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Art and Culture
A stunning showcase for contemporary architecture, New York is first and foremost a city of skyscrapers. Yet beyond the skyline’s perennially changing profile of steel and glass lies an architectural landscape remarkably rich in history and variety; indeed, the city leads the nation in preservation, encompassing thousands of buildings and historic districts that illustrate its development. From the elegant and elemental New York City brownstone to the dramatic ziggurat towers of the Roaring 20s, architecture is both stage and player in the drama of New York City.
From Commercial Colony to Democratic Republic
Engineer Cryn Fredericksz laid out the fort and town of Nieuw Amsterdam in 1625. The earliest views of the colony depict narrow, irregular streets (still seen in lower Manhattan) and quaint homes sporting sloping gambrel roofs and columned porches. The English takeover of Manhattan in 1664 brought the Georgian style, whose symmetrical, solid facades typified the next phase of development, pushing north of Wall Street by 1700. Building in New York City halted during the British occupation, but renewed as the young Republic came into its own from 1790 to 1820, adopting a modified Roman Classical architecture known as the Federal style. The style defined not only grand public edifices and mansions, but also commercial warehouses and shops that were fast replacing their Dutch antecedents (as seen at South Street Seaport).
In the 1830s Americans turned to ancient Greek architecture as a symbol of the new nation. Public buildings and homes across the nation displayed Greek temple entrances in a new, confident show of democracy. Upper-class residential communities north of Houston Street saw the erection of “the Row” at Washington Square North (1831, Town & Davis) and Colonnade Row on Lafayette Street (1831, Seth Greer), wherein dwelt Delanos, Astors and Vanderbilts. The Federal Hall National Memorial, with its Doric temple facade of Westchester County marble, is a landmark example of the style.
Manhattan Marches North
As New York rebounded from the Revolutionary War and grew in prosperity, it expanded to the north. City Engineer John Randel released the Randel Plan in 1811, which laid out a grid of streets from Houston Street all the way north to 155th Street and divided the city into narrow east-west blocks with 100ft-deep lots. The plan was criticized for ignoring the island’s topography and extending so far north. The scale would prove prescient, but Manhattan’s hills and outcroppings were methodically flattened over time.
Throughout the 19C, new residential areas were erected and then replaced with shops, hotels, restaurants and offices 10 or 20 years later. A serious fire in 1835 leveled 700 buildings in lower Manhattan, and another in 1845 consumed 300 structures, accelerating the process of building and rebuilding. New development reached Houston Street in 1820, 14th Street by 1840, 23rd Street by 1850 and 42nd Street by 1860. The improvement of public transportation from horse-drawn omnibuses in the 1830s to street railroads in the 1850s helped make the growth possible. Slums grew along with the city, as “rear buildings” and tenements proliferated in the 1840s and 50s and shantytowns filled the vacant lands in Central Park and upper Manhattan.
Broadway became the barometer of Manhattan’s urban and architectural development. By the 1830s hotels on Broadway had pushed residential uses into Washington Square and Greenwich Village. Union Square became a fashionable address by mid-century. In 1862 George William Curtis lamented Broadway’s changes in Harper’s magazine: “It was a street of three-story redbrick houses. Now it is a highway of stone and iron, and marble buildings.” The Randel Plan had not provided for open space, and existing private parks like the Elgin Botanic Garden and St. John’s soon became lucrative building sites. The development of Central Park in mid-century created much-needed open space and enhanced the prospect of real estate development around it.
Gothic Revival architecture, inspired by John Ruskin in England and suited especially to churches, was popular in the US from 1840. Richard Upjohn’s landmark Trinity Church, built in 1846, epitomized the style and the Romantic movement that fostered it, with its dark, dramatic central spire and atmospheric cemetery. Withers and Vaux used the style for the Jefferson Market Library in 1874 and the first Metropolitan Museum of Art building in 1880. Peter B. Wight’s National Academy of Design (1865, demolished) at East 23rd Street and Park Avenue was an important example of “Ruskinian” Gothic, as is the surviving National Arts Club (1884, Calvert Vaux) at 15 Gramercy Park South.
