OPEN SESAME: Open House New York 2007 Part 1

by Kevin Walsh

Now that it doesn’t cool off in October anymore in NYC (on October 8th, 2007, it’s 81 degrees as I write this at 10:14 PM) you have to look for other signs of fall. One of them is Open House New York, an architectural extravaganza in which doors all over town are thrown open in places where they’d normally either charge an exorbitant fee, or toss you to the curb. This year, 238 locales were participating throughout the five boroughs, and the FNY camera was there for nine of them. The camera was missing a burnt out flashbulb, meaning that the interior shots will look like night vision, glowing eyes and all.

The tallest brick building in the world at 1046 feet tall, the Chrysler Building at Lex and East 42nd Street leads many polls for the title of most beloved NYC building. It was constructed between 1928 and 1930 by architect William Von Allen and raced to the title of world’s tallest building with H. Craig Severance’s 40 Wall (now teh Trump Building). It held the belt for less than a year, after which it passed to the Empire State Building.

OHNY’s entry restricted us to the saffron (orange) lobby, an Art Deco riot (see the elevator bank on the title card). Look to the celing for a collection of amazing murals by Edwin Trumbull.

Despite its magnificent marbles and interesting ceiling murals, the lobby was very dark for decades until the building’s new owner, Tishman Speyer Properties, undertook a major restoration that was completed in 1999 and revealed the rather fascinating murals. t is illuminated with some simple Art Deco light fixtures whose emanation is amplified by reflections along its exceedingly luscious red Moroccan marble walls, yellow Siena marble floor and amber onyx and blue marble trim. The large lobby ceiling is covered by a mural, entitled, “Energy, Result, Workmanship and Transportation,” by Edward Turnbull. The elaborate and confusing mural contains a large image of the building, a plane, workers, and decorative patterns. As much of the ceiling has recessed lighting and the overall illumination in the large space is quite low, it is very difficult to appreciate the mural on which the artist allegedly used some of the building’s construction workers as models. The 100 by 76 foot mural was covered in the 1970’s with a coating that darkened it and and spotlights were cut into it. As part of a $100 million renovation project by Tishman Speyer Properties, that included the reclading with glass of the white-brick annex office tower at Third Avenue and the creation of angled, prismatic structures in the low-rise spaces between the annex and the Chrysler Building, the mural was restored in 1999 by the EverGreene Painting Studios.

The elevator banks, however, are well lit and have bedazzling elevator doors with rare wood marquetry. The doors are Art Deco masterpieces. The lobby was restored in 1978 and JCS Design Associates and Joseph Pell Lombardi were the architects involved in the restoration. City Review

Look for rather better pictures of the lobby and mural by Steve Garza on last year’s OHNY page.

The Romanesque Our Lady of the Scapular and St. Stephen’s Church, 151 East 28th Street near 3rd Avenue, is an old masterpiece whose existence I had never suspected until OHNY included it on their list.

It has held court here on this block since 1854, making it older than McSorley’s, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and the 7th Regiment Armory. The designer and architect was James Renwick, who later masterminded St. Patrick’s. While the church contains over 100 beautiful stained-glass windows by the German Meyer Studio…

…this church is most renowned for the 43 trompe l’oeil (3-D in appearance) murals by Roman artist Constantino Brumidi (1805-1880), whose Crucifixion, seen behind the church’s altar, is the largest Crucifixion mural in the USA at 44-foot height. Other murals in the church depict St. Peter, St. Paul, the Assumption of the Virgin, St. Gabriel, the martyrdom of St. Stephen, St. Michael, the Sacred Heart, the Stations of the Cross, King David, St. Cecilia, and the Madonna and Child.

Brumidi painted the murals beginning in 1866, 12 years after the Church’s opening at a time when it was the largest Catholic parish in the USA. After acclaimed work at the Vatican in the 1840s, he spent 25 years at work in the US Capitol — his only other American commission. He became a US citizen but…

On February 18, 1880, Constantino Brumidi died at his home in Washington, D.C. Brumidi died in relative penury, but Congressional records indicate that he was well-paid. Originally, his salary was pegged to the annual salaries awarded to United States Congressmen, but this was eventually changed to a per diem ranging from eight to ten dollars. The largest work commissioned, “The Apotheosis of George Washington,” was contracted for a lump sum of $40,000. Brumidi received all but the $500 reserved for completion of the project.

Brumidi’s reputation waxed and waned, both during and after his lifetime. For almost one hundred years after his death, his grave in Washington was unmarked and unadorned. Little notice was made of the artist of the Capitol frescoes. The public’s limited awareness of the existence of Brumidi was expanded by a conscious resurrection of his reputation in the 1950’s by [historian] Myrtle Cheney Murdock. University of Virginia

I have no longer any desire for fame and fortune. My one ambition and my daily prayer is that I may live long enough to make beautiful the Capitol of the one country on earth in which there is liberty. –C. Brumidi

The Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration at #1 East 29th Street, just east of 5th Avenue, was founded by Rev. Dr. George Houghton in 1848, and in the following year, the small brick church appeared at the city’s northern edge.

Houghton, an abolitionist, made the church a sanctuary for blacks fleeing the Draft Riots of 1863 and a stop on the underground railroad. The church has been a favorite of actors since 1870, when thespian Joseph Jefferson requested a funeral for his friend George Holland at a neighboring Episcopal church. Upon learning Holland was also an actor (a disreputable profession for some at the time), the church refused Jefferson, telling him to seek out the “little church around the corner.” A stained glass window depicts Joseph Jefferson, in a role as Rip Van Winkle, leading the enshrouded Holland. Today, the church and parsonage boast a charming garden, an oasis from bustling Fifth Avenue.

At right we see the lich gate, or area where remains on a catafalque would be temporarily placed before entering the church.