Friday, December 21, 2007

Holiday Cheer: Celebrating the Spirit of Achievement

Nina Saemondsson (Seimondsson, Saemundsson), Spirit of Achievement, ca. 1930-31. Park Avenue canopy of the Waldorf-Astoria, 301 Park Ave. (between 49th & 50th Sts.), New York.

In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand writes that the hotel where Francisco d'Anconia stayed on his visits to New York was "designed as a European palace. The Wayne-Falkland was the most distinguished hotel left on any continent. Its style of indolent luxury, of velvet drapes, sculptured panels and candlelight, seemed a deliberate contrast to its function: no one could afford its hospitality except men who came to New York on business, to settle transactions involving the world." (Part I, ch. 5)

I've always pictured the Waldorf-Astoria when I read about the Wayne-Falkland, and that seems particularly fitting now that I've discovered the name of the sculpture that adorns the canopy over the Waldorf's Park Avenue entrance. Spirit of Achievement is a stylized woman whose arched back and upward-stretched wings make her seem about to take flight. You've probably failed to notice the ten-foot figure because its silvery metal blends into the metalwork of the canopy and the Waldorf's fa├žade. Like the Waldorf itself, the figure is in the Art Deco style - the same elegant, streamlined style that marks the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings.

The original Waldorf-Astoria, built in the 1890s, transformed the urban hotel from a home for transients into a social meeting place. After operating costs rose sharply and the 34th Street location became more commercial, the hotel closed in 1929 and was demolished early in 1930, making way for the Empire State Building. The new Waldorf, occupying an entire city block a mile or so to the north, was begun and completed within the next three years. At the time its 47-story towers made it the tallest hotel in the world.

The Spirit of Achievement is a fitting reminder that in America, the country that comes as close to Ayn Rand's capitalist society as any nation ever has, we have transformed the December holiday season into a celebration of happiness and prosperity. Stroll through the grand lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria, admire its palatial decor and its lavish holiday decorations, and count your ... achievements.

Smithsonian Institution Research Information System (SIRIS) IAS 8780237. Gayle & Cohen, Art Commission and Municipal Art Society Guide to Manhattan's Outdoor Sculpture (1988), p. 327 (a three-line entry). New York Times articles on the building and opening of the Waldorf-Astoria make no mention of this sculpture. New Yorker articles on the Waldorf-Astoria include passing references to it, which I haven't yet been able to check since they aren't available on line. The Wikipedia entry on the Waldorf-Astoria includes useful links, of which the most fascinating one describes the Waldorf's high-tech aspects, for example: "It has looked into the future and has prepared against the day when there will be television. Although much of the publicity concerning television has been hasty and over-optimistic, all rooms have been wired for television so that when the day of its actuality arrives those who stay at the hotel will be able to see a show or a ball game by looking on a screen in their rooms." Since the 1950s, the Waldorf-Astoria has been the venue for the Spirit of Achievement Awards Luncheon, sponsored by the Women's Division of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University to honor achievements of individual women in fields such as philanthropy, the arts, business, government, and journalism.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Profiles of Contemporary Representational Sculptors

In the writing business, a moment of inspiration usually leads to hours of perspiration. I am therefore unbelievably pleased to announce that I've finished writing and setting up the basic pages for a new section on the Forgotten Delights website: Profiles of Contemporary Representational Sculptors. These pages aim to help lovers of figurative sculpture find and purchase such works. For copyright reasons, most of the works illustrated on the Forgotten Delights site are pre-1923. But given that many visitors to the site are fascinated by representational sculpture, what could be a more logical place for a listing of sculptors who currently produce such works? At the moment there's one Profile up, and I'm actively seeking more. For details, see the Profiles home page at

Saturday, August 18, 2007

A Stroll in the Conservatory Garden

As I said in a Salute from 2004 on the Forgotten Delights site, the Conservatory Garden at Fifth Ave. and 105th St. is among the quietest and most relaxing outdoor places in Manhattan. In August the gardens are not as riotous with flowers as in the Spring, but some of the beds are still spectacular. And, of course, the sculptures are still there, and still among the most cheerful in the city. Below, some recent photos of the Burnett Fountain and the Untermeyer Fountain.