By mid-century the vertical, rectangular facades of the Italianate style proved ideal for the narrow lots of the booming city. Easily adapted to row houses, storefronts or warehouses, this decorative style first appeared with the 1846 A.T. Stewart’s department store (280 Broadway). Italianate became the preferred style for row houses, as witnessed in the brownstones of Brooklyn Heights, Gramercy Park and Harlem. Anglo-Italianate row houses, with lower entrance stairs and narrow facades, filled the streets of Chelsea.
The Italianate style was the basis for cast-iron commercial loft buildings constructed throughout lower Manhattan in the 1850s. The new “fireproof” material was easily detailed with ornamental flourishes, and the rhythm of round-arched window arcades separated by attached columns could be repeated on multiple floors as buildings grew taller in an era of skyrocketing land values. The facades were often marbleized or painted like stone to reassure a public distrustful of the new glass-and-iron architecture. By 1872 there were almost three miles of cast-iron facades in lower Manhattan, including the elegant E.V. Haughwout Building.
Baron Haussmann’s redesign of Paris in the 1850s and 1860s spawned a brief but intense affection for Parisian Second Empire architecture. Distinguished by the double-pitched mansard roof, the style befitted the extravagance of the Gilded Age and coincided with the 1870s development of the “Ladies Mile” along Fifth Avenue and Broadway from 10th Street to Madison Square. Former row houses sprouted mansard roofs punctuated by elaborate dormer windows as they were converted to retail uses, while new shops and department stores were designed in the style.
Badlands and Beyond – Manhattan Fills Up
By 1875 New York counted a million residents, and its neighboring boroughs were growing as well. The new elevated railroads, built from 1868, connected downtown with once-distant areas around Central Park, leading to their rapid development.
The Sixth Avenue El began operating in 1877, followed by the Third Avenue El in 1878, offering service all the way to 129th Street. Within two years elevated lines opened on Second and Ninth avenues. The year 1883 saw the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge, a dazzling display of structural supremacy that ushered in the era of skyscrapers. Elevated railroads transformed the city’s streetscapes, as did telegraph, telephone and electric lines, causing the city to require that such lines be buried after 1884.
As immigration expanded in the late 19C, slums grew as well, presenting new challenges for architecture and city planning. New York passed its first tenement law in 1867, with a much stricter version following in 1879. In 1880 the Improved Dwellings Assn. built a model tenement on First Avenue north of 71st Street designed by Vaux and Radford, but design did not solve social ills. Urban reform efforts in the 1890s demolished some slums to make way for Columbus and Seward parks.
The continuing growth of Manhattan led to the first apartment buildings, beginning with Richard Morris Hunt’s 1869 Stuyvesant (demolished) on East 18th Street. Old Fifth Avenue mansions were razed for retail landmarks such as Tiffany & Co., and the entertainment district at Union Square was replaced in the 1880s by the “Rialto” along Broadway from Madison Square to 42nd Street. The Upper West Side grew less rapidly than the Upper East Side, even though Riverside Drive had been laid out in 1865. Upper-class apartment housing designed for Singer sewing-machine magnate Edward S. Clark was derided for being so far uptown it might as well be in the Dakotas. The assessment proved flawed, as buildings sprouted up along the Ninth Avenue El line, but the name stuck to Clark’s Dakota Apartments (1884, Henry J. Hardenbergh), a triumph of Victorian eclecticism. By the end of the century, the last farms and fields in northern Manhattan had been developed.
Architecture for an Industrial Age
Homes erected in the 1880s sported late Victorian styles, including the Queen Anne, with its picturesque, asymmetrical compositions; the Romanesque Revival, with its rusticated sense of repose and strength; and the Beaux-Arts, with its connotations of continental sophistication and elegance.
West End Avenue and Park Slope in Brooklyn included elegant examples of Queen Anne town houses and mansions, as did several apartment buildings on Gramercy Square. Romanesque Revival architecture came into national vogue with the career of Henry Hobson Richardson, who lived on Staten Island. The semicircular arches and heavy masonry of the style defined the City of Brooklyn Fire Headquarters (1892, Frank Freeman) and religious buildings such as the Eldridge Street Synagogue (1887, Herter Bros.), with its Moorish and Gothic elements. The Richardsonian Romanesque style found robust expression in the DeVinne Press Building (1885, Babb, Cook & Willard) at 399 Lafayette Street.
