Carnegie Hall and the jewels of Midtown: Stroll the history
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Carnegie Hall and the jewels of Midtown: Stroll the history
Carnegie Hall along 57th Street in New York, Sept. 5, 2020. A lot of Midtown Manhattan is packed into the beloved stretch between Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. Zack DeZon/The New York Times.

by Michael Kimmelman

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- A reward for the city’s having flattened the curve, lines of culture-starved New Yorkers now snake out the doors of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History and the Morgan Library & Museum. But the city still won’t be its old self until audiences start filing (safely) back into places like Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. To stroll the few blocks between the two performing arts stomping grounds only takes around 15 minutes, skirting the southwest corner of Central Park — Merchants’ Gate, as Olmsted and Vaux, the park’s designers, called it.

But a lot of midtown Manhattan is packed into that ordinarily trafficked, touristed stretch. Along with century-old architectural landmarks, a crop of supertall, anorexic apartment towers for the ultrarich have lately redrawn the city skyline, turning the storied cliff-face of high-rises lining Central Park South into the equivalent of chess pawns to their queens, kings and bishops along 57th and 58th streets.

Tod Williams and Billie Tsien have raised a family in this part of town, where they still run their architectural practice. They are designers of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia; the LeFrak Center at Lakeside in Prospect Park, Brooklyn; and the former American Folk Art Museum on 53rd Street — the building demolished several years ago to make way for the Museum of Modern Art’s latest expansion. Williams and Tsien also lead the team doing the forthcoming Obama Presidential Center in Chicago and are helping to revamp what used to be called Philharmonic Hall, then Avery Fisher — now Geffen Hall — at Lincoln Center. They live up the block.

Before that, and for more than 30 years, they lived and worked in Carnegie Hall.

This is the latest in a series of (edited, condensed) walks around New York. It takes in some architecturally beloved buildings like the Gainsborough Studios, Alwyn Court and the West Side YMCA, and it begins on the corner of Seventh Avenue and 57th Street, at Carnegie, where Tsien and Williams suggested we “meet,” virtually, by phone.

Michael Kimmelman: When I say you lived at Carnegie Hall, some readers may be imagining you camped backstage.

Tsien: We lived in the artist studios upstairs.

Kimmelman: Andrew Carnegie built those now-gone studios hoping they would help support the concert hall. I knew them because I would go as a young pianist for auditions and rehearsals. The place was a fantastic rabbit warren from the 1890s — home to Enrico Caruso, Martha Graham, Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando.

Tsien: Also Bill Cunningham, the Times fashion photographer, and Don Shirley …

Kimmelman: The pianist portrayed in “Green Book.”

Williams: He lived three floors below us.

Tsien: It was weird seeing that movie, like having a dream about your former home. We would come across Don in the building in his full regalia, decked out in robes or yachting clothes. Living in the studios was unlike apartment houses now, where you might pass somebody in the elevator and that’s it. Life was lived in the hallways, with people clattering up and down the stairs, singing, rehearsing lines, doing their exercises, like one woman who would come out in her ballet clothes.

Williams: It was a negligee. She was not youthful …

Tsien: No, but …

Williams: She was quite beautiful.

Tsien: My point is that, inside the building, it was a crazy, buzzy life, in keeping with the city of the late ’70s and ’80s, an incredible place for our son to grow up in, especially being the only child in the building. The layout was Byzantine. We were on the 16th floor, which required taking the elevator to 15 and walking up an extra flight. Once a family walked into our studio and showed us their concert tickets. They had bought cheap seats in the balcony and obviously gotten lost.

Williams: I could go through a door just down our hallway, climb on top of the plaster ceiling above the main hall and look straight down onto the stage.

Kimmelman: That sounds spectacularly unsafe.

Tsien: Tod saw Tracy Chapman’s dreadlocks and shoulders through the ceiling. Yes, the building was very unsafe before the renovations. We were broken into all the time.

Williams: A burglar once shimmied along the ledge and came in through our windows. Another guy broke down our door. It was the Wild West, but that meant we could also do what we liked. I liked to grill on the roof.

Tsien: Tod once took his parents to the roof to grill, and at a certain point, we heard this huge commotion on the stairs. It turned out to be firemen rushing up with hoses. Somebody smelled smoke and thought Carnegie Hall was burning down.

Kimmelman: People may forget that during the late 1950s Carnegie almost went the way of the old Penn Station. It was on the brink of demolition.

Williams: The architect Ralph Pomerance had already designed a red tower that was going to go in its place.

