On the Exceedingly Beautiful Ruins of Washington Heights: January 30, 2008

30Jan08

In which The Gay Recluse documents the exceedingly beautiful ruins of Washington Heights.

Location: Audubon Terrace

Address: Broadway between 155th and 156th Streets

Remarks: Of all the exceedingly beautiful ruins in Washington Heights, perhaps none is more heartbreaking than Audubon Terrace. Not quite dead, it is like a great whale stranded on a beach; as much as we admire its sheer size and power, we are incapable of helping, and so must observe in an atmosphere shrouded in doom.


The south facade of Audubon Terrace.

Founded by Archer Milton Huntington in 1904, the site is an improbably grand Beaux Arts complex that originally housed The Hispanic Society, The Museum of the American Indian, The American Numismatic Society, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and the American Geographical Society.


We are always alone here, except for the statues.

But today — as we see on a pathetic sign near the entrance, on which the letters have been painted over like a perverse tombstone — only two of the original tenants remain (The Hispanic Society and the American Academy of Arts and Letters); the others, apparently, could not tolerate the idea of carrying out their respective missions in a neighborhood marked by crime, poverty and immigrants, whose established history of collective ambivalence to the site is tragic but in many ways understandable. (As recently as 2006, it was reported in The Times that even the Hispanic Society would be moving downtown to escape Washington Heights.)


Welcome to the ruins.

Although a new tenant — Boricua College — has repaired some of the brickwork near the entrance, the plaza as a whole reeks of an institutionalized neglect we generally associate with the cities of Eastern Europe that languished for so long under Soviet bureaucracy. It is of course a supreme irony that one of the most magnificent repositories of Hispanic art and literature lies largely abandoned in the middle of a Dominican neighborhood; what seems most unforgivable is that the respective factions (neighborhood leaders, city officials, representatives of institutions) have not succeeded in collaborating to preserve these last members of a species so obviously on the verge of extinction.


Another sign: the missing word is “glows.”

We climb the stairs toward the entrance of The Hispanic Society, and feel a certain dread at the thought of ever having to say goodbye. And to those incapable of expressing sympathy for us and the neighborhood at large — and yes, we have even encountered disdain, as if to say that Washington Heights doesn’t deserve such a treasure — we have a simple message: fuck you and your soulless downtown neighborhoods that reek of money and privilege! Why don’t you come uptown for a change to see art that’s literally struggling for life? Why don’t you walk across the crumbling bricks and cracking limestone facades of Audubon Terrace and tell us why you’re so much better equipped to appreciate this beauty than we are?


Still waiting for the tech boom.

Why don’t you stare into the eyes of El Cid (or better yet, Don Quixote) and tell him that he doesn’t belong in such a poverty-stricken wasteland?


El Cid (1942), by Anna Hyatt Huntington

But the anger passes and we are left alone on the plaza, where we walk among the warriors, who look past us with dull, metallic eyes. Though uniformly colossal, they too seem less anxious to fight than drained and weary, resigned to whatever fate may bring.


“Oh, please don’t drop me home…”

For more photos of Audubon Terrace, click here.

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