The success of the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 created a rage for Neoclassical architecture, and the New York firm of McKim, Mead and White was among its best practitioners, designing grand public edifices as embodied in the US Custom House (1907) at Bowling Green, and retail establishments like the original Tiffany’s (1906) at 409 Fifth Avenue. The architects’ work at Columbia University and New York University in the 1890s epitomized Beaux-Arts planning and design, and their incomparable Pennsylvania Railroad Station (demolished) of 1910 was modeled on the ancient Baths of Caracalla in Rome.
Richard Morris Hunt designed the Neoclassical facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art between 1895 and 1902. Several apartment buildings on Broadway, such as the richly encrusted Ansonia Hotel (1904) and the Apthorp (1908), adopted elegant Beaux-Arts ornaments. The style was well suited to a mercantile capital like New York City and characterized the new residential areas on the Upper East and West sides. Grand Central Terminal (1913, Warren & Wetmore) and the New York Public Library (1911, Carrère and Hastings) are considered the height of Beaux-Arts design in New York City.
The early 20C was a period of historical revival in architecture, as the Beaux-Arts style was joined by Dutch Colonial, Georgian, Tudor and Gothic Revival. A wealth of terracotta ornament made the various mimicries all the more effective. Eclectic revivals reached their height in vaudeville movie palaces like the Apollo (1914, George Keister) and the many theaters on Broadway.
Skyscrapers and Setbacks
Rapid growth in Manhattan helped pave the way for the skyscraper. James Bogardus erected the first cast-iron building at Washington and Murray streets (reconstructed) in 1848, and Elisha Graves Otis installed the first safety elevator in E.V. Haughwout’s building in 1857, an innovation that made taller buildings practical. Iron beams—a predecessor to the skeletal steel frames of skyscrapers—were used for the Cooper Union of 1859. The first true skyscraper—supported entirely by a steel frame—appeared in Chicago in 1884. Chicago school architect Louis Sullivan designed the Bayard-Condict Building in 1894, but New York preferred a more eclectic design approach, from the 1899 Neoclassical Park Row Building by R.H. Robertson to Daniel H. Burnham’s epochal Flatiron Building of 1902. The tradition of enveloping new architecture in historical forms reached its literal height in Cass Gilbert’s stunning Gothic Revival Woolworth Building of 1913, which at 792ft remained the world’s tallest building for a generation.
In 1916 New York City passed the nation’s first zoning law to ensure adequate light and air into the canyonlike streets of the metropolis. Zoning required buildings to set their facades back from the street as they grew higher, and soon towers shaped like ancient ziggurats dotted the Manhattan skyline. This form, combined with new technologies and the streamlined aesthetics of modern art, led to the art deco skyscraper, which achieved its greatest expressions in New York. By the late 1920s vertical stone panels with expressionistic ornament and recessed windows marked the emergence of art deco architecture in landmarks like the Chrysler Building, with its zigzag steel conical crown, and the expressive General Electric Building, with its complex brick and terracotta skin. The Empire State Building is a muscular example of art deco refinement; it was the tallest building on earth for more than 40 years.
Building up and out
By the 1930s development could no longer march north in Manhattan to vacant land—areas had to be found where structures could be demolished and rebuilt, or built higher. The Financial District at the southern end of the island and Fifth Avenue near 42nd Street became high-rise office districts, and high-rise residential buildings appeared near Central Park. Park commissioner and city construction coordinator Robert Moses began a rapid park expansion program under Mayor Fiorello La Guardia in 1934, increasing park space by a third in two years and planning the 1939 World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows. La Guardia and Moses brought New York City into the automobile age with the construction of the Triborough Bridge; they approved the submergence of the last of the old elevated railroads and oversaw construction of Laguardia Airport, the largest Works Progress Administration project in the country.
The Great Depression put a halt to most development for 20 years, but Rockefeller Center was built throughout the 1930s, proving that New York would continue to be the commercial capital of the world.
