On the City Pattern Project: Washington Heights Lobbies Will Blow Your Mind On or Off Drugs

15Jun08

In which The Gay Recluse is blown away by grand, tessellated spaces.

On Friday we went apartment hunting with a friend of ours who wants to move uptown. We didn’t have much time — we were with a realtor — but managed to snap a few shots of these foyers. (We’ll try to get some more in the coming weeks.)

All of this work was done between 1910 and 1930. Incredibly, this was before they had computers!

Washington Heights is filled with these buildings.

None of them are landmarked.

Of all the Manhattan venues available to the gay recluse, Washington Heights is undoubtedly the preferred. Here we live among extremes of material decadence and breathtaking neglect, apparent in the crumbling cornices of Ft. Washington Avenue and eroding limestone facades of St. Nicholas, not to mention the tiled mosaics in the entrance foyers of the apartment palaces of upper Broadway — grand, tessellated spaces reminiscent of The Alhumbra — through which uncountable millions of apathetic feet have passed in the decades since their painstaking construction. Only here among the ruins can we permit ourselves the indulgence of a certain wistful nostalgia for the past, knowing it is one that we can never hope to live.

The Gay Recluse, September 2007

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4 Responses to “On the City Pattern Project: Washington Heights Lobbies Will Blow Your Mind On or Off Drugs”

  1. 1 c.

    Great images, as always. Astounding decor.

    I used to regularly visit someone on West 95th Street. I stood observantly in his lobby, waiting for the creaking elevator — the kind that has to stop moving before you push the call button, and where you pull open a door before getting in.

    The spacious lobby was completely empty, moderately dirty, and lit by florescent light — one, bare, blue-white tube stuck up into each of the numerous recesses of the sloppily-and-thickly-painted, coffered ceiling.

    I always felt slightly startled being there, because the entire space — floors, and walls — was paved in carefully fitted sheets of grey-veined white marble (now yellowing), cut into formal panels and stiles. To one side, a broad stairway in dirty, rusting, elegant wrought-iron, with marble treads, lead up to the second floor. And yes, in the entry way, a worn, black-and-white mosaic floor announced the building’s address. I could never quite reconcile the intended, opulent dignity of these artisanal elements with their modern-day irrelevance. I could not comprehend the building’s journey from polished stone, upholstered sofas, and potted palms to bare, almost-spiteful neglect.

    Instead, I indulged in “a certain wistful nostalgia for the past, knowing it is one that we can never hope to live.” Until the elevator arrived, I pictured upright women in starched shirtwaists and busy men in Edwardian suits, walking carefully, and with some pride, through the lobby doors.

  2. Thanks, C–the lobby you describe still exists in Washington Heights x100–your description of “opulent dignity” and “modern-day irrelevance” is perfect. And as much as I crave gentrification up here, it’s heartbreaking to see the interiors of the “refurbished” apartments, which are expectedly bland in their “luxury-ness,” i.e., a few marble tiles in the bathrooms, stainless appliances and chrome handles on the kitchen cabinets. Barf. But the city (like nature) always destroys and reinvents, so there’s some solace to be found there.

  3. 3 BB193

    These floors are lovely…

    I also live in Washington Heights. The floors in my building aren’t at this level of complexity, but the ceiling of the cavernous lobby and the entire first floor hallway is covered in intricate applied plaster detailing, and the plaster walls are tooled to resemble blocks of cut stone, the pattern still visible under 90 years of paint. The outside has false half-timbering, fake little gable roofs up above the 6th floor windows, and a while ago I found by looking at a Sanborn Map (as no physical trace exists any longer on the building itself) that the building even has an elegent, pseudo-Tudor name: The Broadway Arms. I too can imagine, like the first poster, the original up-and-coming former-lower-east-sider tenants who rode the subway up here for the first time, coming in and chatting among the settees and tables the lobby surely must have had, and imagining how their lives were about to improve amongst the parks and wide streets and beautiful new buildings of the Heights.

    Unfortunately, the corporate behemoth which owns the place does not completely share my appreciation for the shabby elegance of the building, as at least once a month I see a full set of original oak doors, original kitchen cabinets, and wooden moldings out in front of the building for the garbage men, from yet another apartment which has been “renovated” with the finest hollow-core doors and pressboard cabinets home depot has to offer. Happily for me, my apartment still has most of its original details, but I expect that whenever I do leave, they’ll outlive my tenancy by mere weeks.

  4. Thanks for sharing , BB193. I was also horrified by the “renovated” apartments in the buildings I recently saw. It’s a sad reality that it costs much more to restore something than to put in something new, even when the quality is much lower in the new stuff. Sigh. Enjoy it while you can.


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