Kimmelman: Pomerance & Breines, the firm was called. Their plan would have swapped Carnegie for a 44-story office tower clad in red porcelain enamel, set into a sunken plaza, with a bridged entrance.

Williams: A cool-looking design, actually, which had absolutely nothing to do with its context — anticipating the sorts of buildings that have recently been rising in the neighborhood.

Kimmelman: You mean the supertalls. We’ll get back to them. The violinist Isaac Stern and some of your fellow tenants in the artist studios saved the hall from the wrecking ball. Then James Stewart Polshek renovated Carnegie during the ’80s and added Zankel Hall in 2003. Today it’s a landmark, but to be honest, the outside doesn’t begin to suggest how beautiful it is inside.

Williams: It’s architecturally ungainly outside, but I love that about it. William Tuthill was the architect. He was very, very young and had never done a hall. He was a cellist. The building’s Seventh Avenue elevation, with its fire escapes, is extremely plain. Seventh Avenue is an important avenue, but Tuthill basically said, “Move on, nothing to see there.”

Tsien: That elevation reveals nothing about what’s inside. Tod and I have a taste for these sort of buildings — the Pantheon in Rome is an obvious example — which you could walk by 100 times and never guess what the inside looks like.

Kimmelman: We haven’t talked about the surrounding neighborhood yet, including the supertalls.

Tsien: To me, they’re like obelisks: silent, impenetrable, without contributing much of anything to life on the street. It feels almost as if those pieces of the neighborhood got removed.

Kimmelman: To be fair, the neighborhood was never homey.

Williams: No, and it also used to be rough. At the turn of the last century, rich people along Fifth Avenue and Central Park West kept their horse carriages on 58th Street, in stables, which were never desirable to live around; then the carriages turned into automobiles. That’s why automobile showrooms started clustering near Columbus Circle, just up the block, where General Motors also opened an office.

Kimmelman: First in the former Colonnade Building, at Broadway and 57th Street, designed by William W. Bosworth in the 1920s. Eventually the company moved to the ’60s tower by Edward Durell Stone on Fifth Avenue at 58th Street, across from the Plaza Hotel, with the Apple store in the basement — so, same latitude. Of course, this neighborhood was also a cultural hub, starting in the Gilded Age, with Carnegie and the Art Students League, which Henry Hardenbergh designed.

Tsien: It’s interesting — you have buildings like Carnegie, the Art Students League and the Osborne on the one hand. And then you have buildings like the Alwyn.

Kimmelman: Meaning the Osborne Apartments, which is a kind of grand but dour stone palazzo from the 1880s by James E. Ware. As opposed to the Alwyn Court apartments, built two decades later, by Harde & Short, an extravagantly ornate French Renaissance building.

Williams: Exactly. Over the course of a few decades, the style of grand buildings in the area evolved from reserved — and kind of lumpy — to increasingly elaborate, like the Alwyn or the Gainsborough.

Kimmelman: Officially, the Gainsborough Studios, from 1908, by Charles W. Buckham, on Central Park South, a couple of blocks north of Carnegie. You eventually moved your office from Carnegie to the Gainsborough, which is where my mother, a sculptor, always said she dreamed about living because of the double-height windows facing the park.

Williams: I’m with your mother. Those double-height studios inspired Le Corbusier’s design for the Marseille housing block. We moved our studio because, by the ’80s, there were four or five of us working in the office. We had redone an apartment for a friend in the Gainsborough, who helped get us the place. The building was falling apart at the time, so we agreed to renovate it — and did a very bad job.

Kimmelman: That’s frank.

Williams: Well, this was before restoration experts oversaw all these sorts of projects. We were just doing stuff by the seat of our pants. My older son, who back then worked for a tile company in New Jersey, redid the terra cotta facade.

Tsien: As punishment, Tod became president of the co-op board, and the whole facade had to be redone under him.

Williams: Architects today have so many consultants, we are so risk-averse, but we still make mistakes. It’s just that now we can blame somebody else.

Kimmelman: Carnegie is a stone’s throw away, but was being on Central Park South, which is 59th Street, any different from 57th Street?

Williams: There were a lot of dentists and prostitutes. You know that building on the corner of Seventh Avenue and Central Park South with the rounded corner, where Raquel Welch lived?

Kimmelman: 200 Central Park South, by Wechsler & Schimenti, from 1964. New York’s attempt at Miami Beach’s Fontainebleau Hotel.