Postwar Prosperity and Preservation
Real estate awoke from its Depression-induced slumber in the late 1940s and New York began to build skyscrapers in the new International style, which eschewed ornament and setbacks for a boxlike slab set in an open plaza. Appropriately, one of these skyscrapers was the United Nations Headquarters, designed in 1947 by an international committee. The 1952 Lever House by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill introduced both the slab-plaza form and the new technology of the glass curtain wall, which soon achieved its clearest expression in the 1956 Seagram Building by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The style defined 1960s prosperity in buildings like the Marine Midland Bank (1967, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill).
Fulfilling its growing role as a world cultural mecca, Manhattan played host to innovative designs like Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiraling study in white concrete, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, a landmark of Modernism. The Whitney Museum of American Art (1966, Marcel Breuer) employed concrete in the very different vocabulary of a menacing Brutalist overhang, while the sensuous curves of Eero Saarinen’s 1962 TWA Terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport were an international sensation.
Robert Moses continued to rebuild the city under a succession of mayors, creating a ring of expressways around the city, demolishing “slum” areas in urban renewal efforts and constructing tunnels and bridges that were later blamed for inducing blight.
The continued rebuilding finally provoked public outcry against the demolition of Penn Station in 1962. Although the station was destroyed, the city passed one of the nation’s strongest landmarks laws in 1965. Grand Central Terminal’s attempt to demolish its landmark building led to the 1978 Supreme Court case upholding landmarks laws throughout the US.
Modernism and beyond
Modernism reached its Manhattan apogee with the twin towers of the World Trade Center (1973), encompassing an unprecedented 10 million square feet of office space. Post-Modernism arrived with the dramatic roofline of the 1978 Citicorp (now Citigroup) Center (Hugh Stubbins & Assocs.) and Philip Johnson’s 1984 AT&T Headquarters (now Sony Plaza), with its famous Chippendale top. Other notable post-Modern building features include the mirror-glass facades of the Jacob Javits Convention Center (1986, I.M. Pei & Partners) and the varied roof designs of Cesar Pelli’s several World Financial Center buildings (1985-88).
The late 1990s have ushered in an era of Entertainment Architecture, an eclectic post-Modernism that revels in layered facades, dramatic lighting and signage that seems to explode from the traditional wall plane. Not surprisingly, Times Square, where lights and signs are the rule, features numerous examples of this architectural playfulness. Office buildings in the area have been growing more playful, too, as seen in the collage of styles and geometries that make up Fox and Fowle’s Condé Nast Building (1999) and Reuters Building (2001). Sir Norman Foster’s 42-story, accordion-like Hearst Tower (2006) combines post-Modern style with “green” building principles: 90 percent of the steel used in construction was recycled, the roof collects and distributes rainwater to area trees and the glass-paneled walls let in natural light while blocking solar radiation.
Dutch Colonial (1620–1700)
Colonial architectural styles were imitations of their European contemporaries, modified slightly in deference to materials and climate. Dutch architecture during the 17C and 18C was characterized by tall, narrow buildings with stepped-gable rooflines, familiar from the streets and grachten (canals) of Amsterdam and other port cities, where homes were taxed on their frontage. Farm (bouwerie) estates took their cues from the Dutch countryside, with sloping gambrel roofs and columned porches, as seen in the surviving Dyckman House in Manhattan and Wyckoff House in Brooklyn.
English Colonial architecture adopted the Renaissance interpretations of Classical architecture popular in the England of George I and George II, which emphasized symmetry and decorum. Frame, brick, and stone houses featured hipped or sloping roofs with the gable end on the side, symmetrical window openings and a prominent central entrance, often ornamented with sidelights and a transom. The Van Cortlandt House is a good example. In larger public buildings, the style adopted more of the columns and pediments of its Classical ancestors, as seen in St. Paul’s Chapel.
Federal is the term used to describe the more robust and Roman interpretation of Georgian architecture adopted by the newly freed colonies at the end of the 18C. These buildings saw a more liberal use of Classical columns and pediments, especially on entrance doorways, which often sported fanlights, and an occasional balustrade rimming the roofline. New York’s City Hall of 1811 represents a lovely example of the style.
