Whereupon it sat vacant for more than two decades, and — though landmarked and on the National Register of Historic Places — fell into disrepair.
Happily, after a long renovation, it’s been reborn as a 28,000-square-foot oyster bar and beer hall, Pier A Harbor House, owned by Peter Poulakakos, who owns 10 other restaurants in downtown Manhattan, including three on Stone Street.
With a gazillion-dollar view of the Harbor, including Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, perfectly poised to catch the sunsets over New York Harbor, Pier A is an obvious place to bring out-of-town visitors. But it’s also a great spot for locals, with beautifully executed interiors, as my sister and I found out last Sunday. It was fairly quiet on a foggy winter’s day, a month after opening, but seats thousands, including 400 outside, and I can picture next summer’s mob scene. Only the lower level is open at present; the upper level will be a fine-dining restaurant and special-events space.
As I looked around Battery Park and into the Financial District, below, I was heartened to realize the area has actually retained a fair number of old limestone and brick office buildings. It’s not all glass towers yet (or perhaps they were lost in the fog). It seemed like it would be recognizable as lower Manhattan to someone disembarking from a ship here in 1945.
We walked up toward Fulton Street to see Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava’s $4-billion new PATH and subway station at the World Trade Center site. The comb-like roof structure, below, doesn’t look as graceful as the renderings the architect presented a decade ago.
Inside, an impressive oculus, below, will illuminate an indoor shopping mall.
I find myself more excited by the spiffing up of a 19th historic pier than by the madly un-contextual 21st century design of the train station, but I’ll reserve judgement. Over-budget and behind schedule, it’s still incomplete.
TAKE A GOOD LOOK AT THESE BUILDINGS next time you’re in the area around Grand Central Terminal, because some of them may not be there much longer. Big changes are coming to what’s called the Vanderbilt Corridor, the five-block stretch to the west of the station, running from 42nd to 47th Streets, between Madison and Vanderbilt Avenues.
Grand Central’s new next-door neighbor is likely to be Midtown’s tallest tower, One Vanderbilt, a glassy spire designed by Kohn Pederson Fox, that will replace the sturdy 1912 limestone building, above, designed by Grand Central’s architects, Warren & Wetmore, to complement the station’s Beaux Arts design.
Already underway — the building’s major retail tenant, the sporting goods store Modell’s, leaves this month — construction won’t start until an NYC rezoning proposal to increase the density of buildings in the corridor (and height, although there’s no limit on height now and never has been) finishes its journey through through the city’s ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure) process and is approved, something most observers expect to happen. The De Blasio administration is in favor, and Community Boards and preservation organizations like the Landmarks Conservancy, though dismayed by the prospect, have nothing more than an advisory role. It is almost certain that One Vanderbilt will replace the older building as well as two other venerable early 20th century buildings on the same square block.
From there, if the Vanderbilt Corridor Rezoning Proposal is in fact approved, which will likely happen around mid-year, it’s not a long hop to the redevelopment of sites that include the limestone Yale Club, above, and the Roosevelt Hotel, below, the last of the eight grande dame hotels that once surrounded Grand Central, if their owners decide that demolition and rebuilding are to their advantage, which they well might.
I learned all this and more when I reported a news story last month for Architectural Record, headlined “City Chips Away at Beaux Arts Heart of Manhattan.” It’s all there if you want to delve deeper. The photo, below, shows the base of One Vanderbilt, the building that will replace the 12-story structure at the top of this post (51 East 42nd Street, or the Vanderbilt Avenue building).
The Vanderbilt Corridor is one of those stretches of New York City we tend to take for granted. These solid structures, none of them landmarked, are the fabric of the city as we’ve known it, not the trim. They’re remnants of pre-World War II New York, so much of which has already disappeared in favor of banal or downright ugly glass towers. If they come down and are replaced by 21st century ‘supertalls,’ we’ll become more like Shanghai or Dubai. Is that what we want?
It’s certainly not what preservationists (and I’ll include myself in their number) want. Some may call it progress. I call it sad.
IT’S NOT NEWS THAT BROOKLYN’S FORT GREENE NEIGHBORHOOD has some of the most elegant brownstones in the borough. And that Fort Greene Park, designed by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, like Central and Prospect Parks, is no less a masterwork of 19th century landscape architecture.
But as is often the case in a complex place like Brooklyn, where stylistic layers have accumulated over the decades and where there’s just so much to look at as you barrel along, even a longtime resident like myself is constantly discovering new (to me) blocks and buildings.
Out for a walk last Sunday and wanting to try out the camera on my new iPhone 6, I strolled down Cumberland Street, which I knew had at least one very fine freestanding mansion, above, and found many more wood frame houses than I expected, and much else to keep my eyes busy.
Most of the houses in this post are on that one street, with the exception of the three old brownstones with intact parlor-floor storefronts and gabled roofs; those are on Greene Avenue. Thirty-five years ago, when we were a young couple and had recently bought a fixer-upper on the fringe of the fringe of Boerum Hill, we briefly knew another young couple who had bought one of those three buildings in even more derelict condition and were giving it a go. I wish I knew what became of them, but I don’t remember their names. Perhaps they still own it. Or perhaps they got quickly discouraged and moved away. Or perhaps they held on to it for decades, sold it and made a killing. Whether they’re there or not, the buildings remain. And that’s what’s so great about Brooklyn.
IN A MOVE THAT COMES AS A GREAT RELIEF to those who care about New York City’s historic architecture, the Landmarks Preservation Commission has reversed its recent decision to drop nearly 100 properties from its calendar, where many had languished for five years or more. It’s an administrative maneuver that doesn’t necessarily save anything, but at least insures that these properties — all of which were in the initial stages of being designated as landmarks, with research, public hearings, and a vote to follow — will remain under the oversight of the LPC and can’t be willy-nilly altered or, God forbid, demolished.
Top: c.1880 Second Empire cottage, Snug Harbor, Staten Island
Mid-19th c. Ploughman’s Bush Building, North Bronx
Local preservation groups, including including Landmark West and the Historic Districts Council, went ballistic when the decision to remove the properties from LPC oversight was announced just after Thanksgiving. The outcry succeeded in getting the LPC to keep these 100 or so properties on the calendar.
St. Barbara’s Church, 1910, Spanish Baroque, Bushwick, Brooklyn
For me, the eye-opener was an email from the New York Landmarks Conservancy, showing a number of fine and important buildings throughout the five boroughs that I had no idea were quite unprotected. The images in this post come from that email.
Curtis House, c. 1850 Romantic Revival cottage, Staten Island
Better-known and much-beloved sites that remain in this netherworld — for the reversal of the ‘de-calendaring’ was merely a postponement — include Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery and the neon Pepsi sign in Long Island City.
Left to right, above: 2 Oliver Street, 1821 Federal style townhouse, Chinatown; 138 Second Avenue,1832 Federal style rowhouse, East Village; 57 Sullivan Street, 1816 Federal style townhouse, SoHo