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THE BRITISH UPPER CLASSES and Russian aristocracy, in search of sun, made the city of Nice, on France’s Mediterranean coast, their winter playground in the late 19th century. Most of the city’s pale or pastel-colored buildings date from that Belle Époque and from the Art Deco era, and there are few contemporary ones, giving its boulevards and squares a historic grandeur that distinguishes Nice from other beach resorts.
I came to Nice primarily to revisit a city I had fond memories of from thirty years ago. That’s proving a tough act to follow. Nice has 300 days a year of sunshine, so they say, but the past couple have not been among them. I arrived in a downpour late Sunday, by train from Arles, and checked into the two-star B&B-type lodging I’d booked months ago, based on rave reviews on Trip Advisor. Don’t believe them, and don’t go by the pictures, which make it look more charming than it is. The Nice Garden Hotel is dreary, depressing and threadbare. After an uncomfortable night, I spent Monday morning looking for an alternative.
That took me in and out of several faded grand dames, above, along the Promenade des Anglais, which had rooms available but which were either too expensive (Negresco, Westminster) or too embalmed-feeling (Le Royal, which was great from the outside, stuffy within), or both. I ended up at the New York Times-recommended four-star Villa Victoria, below, on Boulevard Victor Hugo, and made the switch.
Ensconced now in much greater luxury (still for a reasonable 90 euros — only 15 more per night than the other — including breakfast and every possibly amenity, even female-sized terry cloth slippers and a pencil with a red rhinestone on it), I took in my first Nice museum, the Villa Massena, below, an over-the-top gilded private palace built in 1898, which the city has recently restored.
The second floor galleries, with costumes and paintings of the city in its Belle Époque heyday (below, an amusement pier that extended into sea but no longer exists) interested me more than the sumptuous decor.
Monday is the antiques market in Nice’s Vieux Ville (Old City), below. It’s a serious market, akin to Paris’, but I’m so over all that. There isn’t a poster or a piece of costume jewelry or a Quimper plate that I could rouse myself to buy these days. But it was fun to look at objects, people and, of course, buildings.
Matisse lived in the yellow house, above.
For lunch, of all the many cafes lining both sides of Vieux Ville’s main drag, Cours Saleya, I chose Le Safari, below. It was bustling, warm (outdoor heaters), and smelled pleasantly of mussels and the other seafood for which Nice is known.
While my first salad Niçoise in Nice, above, was ‘meh’ (unripe tomatoes), the people at the next table more than made up for it. An amusing British couple who come to Nice often and know its environs intimately, from the best patisserie to which buses to take to get to which gardens, I thoroughly enjoyed my first extended conversation in days. It continued when they invited me for drinks at the apartment they’re renting in a classic Niçoise building not far from my hotel. Drinks turned into a dinner spread, below (smoked salmon, quail eggs, exquisite cheeses) and I now have personal travel consultants for the rest of my stay.
All of Nice’s twenty famous museums, including the Matisse and Chagall Museums in the Cimiez neighborhood, are closed on Tuesday, and the weather, though drier, is still gray. I’m heading to Ephrussi de Rothschild’s quirky garden in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, a half-hour bus ride away.
UPDATE: I’ve been called out — and rightly so — by a Massachusetts reader for making light of the “anti-climactic” “non-hurricane” in yesterday’s post below. I think we in NYC were so relieved when skyscrapers didn’t topple in heavy winds and the city didn’t become Atlantis, as one commentator warned, that “the day after” was spent in a state of altered consciousness, just trying to regain emotional balance. Only Monday evening did I hear a report on NPR about the extensive devastation in New England and the Catskills, and the damage and losses suffered there in many historic towns and villages. It is nothing short of tragic; apologies for my NYC-centric insensitivity.
I COULD HAVE DONE a post-Irene entry today, but I’m afraid I didn’t get good enough shots of the Jetskis in New York Harbor this afternoon, or the guy loading a surfboard into his car in the aftermath of the non-hurricane.
It was all a bit anti-climactic, after the three-day media storm that preceded it, so a friend and I wandered down to Brooklyn Bridge Park and then through Brooklyn Heights just to dispel the cabin fever of the previous 24 hours. I stopped to take a picture of the terra cotta peacock plaque, top, and in so doing, noticed anew a classic Art Deco building at the corner of Henry and Cranberry Streets. It’s been around for 80 years, and recently underwent a cleaning and partial renovation.
The 12-story building is called The Cranlyn, as I learned from the bas relief plaque, above. That’s Brooklyn’s Borough Hall in the foreground and a seemingly generic skyscraper (none that I recognize, anyway) against a characteristically Art Deco sunburst.