Greek Revival (1820–1850)
The dramatic expansion of American democracy across the continent led to an architecture based on the pediment-ed, symmetrical orders of Classical Greek temples. Large public buildings often sported a lantern or cupola, with a two-story colonnaded facade. Vernacular versions included a low attic story; shallow roof; Doric, Ionic or Corinthian columns; and a pediment over the entrance. The Federal Hall National Memorial on Wall Street is a textbook Greek temple.
Gothic Revival (1840–1880)
Popular in England from the beginning of the 19C, the picturesque, asymmetrical forms of Gothic Revival facades often included towers, battlements and pointed-arch windows and gables. Linked to the Romantic movement, the style laid the basis for later picturesque movements like the Queen Anne. Smaller homes had intricately detailed bargeboards at the eaves and vertical siding, while larger homes and commercial buildings might include battlements, spires and gargoyles. Derived principally from medieval European cathedrals, the style was used for churches to great effect, as seen in Richard Upjohn’s Trinity Church.
By mid-century, the Italianate style—with its heavy cornices and large brackets, decorated window lintels and convenient, rectangular massing—became the American standard for homes and commercial buildings.
Based on more ornamental Renaissance forms than its staid Georgian cousin, the style featured tall, narrow windows with rounded arches often including incised or relief ornament, and high-stooped entrances accentuating the vertical rhythm of the style. Lower stoops typified the Anglo-Italianate style, adapted to Manhattan’s narrow building lots. Executed in frame, brick and stone, the style is the basis for both New York brownstones and the typical cast-iron commercial facades, seen clearly in the E.V. Haughwout Building in lower Manhattan. More elaborate homes adopted the Italian-villa variant, with a Classical cupola, rusticated corner quoins, pediments and paired or arcaded windows.
Second Empire (1860–1880)
Inspired by Baron Haussmann’s redesign of Paris in the 1850s, this grandiose style is characterized by a short, steeply-pitched mansard roof pierced by dormer windows. Generally symmetrical facades include quoined corners, projecting bays, windows flanked by pilasters, balustrades and an abundance of Classical decoration. Often mansard roofs were added to Italianate buildings in a close approximation of the style. Good examples include the former Arnold Constable and Lord & Taylor stores on Broadway.
Romanesque Revival (1860–1900)
Suggestive of medieval castles, the round arches, deeply inset window and door openings, and rough stone finishes of the Romanesque style inspired architects attempting to create a sense of permanence in the rapidly changing landscape of industrial America. The style was refined by Boston architect H.H. Richardson and helped define American architecture. The original City of Brooklyn Firehouse on Jay Street and the American Museum of Natural History are excellent examples of the style.
Queen Anne (1880–1905)
This style is the one most commonly identified as “Victorian,” with its asymmetrical composition, exuberant ornamentation and picturesque design marked by conical towers, projecting bays and elaborately decorated dormers and gables. The style is seen primarily in residential architecture like the Henderson Place Historic District.
Chicago School (1885–1905)
The new structural technology of the steel frame allowed for the development of the first skyscrapers in Chicago in the 1880s. The design of these buildings celebrated their engineering and purpose, summed up by Louis Sullivan’s phrase “Form follows function” and expressed in a gridlike facade of brick or terra-cotta, pierced by large panes of glass. The earliest skyscrapers adopted elements of Queen Anne and Romanesque design, and by the late 1890s incorporated the Beaux-Arts as well. Sullivan’s 12-story Bayard-Condict Building (1899) on Bleecker Street bears the architect’s characteristic foliate ornamentation.
Neoclassical or Beaux-Arts (1890–1920)
As architecture became an established profession in the 19C, a study of Classical orders at Paris’ famous École des Beaux-Arts became de rigueur. At the same time, the success of Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition popularized the monumental forms of the Roman republic. Unlike the simpler Greek Revival style, Beaux-Arts architecture is more ornamental and sumptuous. Arched and arcaded windows, balustrades at every level, grand staircases, applied columns, decorative swags, garlands and even statuary embellish the edifices. The New York Public Library (1911), Grand Central Terminal (1913) and US Custom House (1907) at Bowling Green are premier examples of the style. Daniel Burnham’s 1902 Flatiron Building made the style popular for skyscrapers.
