Kya deLongchamps looks at world-class Art Deco architecture in Midtown Manhattan.
Stumping the streets of New York, the fulcrum for branded bags of shopped quarry, it’s impossible to miss the flared, ornate batters of its soaring period architecture. Cloudy-breathed and stung by a waitress’ edgy politeness, you remind yourself with an acquired urbane attitude — this is not the only city with a skyscraper horizon.
Still, the pinched, non-boulevard width of many of NY’s streets added to the drop-the-bass feeling igniting the heart as you skim towards the city from JFK, sets the razor shadow and ornate detail of her canyons into vivid relief — and don’t just crane the odd glance up to jagged bites out of the steely city skies — throw the bags in the hotel and get walking.
If you like Art Deco design, put aside two hours and start at the Rockefeller Centre, (built c1933) with its magnificent low-relief sculpture, urgent murals, sumptuous bronze, stonework and glass tesserae on a landmark site, bristling with statuary and iconic artwork. Set over 22 acres, this ambitious ‘city within a city’ with its original stepped, elegantly restrained buildings, engaged over 40,000 workers during the three years of its construction under John D Rockefeller, and architects Raymond Hood, Wallace K Harrison and Max Abramovitz.
Irish immigrants played their part. The celebrated photograph of ironworkers on a girder on the 69th floor ‘Lunch Atop a Skyscraper’ by Charles C Ebbets, shows at least two identifiable grinning Galway acrobats. Today the 14 Jazz Age structures of the original Centre, and five later additions include the headquarters of NBC, Christie NY, and Radio City Music Hall.
Beyond the gardens graced by six Rococo dolphin fountain heads, wonders include Lee Lawrie’s muscular limestone panels coloured by Leon V Solon — Wisdom/Light/Sound, cavorting over the entrance to 30 Rockefeller Plaza. The GE or RCA building features a superb Observation Deck. The lobby with its themes of American progress was decorated by European visionaries Frank Brangwyn and José Maria Sert.
The bronzed elevator doors (1270 Avenue of the Americas) by architectural modeller Chambellan is just an introduction to hundreds of fixtures reflecting a French tinted classical atmosphere, rich with myth, metaphor, triumph and a frenzy for invention and technology, clear and defiant during the most wretched years of the Great Depression.
The Prometheus fountain above the Lower Plaza by Paul Manship, is said to be the most photographed monumental sculptures in NYC (best by night — spring for a skate in the rink).
The first thing to know about the Chrysler Building (c1930) is that the carmaker never actually owned it, although their corporate headquarters were there together with the infamous ‘Cloud Club’ until the ’50s. Even without gliding over the city by helicopter, the Chrysler can be seen from many vantage points in Manhattan, and with 5,000 windows, it is utterly fabulous by night.
Older by a single year than the Empire State Building, it was once the tallest structure in the city. Sadly, there’s no longer a public viewing deck, but you can step into the three-storey high lobby during office hours from Monday to Friday to enjoy the Odeon meets velvet Gothic architecture and murals contained in William Van Alen’s masterpiece. The blood-red Moroccan marble is immersive.
Cars, flight and speed are a theme throughout the building and you can enjoy these wild Gotham City elements easily from the sidewalk, including eagles, gargoyles and identifiable super-scale radiator cap and wheel hub figures seen on ’30s Chrysler cars, projecting from the corners of this iconic temple to modernism. The celebration of steel (it was framed in steel) can be best seen in the signature decked fans and sunbursts niches of the terraced crown with its 60m needle. Enjoy this, together with most of the floors of the building at the NE or SE corner of 44th Street if you want an all-in vertical thrust in a picture.
Good enough for King Kong and Cary Grant to scale in the flicks, no trip would be complete without surveying the city from the Empire State Building (c1931). It really makes you think when at 381m, it’s only the 29th tallest building in the World. Take in the Chrysler Building, and having booked your tour (online or on-site only), make your way to the heady heights of the 86th or 102nd floor (the latter more expensive naturally). Yes, this beacon of style is crowded, but the queues are shorter at 8am-11am and it’s open until 2am if you’re Sleepless in Seattle (avoid sunset).
If you’re an Art Deco nerd like me, there’s a lot more to see, and see again — notice the bold intermingling of new and 19th century artistic threads from Art Nouveau to Cubism. The design for the Empire State Building (ESB) was whipped up in two weeks by William Lamb and it was erected in just one year. The lobby of the ESB has recently been revealed and restored.
There’s a good audio tour to take you through the historical exhibits and right to the stomach-flipping elevator. The building has recently undergone a $550m (€460m) renovation, removing hideous inclusions from blinding acrylic panels to fluorescent light fittings, and was upgraded for energy efficiency, a project that took longer than the building’s original construction. The ceiling murals in the lobby capture the fascination of the new mechanical age with its lines of gears now hand finished in 24-carat gold and aluminium leaf. Be sure to get a shot of the relief panels of the Empire State here with its Art Deco rays of light radiating from its spire out over the city.
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