Williams: That corner was a popular hangout spot for hookers. Central Park was a dust bowl back then. Abandoned and burned cars were dumped on Central Park South. New York felt more dangerous but also hopeful, as if it were possible to reinvent yourself and the city — kind of like it does now. The Gainsborough was still occupied mostly by artists, not only rich people. We bought our studio from a couple of photographers.

Tsien: One of them shot the “I Dreamed I Was … ” ads for Maidenform bras. Legend had it that he shot some of them there.

Williams: He worked for the Saturday Evening Post. When we moved in, we had to demo the whole apartment, and in the process, a painting fell out of the ceiling. My son, who was 9 or 10 years old at the time, saw it and said, “That’s a Norman Rockwell.” It was.

Kimmelman: I’m sorry, the previous tenant worked for the Saturday Evening Post, so a Norman Rockwell painting fell out of your ceiling?

Tsien: Norman Rockwell must have sent the photographer the painting to shoot for a cover of the Saturday Evening Post — and for whatever reason, the photographer stuck it up in the ceiling. I can’t remember whether there used to be a hatch up there.

Williams: Speaking of art, we wanted to take you to see the mosaic at 240 Central Park South by Ozenfant.

Kimmelman: The French cubist Amédée Ozenfant, co-creator of purism with Le Corbusier.

Tsien: The mosaic is titled “The Quiet City”; it’s not big but very colorful. And beyond that, we get to Columbus Circle, which when we moved to the Gainsborough was still largely motorcycle parking and buses outside the old Coliseum taking families to visit relatives in prisons upstate.

Kimmelman: The New York Coliseum, a brick, fortresslike Robert Moses concoction from the ’50s, gone and unmourned, which served as a convention center, with an office tower attached. Replaced, ultimately, by the huge, glassy Time Warner Center.

Williams: Columbus Circle also had Huntington Hartford’s art museum, which riffed on the Baker’s Tomb in Rome. Architecturally, the site never added up. And the Coliseum was low, so the circle leaked.

Kimmelman: You mean the building didn’t enclose Columbus Circle?

Tsien: Right. At least Time Warner holds the circle better. Holding the circle is the most important thing.

Williams: It’s funny, when I was a student at Princeton in the ’60s, Peter Eisenman complained about the Seagram Building and Lever House being architectural screw-ups because they didn’t hold the edge of Park Avenue. I couldn’t understand, because Park Avenue seemed kind of boring to me without them. The problem today with Columbus Circle is not that it leaks but that it still feels like a barrier to the rest of the city west of it. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to solve that problem.

Kimmelman: Our plan was to end up at Lincoln Center.

Williams: On the way let’s stop at Ethical Culture, where our son went to school.

Kimmelman: A building by Carrère and Hastings, who famously designed the 42nd Street Library.

Williams: Unlike the library, the school is fairly modest and straightforward, aligned with the humanist values of the Ethical Culture Society, which I find very beautiful.

Tsien: I can’t think of Ethical Culture without also thinking of the West Side YMCA, next door. They’re like a package, extending themselves toward the community, expressing, architecturally, how we should treat others.

Kimmelman: The Y, from 1930, by Dwight James Baum, who designed the building to look like an Italian hill town, with battlements and balconies and polychromed sculptures of evangelists.

Williams But it’s not ostentatious. Ethical Culture also has lots of ornamentation, but these are both quiet buildings, which gets back to what I was trying to say about Carnegie Hall. The architecture may not be the grandest, but it is substantive.

Kimmelman: We’re now just around the corner from Lincoln Center, still a work in progress.

Williams: I think it will continue to improve as it feels less anomalous. Credit to Ric and Liz and Reynold Levy.

Kimmelman: Ric Scofidio and Elizabeth Diller, the architects who revamped the center a decade ago, while Levy was its president.

Williams: I have a lot of respect for their desire to make the campus less precious.

Tsien: People want more democratic spaces, especially now. Did you know there was once a plan to extend Lincoln Center all the way to Central Park?

Kimmelman: Unbelievably, yes, the Lindsay administration floated that idea, which involved ripping down the whole block from 63rd to 64th streets and from Broadway to Central Park — including the Y and Ethical Culture — to create a mall with underground parking. Promoters touted the prospect of an unobstructed view to the park. Myself, I’ve never gone to “Tosca” and thought, “Nice music; too bad there isn’t also an unobstructed view of Central Park.”

Tsien: I went to Lincoln Center when I first moved to New York because the Mostly Mozart concerts had air conditioning.

Kimmelman: The air conditioning was memorably epic.

Williams: I rarely went to Lincoln Center — only if someone else paid for me. I didn’t have to pay for anything at Carnegie Hall. I could just sneak in.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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