Eclectic Revivals (1900–1925)
The plasticity of terracotta and the search for appropriate forms to herald the dawn of the American empire made a wide range of historical styles achievable and popular in the first three decades of the 20C. The Beaux-Arts evolved into Georgian Revival and Renaissance Revival styles used for clubs, town houses, hotels and apartment buildings. Gothic Revival distinguished schools like Hunter College and came to be called Collegiate Gothic. Colonial Revival was the preferred suburban house style, and Moorish, Tudor, Egyptian and Chinese designs encrusted numerous buildings, especially theaters. The increasing eclecticism of skyscraper design literally reached a new height with Cass Gilbert’s Gothic-inspired Woolworth Building.
Art Deco/Moderne (1925–1940)
Rejecting the historical ornament applied to commercial buildings in the 1910s, art deco first appeared as a style of decoration during the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris. New York’s 1916 zoning law, which called for skyscrapers to “step back” to provide light and air to the street, helped define the architectural aspects of art deco, which utilized setbacks, recessed windows and spandrels, and continuous piers to emphasize verticality. Designed in smooth stone or shiny terra-cotta surfaces, edifices featured highly stylized decorative and sculptural elements in low relief with a pronounced muscularity and abstraction. The Chrysler Building, Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center are landmark examples.
International Style (1930–1970)
Applied ornament was abandoned altogether for sleek, sculptural lines in buildings, furniture and other designed objects, summarized by Mies van der Rohe’s dictum “Less is more.” Concrete, glass and steel were celebrated in buildings with box-like massing set in open plazas. Exterior walls of glass and steel derived their design from proportion and materials alone, allowing the structures to express their function. The Lever House by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (1952) and the Seagram Building by Mies van der Rohe (1958) are famous early International-style high rises.
This style is recognizable by its cavalier application of historical references and materials to modern steel-frame buildings. Surfaces of stone and mirrored glass are generally more colorful and modulated than their rigid and severe International-style predecessors, and elements of Classical architecture reappear on a grand scale. The AT&T Headquarters (1984, Johnson & Burgee)—now Sony Plaza—introduced post-Modernism to the nation with its whimsical “Chippendale” roofline, which resembles the top of a colonial cupboard. Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s elliptical pink tower at 995 Third Avenue (1986)—the so-called Lipstick Building—captures the playfulness of post-Modernism.
The newest trend is to blend post-Modern design with “green” building principles. Sir Norman Foster’s 42-story accordion-like Hearst Tower (2006) does that marvelously, using recycled steel, natural light and energy-efficient heating and cooling systems without sacrificing aesthetic appeal.
Preoccupied with settling their new nation, colonial New Yorkers had little time to spend painting or sculpting for other than the most practical reasons. The art of portraiture, though popular, was more a craft, practiced by itinerants and painters who had other livelihoods. In the decorative and household arts, ethnic custom and functionality reigned. Because of such practicality, New York became a center of cabinet- and silver making long before its fairly recent ascent as a hub of the visual arts. Silversmith Cornelius Kierstede and furniture maker Duncan Phyfe stand out among early New York’s finest artisans.
Hudson River School
The painters of the first distinctly American school of painting (1825–75) took their main inspiration from the dramatic scenery of the Hudson River Valley north of New York City. Artists Thomas Cole (1801–48), Asher B. Durand, Albert Bierstadt and Frederic E. Church embraced a romantic vision of nature and art, and imbued epic portrayals of America’s grandiose landscapes with moral and transcendental meaning. These painters were among the many artists who swelled the ranks of the new art academies established in the city during the period, including the National Academy of Design (1825) and the Art Students League (1875).
Emergence of Modern Art
Founded in 1908, the artistic group “The Eight” sought to rebel against the conservatism of the New York academic establishment. Dubbed the Ashcan school in derisive reference to its bald urban realism, “The Eight” (particularly its most prominent members Robert Henri, George Luks and John Sloan) produced vivid, sympathetic portrayals of the rough edges of urban life, which inspired a rich tradition of 20C American Realism (George Bellows and Edward Hopper) and found parallels in Jacob Riis’ and Lewis W. Hine’s documentary photographs of the immigrant population.
