George Santayana’s famous maxim about those who forget history being doomed to repeat is, unfortunately, all too sad of a truism when it comes to architecture in this country.
Among the greatest firms in the history of architecture, McKim, Mead, and White, built the sorts of structures that Americans at the turn of the previous century could justly be proud of when showing off their towns and cities to visitors: impressive train stations and palatial libraries, grand hotels and luxurious private homes, and so on. Among their many achievements, they renovated and expanded the White House, designed the Rhode Island State House, and built monuments, churches, and hotels across the country. One of their greatest achievements, which no longer exists, was the magnificent Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan, which was replaced by the sort of Midcentury Modern monstrosity that the art establishment has, disturbingly, become overly enamored of in recent years, most of which are little more than giant warts on the face of the American landscape.
The destruction of old Penn Station in the 1970’s is rightly viewed as a watershed moment in public opinion regarding historic preservation. Its loss led to the passage of numerous laws and regulations limiting the ability of public and private owners to either destroy or make significant alterations to structures that have been found to carry historic significance, whether because of what happened inside them, their beauty, and what have you. Paradoxically, if such a monumental, well-known building as Penn Station had not been destroyed in the face of fierce public opposition, it’s likely that many other important structures great and small would have been hit with the wrecking ball decades ago.
Unfortunately however, New York once again seems to be on the verge of proving Santayana’s point, as it looks as though another McKim, Mead, and White building in Manhattan is about to come crashing down.
The Vanderbilt Building, which dates from 1892, is an unusual listing in the firm’s catalogue, as it’s one of the few proto-skyscrapers that they ever designed. Most McKim buildings are much wider than they are tall, so as a comparator to what other American architects were doing at the time, such as Adler & Sullivan in Chicago, it’s an important example of not only how the firm tried to adapt their Beaux-Arts style to the times, but also of how American cities started to go vertical a century ago in a wide variety of ways. It’s only with the advent of Modern architecture after World War II that we get the boring, upturned glass Kleenex boxes that tend to dominate most cities around the world today.
It’s also important to note that this particular building was financed by the Vanderbilts, who were among McKim, Mead, and White’s most important clients. Like other powerful merchant families before them, such as the Medici and the Rothschilds, the Vanderbilts invested significant funds not only in their own homes, but also in their commercial buildings. This is a prime example of the care and expense that they put into that effort during the Gilded Age, back when Lower Manhattan was the thriving hub of both domestic and international commerce for the city and indeed for the country.
Now, to be fair, it would be inaccurate to conclude that this building is a shining jewel of a structure. Putting aside its present dilapidated condition, it’s somewhat awkwardly proportioned as a result of the limitations of the site, and I haven’t been able to determine whether any of the presumably once grand interior spaces, such as the lobby and elevator banks, still exist. That being said, to quote one of those interviewed by The Architect’s Newspaper, “You don’t just throw away McKim, Mead & White buildings.” Hopefully some resilient and vociferous New Yorkers will find a way to save this rather unique part of their city’s architectural history.
As I warned you would happen some time ago, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is now actively seeking to turn the Hagia Sophia from a secular museum into a mosque. A case to do so is currently pending before Turkey’s Supreme Court, which held a brief hearing on the matter this past Friday. The building was originally a church, and one of the most important ever built, but roughly 1,000 years after its construction it was converted into a mosque. In recognition of the fact that the structure was a sacred site for both Christians and Muslims, as well as having great architectural and historical significance, in the 1930’s it was secularized and turned into a museum. Mr. Erdgoan however, is seeking to shore up his political base, given his unpopularity in many circles at home and abroad for things like this, so this is a classic bread-and-circuses move. A ruling is expected on July 18th.
The latest tale of rediscovered art treasure comes from South Africa. A retired couple, who had taken up buying and selling antiques as a hobby, came across a box of odds and ends for sale at a local auction for the princely sum of around $15. Among the items was the small bronze sculpture pictured below, which experts believe was probably made by the Florentine sculptor Antonio Susini (1580-1624). The piece is now in London and will be auctioned off by Christie’s on July 29th; with a pre-sales estimate of somewhere around $40k.
And finally, returning to the Gilded Age where we began, Bonham’s announced this week that they will be selling this magnificent portrait by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) at their upcoming American Art sale in New York on July 29th. “Mrs. John C. Tomlinson” (c. 1904) may seem at first glance to be one of Sargent’s bread-and-butter society portraits, but it’s a prime example of why he’s one of the greatest of all American artists. Sargent simultaneously manages to capture both the elegance of the sitter, and the fact that she is not an aristocrat. This is the daughter of a self-made man, and the wife of another, who took full advantage of her education, her intelligence, her ability to travel, and the opportunity to have unique experiences. She looks out at us confidently as if to say, “I made it,” but yet she does so with a kind of warmth and almost a hint of mischief in her eyes, which manages to set her apart from the terrifying society matrons who dominated the New York of her day. The pre-sale on this one is $200-$300k, and given the fact that the market at present is dominated by buyers with exceptionally bad taste, it will probably go for that, but for those who understand such things this piece is worth far, far more.