At Ground Level

Two photos don’t quite make a panorama, but they do give more context for a view. The photo above is the left half, the one below is the right half. They show the view looking west on 34th Street past Fifth Avenue, around 1910 or so.

Before I get to the main point I’d like to address an oddity and a minor amusement. The oddity is that both photos have areas where it looks like someone tried to scratch out a piece of the negative. In the top picture, it’s a man on the far right, on the north sidewalk of 34th Street; in the lower picture it’s a fire hydrant by the parked car in the foreground, and the lower iron porte cochère on the building on the left. I have no idea what that means or why someone would do that. If anyone knows, I’d love to hear from you. The amusement is in the street side at the far left street corner. Here’s a close-up:

“SLOW MOVING VEHICLES KEEP NEAR RIGHT HAND CURB.” I’m going to take a guess that didn’t work any better then than similar orders do now. On to the actual topic…

A lot of exterior architecture is not going to have an effect on daily life. Some effect is unavoidable: look at the close-up picture. Those huge conical ornaments are right where you can’t help but see them, whatever they are. But look at the second picture. The small rectangular classical temple on the right is the Knickerbocker Trust, a 1904 McKim Mead & White building. The street elevations are nice, but the eye-level portion is pretty much blank masonry with a few doors. It’s worse with bigger buildings: the very large building across the street, with the double porte cochère, is the old Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, torn down some twenty years later for the Empire State Building. It’s a very ornate building (including those conical things) with a very busy roof line, but you can’t see that from here. What you see is a massive masonry wall. Close, up, all of the design of the facades and roofs fades in importance, and you see the masonry of the first and second floors. The flags on the roof tops are only visible from a distance, as are the cornices, the ornamental chimneys, the upper balconies, and so on.

I’m not saying that all of that exterior ornamentation and design is a waste. I like these buildings. But people’s ordinary experience of them from the street is very different from the designers’ drawings. There’s no doubt that some people looked at the third floor of the Knickerbocker’s facade from the street, but I also have little doubt that the only people outside of MMW’s office who spent much time looking at the acanthus leaves of the column capitals were those people with third floor offices, with windows right next to the stone carvings. The 34th Street porte cochère of the Waldorf-Astoria was something that most of the guests saw close up, the complex roof design was something they could easily never see at all. Design requires thinking about the appearance of an entire building but that doesn’t mean all parts are of equal importance once built.

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