The birds actually do use the birdbath, and then frequently perch on top of the girl's head. I wonder if Vonnoh, the sculptor, thought of that when she gave the girl that tousled upsweep? This is the only sculpture I know of on which birds regularly perch that doesn't have streaks of bird droppings running down its head.

The most famous works by Walter Schott, sculptor of the Untermeyer Fountain, are appropriately in the Sans Souci ("without a care") palace in Potsdam.

Two blocks south of the Conservatory Garden entrance stands Dr. Sims, "The Father of Gynecology," who's in Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan as Essay 47.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Sculptures at St. Mark's in the Bowery and Tompkins Square Park

Aside from the benefits of training yourself to actually think about what you're seeing (see my posts of 7/24/07, 7/25/07, and 7/25/07, subtitled "Open eyes, engage brain"), a sculpture walk can also be a great excuse to get out of your house should the place suddenly be filled with noxious fumes from waterproofing paint being applied in the basement. Here are photos from yesterday's hour-long jaunt from Astor Place to Tompkins Square Park. Only one has appeared on .

Above: St.-Mark's-in-the-Bouwerie, 2nd Ave. at 10th St., has two lions by the entrance doors and another outside its fence. Why? In New Testament lore, the symbol of St. Mark is the lion. The one sitting outside the fence imitates Donatello's Marzocco, which became a symbol of Florence in the 15th-c. (The original is now in the Bargello Museum, and a copy occupies its earlier site in the Piazza della Signoria.) St. Mark's is the second oldest church in the city, occupying the site of Peter Stuyvesant's family chapel.

Stuyvesant himself is buried on the grounds of St. Mark's (see the stone in the east side of the foundation), and a bust of him by Toon Dupuis stands to the right of the church. It dates to 1911, a quarter century before the Stuyvesant by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in nearby Stuyvesant Park. (See Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan #16.) You could guess that from the texture, which is realist/naturalist rather than Rodinesque.

Above: At either end of St. Mark's porch, twined with roses, are over life-size marble sculptures of Native Americans. St. Mark's website notes that they were unveiled in 1920 and identifies them as Aspiration and Inspiration. I have no idea which is which. These are among the last works by Solon Borglum (brother of Gutzon Borglum, creator of Mt. Rushmore), who was known for his romanticized portrayals of Native Americans. The Little Lady of the Dew, another work by Solon Borglum - mentioned in Brooks's Permanent New Yorkers and in Proske's Brookgreen Gardens Sculpture (I, 78) as a fountain figure - is perhaps this fountain on at the corner of the St. Mark's grounds. It's not mentioned on the St. Mark's site.

I'd visited Tompkins Square Park several times before I tracked down the General Slocum Memorial, tucked behind a brick rest-room pavilion on the north side of the 9th St. Traverse. On a balmy day in June, 1904, the paddlewheel steamer General Slocum (named after the Civil War general whose likeness by Frederick MacMonnies stands at Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn), set off on a picnic excursion with the congregation of St. Mark's German Lutheran Church, then located near Tompkins Square. The passengers were mostly German immigrant women and children. Near Hell Gate the steamboat caught fire. Within 15 minutes, over a thousand died in what remains the worst maritime disaster in the New York area. (See Encyclopedia of New York p. 457.)

This 1906 memorial by Bruno Louis Zimm is quite lovely, although rather worn. The inscription on the west side reads, "In memory of those who lost their lives in the disaster to the steamer General Slocum June XV MCMIV." The one on the east side reads, "Dedicated by the Sympathy Society of German Ladies the Year of Our Lord MCMVI."

Above: detail of the General Slocum Memorial. The inscription on the front, "They were earth's purest children, young and fair," sounded like poetic syntax to me, and turns out to be from Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Revolt of Islam," also known as "Laon and Cynthia; or, The Revolution of the Golden City," written in 1817:

They were earth's purest children, young and fair,
With eyes the shrines of unawakened thought,
And brows as bright as spring or morning, ere
Dark time had there its evil legend wrought
In characters of cloud which wither not.

Above: Tompkins Square also has a zinc reproduction of a statue of Hebe (Youth) by Danish Neoclassical sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen. It stands atop a small structure protecting a fountain erected by 19th-c. temperance advocates. Today, when a bottle of Poland Spring is available for the price of ten minutes' work at minimum wage, it's difficult to remember that New York's water supply in the early 19th c. could be deadly. Until the Croton Aqueduct brought upstate water in the 1830s, drinking germ-free alcohol may have saved as many lives as cirrhosis of the liver took.