The architect was the Yale-educated H.I. Feldman, who designed many apartment buildings on and around the Bronx’s Grand Concourse in the 1930s and ’40s. It couldn’t be more emblematic of its era, with vari-colored brick, terra cotta trim, and setbacks at the top to reduce the building’s visual bulk and allow a few apartments to have terraces.
Even utilitarian vents, below, were made attractive in the best Jazz Age tradition, with zig zags and sunbursts galore.
The original marble storefronts on the ground floor, below, have been sadly vacant for some time. Other restaurants have come and gone; none has lasted as long as Su-Su’s Yum Yum, a Chinese restaurant where, if I remember correctly, I saw George Nelson bubble fixtures for the first time.
The ceiling fixtures in the renovated lobby, below, are a let-down. But the elevator doors, front desk, and other original details remain.
Of course, Montrose Morris, Brownstoner’s “Building of the Day” columnist, beat me to it. Go there to learn more about the Cranlyn, including comments about the rent-stabilized apartments within from someone who actually lived there.
WHAT’S A DESIGN PEDIGREE WORTH? Quite a bit, in the case of this 500-square-foot bungalow just sent to market by fashion designer Cynthia Rowley (who bought another mid-century Montauk house recently for 820K and probably doesn’t need two of them).
The pedigree is not Rowley’s, A-list celeb though she is. It’s that the house was designed in the late 1930s by architect Donald Deskey, best known for his elegant Art Deco contributions to Radio City Music Hall, for the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair. He called it the “Sportshack,” declaring his intention to “overcome the public’s aversion to factory-built homes by using open spaces, new materials, and practical decor.”
Kitchen cabinets look original
In 1940, a Sportshack was exhibited as part of an industrial design show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, kitted out as a hunting cabin with rifles and duck decoys. This particular one was erected in the Ditch Plains area of Montauk in the ’40s. As it stands, the house has just one bedroom and one bath, but it sits on a lot of nearly an acre and could be expanded.
For the official listing and many more pictures, click here.
I’M STILL HAPPILY DISCOVERING my new neighborhood of Prospect Heights, and haven’t even scratched the surface. It’s been too cold to walk around just for fun. I’ve seen only the blocks immediately adjacent to mine, and the main avenues, where I shop, eat, and do my errands.
I’m starting to appreciate Flatbush Avenue. Along this stretch of it, leading up to Prospect Park, there are large brick apartment buildings that must have been quite elegant in their late 19th century day. Today’s tacky stores detract from the street level, but if you look up, you see a bit of history. The date, the building’s name, and the cornice detail, top, suggest the Prospect View must have been a very desirable address.
The square turret on the late Victorian building, above, is like something out of Peter Pan, which is not atypical of the area.
The former carriage house, above, however bastardized, is a reminder that Flatbush Avenue was once the main route for horse-drawn vehicles, first carriages called omnibuses, then horsecars, which ran on tracks. They carried the residents of the developing areas around Prospect Park, which opened in 1873, down to Fulton Ferry landing where they could catch one of 1,200 boats a day to Manhattan.
Plaza Street rims Grand Army Plaza, a majestic traffic circle with an unoriginal triumphal arch and an extraordinary 1932 fountain with figures of Neptune and the Tritons (best photographed in spring, when the water’s on). On Plaza Street, pre- and post-war apartment buildings, above, alternate.
The controversy has died down over Richard Meier’s 1 Grand Army Plaza, above, a glazed behemoth that is a century newer than any other building in the area. When modern architcture is good, and this assured, subtly complex building is very good, it’s welcome in my book.
The main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, above, is apparently considered one of the most important Art Deco buildings in America. It has a concave facade designed to fit around Grand Army Plaza’s oval contours. Ground was broken in 1912 for a Beaux Arts building similar in style to the nearby Brooklyn Museum, but costs and city politics slowed construction (so what else is new?) By the time construction recommenced in 1938, styles had changed and new architects were commissioned. It opened to acclaim in 1941.
Between the grand portals, below, with gilded figures from history and myth, and the inscription
Here are enshrined the longing of great hearts and noble things that tower above the tide, the magic word that winged wonder starts, the garnered wisdom that has never died
the library is an inspiring destination on a bitter cold day.
After a day of local errands, I like to stop into Pequena, below, a colorful and high-spirited Mexican restaurant on Vanderbilt Avenue. I assume the festive lights are seasonal, but maybe they’re a year-round fixture. How should I know? I’m new in town.