Sunday, December 5, 2010

Appropriating the Past on the Architectural Façades of Manhattan

With all the commotion happening on the streets and sidewalks of Manhattan, it can be a challenge to remember to look past the storefronts and advertisements that compete for attention at street level and admire the detail of the architectural façades that loom above our heads. The extent to which architects have gone to design and execute the façades of their buildings is a testament to how important a building’s façade is to its identity and character, and together these various identities contribute to the greater identity of Manhattan. Often, even newly renovated apartment buildings will go to great lengths to preserve the history of their façades, giving New York a face of tremendous diversity that pulls inspiration from all regions and time periods. While the majority of these elaborate façades reference design trends from Europe, once and a while we may be surprised by the artistic and cultural themes that some architects have chosen to represent the identity of their structures. I have been surprised by architectural façades on two occasions within the Upper West Side alone.

The first building I would like to discuss is the Cliff Dwelling, designed in 1916 by architect H. L. Meader. This building, located at 243 Riverside Drive, between 96th and 97th Streets, was originally built as an apartment hotel, but was converted into a residential co-op in 1979.[1] This building is remarkable for its unusual terra cotta friezes, which draw upon distinctly American themes of diverse origins. What makes this façade so perplexing is its bizarre integration of visual references from the American Southwest with those from ancient Mesoamerica. The most elaborate frieze stretches across the strip of wall between the second and third floor windows, with accents above the main entrance in the center, and the corners on either end. The corners carry a clear Native American reference with the depiction of a cow skull flanked by flint-tipped arrows, which also seem to relate to the central bull or cow head motif above the main entrance.

The wall frieze, however, surely draws upon Mesoamerican designs, although exactly which ones is more difficult to pinpoint. The practice of carving elaborately designed stone friezes onto building façades is common throughout Mesoamerican architecture and can be seen at the Temple of Quetzalcoatl at Teotihuacan, and also at various Yucatan Maya sites like Chichen Itza. Moreover, the geometric brickwork surrounding the Cliff Dwelling friezes certainly seems to point to the Zapotec site of Mitla. Yet upon closer inspection, the figures on the Cliff Dwelling friezes are not more than a vague echo of Mesoamerican designs, as if H. L. Meader had never seen Mesoamerican friezes himself, but had only heard or read descriptions of them. The snakes and mountain lions of the Cliff Dwelling friezes are rendered far too naturalistically, and the geometrically stylized “masks” are sort of a confusing hybrid of Teotihuacan faces, Zapotec funerary urns, and Mayan Puuc style Chaak masks. Just what was Meader trying to express with these friezes? An intriguing comparison can be made between the Cliff Dwelling and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House (1919-21), as both draw on elements of Mesoamerican art and architecture. In an effort to develop a purely American architectural style, Wright often looked towards Native American and Mesoamerican architecture for inspiration, and he was a primary instigator of the Mayan Revival architectural movement that followed in the 1920s and 1930s. Was Meader already striving for a similar architectural revolution in 1916 on the east coast that would favor American motifs over European ones?

Ten years later, in 1926, architect Thomas W. Lamb would build an even bolder cultural hybrid of non-European antiquity that likewise serves as a reminder that anything goes regarding New York architectural façades. The Pythian Temple, located at 135 W 70th Street, was built as a sort of clubhouse for the Knights of Pythias, a fraternal order founded during the Civil War. Apparently having an affinity for the ancient world, the Pythian Temple in New York was designed with explicit references to Egyptian, Babylonian, and Assyrian architecture, curiously united by an art deco aesthetic. The main entrance, crowned by a pair of sphinxes in profile, displays a cacophony of iconographic motifs that include Egyptian hieroglyphics, columns topped with the heads of Assyrian divinities, miniature Assyrian lamassus carved in relief, and an impressive array of geometric floral designs in brilliantly painted terra cotta tiling.

And this is nothing compared with the top of the building, which recedes into a series of balconies that are flanked by two pairs of full color, colossal sculptures of seated Pharaohs. Although the building was originally designed with a windowless façade, today the façade is mostly windows as the building was radically renovated in 1982 when the interior was converted into condominiums. Among its various uses, the Pythian Temple once served as a recording studio for Decca Records where such rock icons of the 1950s as Bill Haley & His Comets, Buddy Holly, and Billie Holiday are said to have used the studio.[2]

The Pythian, unusual as it is on its own, is even more bizarre in the context of it neighbor, a Catholic school with its own relief sculptures of Catholic clergymen and abbreviated gothic architectural elements such as pointed arches. The eccentric façades of these two buildings appear to be engaged in a humorous stand-off, of which the Pythian is bound to emerge as the winner of the dual. Keeping my eyes fixed halfway to the skyline, I can’t help but notice the sudden presence of a multitude of characters and odd personalities that adorn the residential buildings of this Upper West Side neighborhood. In a sense it seems only fitting that the buildings of New York City should be as distinct and variable as the people that live within their walls.

[1] Gray, Christopher. Streetscapes/Cliff Dwelling at 96th Street and Riverside Drive: A Terra Cotta Masterpiece in Unusual Dimensions.” The New York Times, January 6, 2002.
[2] Gray, Christopher. “An Improbable Cradle of Rock Music.” The New York Times, June 21, 2009.


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