Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Bryant Park Place

This post also appears on the Bryant Park blog.

A few months ago the Landmarks Preservation Commission added the Engineers' Club building, now known as co-op residence Bryant Park Place, at 32 West 40th Street, to their list of New York City landmarks. In very good company, this Beaux-Arts clubhouse is flanked on either side by the Radiator Building, built in 1924, and the Scientific American Building, completed in 1925.
West 40th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, 1935

The Engineers' Club was formed in 1888 to unify a profession growing in significance and numbers throughout the city. By the early 1900s, the club outgrew it's former location at Fifth Avenue and 35th Street, and club member Andrew Carnegie made an initial donation of $1 million to erect a new building.

Engineers' Club on West 35th Street and Fifth Avenue, 1897

Shortly after, he raised the amount to $1.5 million, to facilitate the construction of the Engineering Societies' Building, one block over on West 39th Street. The two buildings would connect on the ground floor, and have entrances on both 39th and 40th Streets.

Six well-known architects were invited to submit plans, and were each paid $1,000 for their submissions, whether they won or not. The small firm Whitfield & King beat out a few much larger firms, among them Carrère & Hastings, and won the contest to design and build the Engineers' Clubhouse on 40th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Another firm, Hale & Rogers, was chosen to design and build the Engineers' Societies Building on 39th Street. (Incidentally, Cargenie's wife, Louise Whitfield Carnegie was the sister of winning architect.) The firm also built the Carnegie building in Troy, NY.

The Engineers' Club, now, Bryant Park Place, at 32 West 40th Street, 1905

This 12-story Renaissance Revival clubhouse was completed in 1907, and was thought to be one of the most luxurious buildings of it's kind. Notable club members included Nikola Tesla (In 1917, a dinner was held in the adjoining building at 33 West 39th Street, in his honor after receiving the Edison Medal), Thomas Edison, Andrew Carnegie, and H.H. Westinghouse. The building featured public and social spaces, as well as 66 sleeping rooms. Tesla was very fond of pigeons, and often fed them in adjacent Bryant Park on a favorite bench near the corner of Sixth Avenue and 40th Street.

Dining room at the Engineers' Club, 1910

The Engineers' Club sold the building to developer David Eshagin in 1979, and it was converted into a co-op in 1983. Both buildings were added to the National Registrar of Historic Places on August 30, 2007.

** All photos are from the MCNY digital collection.

Primary sources cited:
Landmark's Preservation Commission document, March 22, 2011
Landmark's Preservation Commission press release. March 22, 2011
NYT Streetscapes column, 1995

Friday, July 15, 2011

Civil War in Midtown

This post also appears on the Bryant Park blog.

Awhile ago at work I was half asked, half told to find a connection between the park and the American Civil War in order to commemorate its sesquicentennial. I'm not a Civil War historian, which makes finding non-obvious connections within this hugely dense topic of history difficult. Bryant Park, then known as Reservoir Square, was most likely used as an encampment for Union soldiers during the war, but I think that was true of most parks and public spaces in the city. Also, most of the confirmation of this comes from NYC guidebooks, not actual primary sources. I did find a small connection via one of my favorite monuments in the park.

At the east end of the reading room stands a monument to William Earle Dodge, founding member of the American chapter of the Y.M.C.A., New York 8th District Congressman from 1866-1867, and Native American rights activist, among many other things.

Photo: BPC
He was also the father of one of the youngest Brigadier Generals in the Union Army, Charles Cleveland Dodge, who aside from his commitment to public service, shares his father's stance.

Though Dodge left the service in June1863, he returned to volunteer with the U.S. Army to restore order in the city during the Draft Riots under Major General John Z. Wool. Transcripts of Wool's reports are available online. The Draft Riots, still considered one of the largest (and by day three) heinous acts of civil disobedience in the country, waged on for four days throughout the city from July 13 - July 16, 1863. The African-American community was especially targeted and horribly mistreated, leading to an exodus from the city by that community, which I'm sure had a huge impact on New York City's cultural and social development in the following decades.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Out West: Cement Ships and Dancing on the Beach

Summer in New York always makes me nostalgic for California, a land of heat, but not humidity. When I lived there, it was also a land of sparsely populated beaches that I didn't have to take multiple trains to reach and Mexican food that would make you cry. There isn't a Coney Island out there, and west coast pizza is a joke, but there is Venice Beach, inexpensive produce, and sunsets over the water. Moving on.

Years ago a friend and I were driving up the coast and we spotted this:

Photo by Smo

Through the magic of social networking, my friend Jake identified it for me after I'd posted it on facebook. A cartographer, he was also nice enough to provide a map.

It is the SS Palo Alto, a cement ship joined to the Seacliff Beach pier, off the central coast of California. Constructed out of reinforced cement as an alternative to steel and iron, the SS Palo Alto was built just after WWI, and launched on May 29, 1919. She laid at anchor in Oakland until 1924, then was sold as surplus. In the late 1920s the ship was purchased by the Seacliff Amusement Corporation (or, Cal-Nevada Company, depending on the source) and towed to its present location, off the shore of Aptos, California. The ship was then retrofitted as an event space with a dance floor, restaurant, hotel, and other amenities, and a pier was built leading out to it from the shore. A life-long resident of the Golden Coast, Jake told me that his grandmother remembers attending dances and other social events on the ship during this time. That partially explains why the pier itself is so much wider than most other CA piers. More space besides the water, for the party to spill over from the boat. . . .

Following several storms that caused damage to the ship's hull, investors cut their losses and sold the SS Palo Alto and surrounding beachfront property to the State of California in February 1936 for $1.00.

Though closed to the public since the 1930s, the ship is part of a state park and no doubt serves as a reef of sorts for the local ocean life. In 2004, after numerous sightings of oil-streaked fowl, officials and environmentalists launched an investigation of the ships' steel tanks. After finding an oil leak, a salvage company was brought in, the spill cleaned up, and the ship repaired. The cleanup effort was part of a larger effort along the west coast to examine sunken vessels and their potential impact on the environment.