Above: The last sculpture in Tompkins Square is in the running for my least favorite outdoor sculpture in New York. The figure of Samuel Cox (1824-1889) looks as if he's been assembled from stove pipes; or perhaps he's the Tin Man turned human. Known as the "letter-carrier's friend," Cox sponsored legislation that led to a 40-hour work week and paid benefits for employees of the United States Postal Service. Postal workers across the country chipped in to pay for this sculpture by Louise Lawson, dedicated in 1891. New York Times art critic Layton Crippen derided it as early as 1899: "It has never been alleged, for instance, that the figure of Samuel S. Cox, in Astor Place, is a thing of beauty. But it is equally certain that it is not decorative, and if its surroundings were in harmony with it the City of New York would have to be deserted. To how many other New York statues cannot the same criticism be applied? It is possible that a thousand years or so from now they may be regarded as suitable for decorative purposes, in the same way as we now make use of Aztec grotesques or Easter Island idols. But at present that is out of the question."

As a marketing device for Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan, I recently wrote up a list of tips for taking photos of outdoor sculptures in New York. Read the list or print out copies (tips and images) for your favorite photo fanatics.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Greenpoint War Memorial in HBO's "Flight of the Conchords"

In the "Girlfriends" episode of HBO's Flight of the Conchords, which aired earlier this week, I was thrilled to recognize the Greenpoint War Memorial in McGolrick Park. It appears in the scene where everyone is (more or less) speaking French. For more on the memorial, see my post of July 21, 2007. The croissant clerk / sniper worked in Fabiane, Bedford Ave. at North 5th, which incidentally has the best iced tea on the North Side.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Gargling Gargoyles (correction)

An astute reader just pointed out that the figures on the American Standard Building (see previous post) are not actually gargoyles. A gargoyle, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is "a grotesque spout, representing some animal or human figure, projecting from the gutter of a building (esp. in Gothic architecture), in order to carry the rain-water clear of the walls." I was shocked to have made such an error, although it's an extenuating circumstance that according to the OED, "gargoyle" has come by extension to mean "A projection resembling a gargoyle." However, when using the term re architecture, I think it's better to keep to the original sense. As a philologist (which is what I earned my Ph.D. in lo, these many years ago), I was fascinated to read the derivation: "OF. gargouille (also gargoule, gargole, recorded in 13th c.) = Sp. gargola; app. a special sense of gargouille throat (cf. GARGIL1, GARGLE v.), from the water passing through the mouths of the figures." So gargoyles and gargling have the same root! And now I will never forget that gargoyles spit.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Gilded Gargoyles on American Radiator Building

Above the second floor of the American Standard or American Radiator Building at 40 West 40th St. (south side of Bryant Park), designed by Raymond Hood and completed in 1924, eight gilded gargoyles glitter against the building's black brick facade. According to one website, the gargoyles symbolize the "transformation of matter into energy." Looking at them, I keep wondering just what kind of energy we are talking about. Roaring Twenties, indeed.

This one has the word "Fever" beneath. Perhaps all the others had a title as well, but in most cases they seem to have been painted over too often to be legible.

The building just to the west, completed in 1937, imitates the American Standard Building's facade but has eight more gargoyles in a noticeably different style.

Writing something, possibly drafting a design?

Something mechanical, with a hammer.

Pouring metal into a mold? Look at those abs: very similar to the ones on Lawrie's Atlas at Rockefeller Center, which (not coincidentally) was dedicated in 1937, the year this building was completed. No one says who created these gargoyles. Lawrie had been sculpting long enough that the figures might well have been the work of an eager imitator. The burly-man esthetic was related to Social Realism in the U.S.S.R., a country wholeheartedly admired by a startling number of American intellectuals and artists in the 1930s. (On why I dislike Lawrie's Atlas and which nearby Atlas I prefer, see Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan #29.)

A blow torch?

A furnace of some sort.

A plumber??? He's the only one who hasn't got a cloak flying behind him.

Don't miss the view from across Bryant Park of the top of the American Standard Building: it's gorgeous, especially when the sun's out. The building is now a boutique hotel, the Bryant Park, with a bar that gives you an excuse to sit around admiring the lobby.

I love this photo. It's not taken with a wide-angle lens - it's a curved building shot through a round arcade. (See below.) Northwest corner 57th St. and Lexington Ave.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Second Stories on 17th St., Irving Place to 1st Ave. (Open eyes, engage brain, part 3)

Here's the third and final part of the 17th St. series. Why didn't I start all the way over at the West Side? Once I had sorted through the photos from 6th to 1st Avenues, I was shocked to realize I had 3 days' worth of posts -more than enough to make my point that even after you've walked an area for a couple decades, there's still more to see if you focus your mind.

Washington Irving, by Frederick Beer. Irving (1783-1859), a native New Yorker, was one of the first Americans to win international acclaim for his writing. Among his efforts are the hilarious Knickerbocker's History of New York, 1809, "Rip Van Winkle," "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," and a 5-volume biography of George Washington. "Great minds have purposes," he said; "little minds have wishes. Little minds are subdued by misfortunes; great minds rise above them." Click here for more Washington Irving quotes, and visit Project Gutenberg to read some of his works online.

Break pediment, insert air conditioner ... an odd arrangement. The broken pediment dates back to the late Roman Empire.

Someone had a wild time designing this particular cornice.

One of a pair of elegant oval windows flanking a columned portico; considerable effort went into the fence, as well.

Quite a large and elaborate facade.

This type of statue derives from the boy whose job was to hold the reins of your horse. Seeing three of them on a second-floor balcony made me laugh.

Just east of the boys who are Forever Young and Forever Useless, a lovely ironwork balcony.

The fence of Stuyvesant Square, whose main supports are in the shape of fasces (rods bound together), a Roman symbol of authority. Inside the Square is Whitney's Peter Stuyvesant, 1936, Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan #16.

Maybe he's been bad, but he certainly looks remorseful. Couldn't they let him out of that corner? He stands, unidentified, in front of the Hospital for Joint Diseases on the corner of 2nd Ave.

Three nicely proportioned arches, three carved caduceuses. I think it's part of Beth Israel Hospital.

Second Stories on 17th St., 5th Ave. to Irving Place (Open eyes, engage brain, part 2)

Yesterday's post was on 17th St. between 6th and 5th Avenues, looking at the second stories rather than ground floor. Today's post continues east from 5th Ave. to Irving Place.

Decorative palm leaves and a cartouche above a doorway.

A cartouche with a nicely lettered address, flanked by cornucopias.

This decorative stone carving reminds me a bit of Louis Sullivan's work: compare the doorway and ground-floor columns of the Bayard-Condict Building at Crosby and Bleecker, Sullivan's only NYC building.

More Beaux Arts decoration, including swags, egg-and-dart moldings, and even a couple fleur-de-lis.

One of the upper stories of the Barnes & Noble at Union Square North (a.k.a. 17th St.). It was originally the Century Building, constructed 1880-1881 (AIA Guide p. 202, W7).

Decorative element on the building at the northwest corner of Park and 17th St.: nice palmettes. Originally the Everett Building, 1908; the AIA Guide says it's "careful but bland" (p. 202, W8).

Arch from the huge ground-floor windows of the W New York Hotel, built in 1910-1911 for Germania Life Insurance. Could you doubt that a company housed in such a stalwart building would pay what it owed you? The AIA Guide (p. 203, W9) notes that after World War I the name "Germania" was a liability, so the board of directors chose a new name with the aim of using as many letters as possible from the old. On a recent walking tour, I heard that the Germania/Guardian had the NYC's first electric roof sign, which is why the W Hotel is allowed to have one today.

Tammany Hall, southeast corner of Park Ave. and 17th St. The building dates to 1929, when the fortunes of this New York political organization were about to decline sharply. The medallion on the pediment holds a red liberty cap.

Medallion from the north side of the Tammany Hall building. Tammany Hall was founded in 1788 as the Society of St. Tammany or the Columbian Order - hence the medallion of Columbus. The other medallion on the north facade is of "Tamanend," a legendary chief of the Delaware tribe. For more on Tammany's long and often corrupt existence, see the Encyclopedia of New York City pp. 1149-51.

Relief from the north side of the Tammany Hall building. Arrows and laurels? What's that mean?

Lovely decorative panels, nice arches at the top.