Photographer Alfred Stieglitz exhibited avant-garde European art in his Little Galleries of the Photo Secession from 1905 to 1917. Also known as “291,” Stieglitz’ gallery served as a launching pad for New York’s first Modernist painters Arthur Dove, John Marin and Georgia O’Keeffe.
The watershed event in the history of modern art in America was New York’s 1913 Armory Show, or International Exhibition of Modern Art, which displayed more than 1,300 objects—including works by European post-Impressionists, Fauvists and Cubists—and introduced the most recent European art to a largely unprepared and bewildered American public. Marcel Duchamp’s Cubist-inspired Nude Descending a Staircase provoked particular controversy. Despite the hostile public response, the exhibit attracted important collectors and can be credited with encouraging the tradition of patronage, which culminated in the founding of the Museum of Modern Art in 1929, the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1931 and the Guggenheim Foundation in 1937.
After World War I, aspects of abstraction were explored by Stuart Davis, Patrick Henry Bruce and Charles Sheeler. The Great Depression brought an insular mood and public programs that fostered the social realism of Reginald Marsh and the mural painting of Thomas Hart Benton.
The Balance Shifts
Prior to the 1930s many American artists traveled abroad to study and observe the latest developments in experimental art. However, as war fermented and the Great Depression lingered in Europe, foreign artists fled to New York. The arrival of Frenchmen Fernand Léger and André Masson, Spaniard Joan Miró, and Germans Josef Albers and Max Ernst brought an unprecedented opportunity for direct contact with Surrealist and Abstract art. In the decade after World War II, a true American avant-garde flowered, and New York emerged as a cultural mecca and world leader in the production and promotion of modern art. This period of fertile artistic activity culminated in the first radical American artistic movement, Abstract Expressionism (1946–late 1950s). Also known as the New York school, the Abstract Expressionists were divided among Action or Gesture painters (Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell and Clyfford Still), who emphasized the use of thick, sweeping brush strokes or dripped paint in the spontaneous, intuitive act of painting; and Color Field painters (Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman), who employed equally large but color-saturated canvases to envelop the spectator in meditative calm. As the Abstract Expressionists received international recognition, postwar American affluence prompted collecting and gallery activity. New York gradually came to the fore, replacing Paris as the epicenter of the art world. The late 1950s saw new artistic developments inspired by Abstract Expressionists: the brilliantly colored canvases of Stain Painting (Helen Frankenthaler), the simplified color fields of Hard Edge Painting (Al Held, Kenneth Noland) and the dramatic, shaped canvases of Frank Stella. In the 1960s, artists Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg debunked the high-art notions of Abstract Expressionism and irreverently employed comic-strip subjects and billboard painting techniques in the production of Pop Art.
Also emerging in reaction to Abstract Expressionism, 1960s Minimalist sculptors (Donald Judd, Carl Andre) used nonreferential, geometric industrial forms to produce works of immediate and bold impact. The 1970s witnessed Conceptual art, whose adherents—environmental sculptors and performance artists—proposed ideas rather than the collectible object as the essence of art, and the revival of Realism (Chuck Close, Alex Katz and George Segal).
A Changing Scene
The richly pluralistic artistic atmosphere of the 1980s and 90s embraced the post-Modern movements of neo-Expressionism (Julian Schnabel, David Salle), Graffiti art (Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat) and neo-Conceptualism (Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer), along with long-standing traditions of representation and painterly abstraction. In recent years, subjects anatomical, political and environmental have inspired artists on the leading edge—among them Damien Hirst and the “young British artists” who invaded New York in the Brooklyn Museum’s “Sensation” show in 1999. Contemporary art can be viewed today in the galleries of SoHo, the East and the West villages, West Chelsea and TriBeCa, as well as in New York’s many museums.
In the rich literary life of contemporary America, New York is no doubt the most vital force. Indeed, the Naked City is home to many notable figures in fiction and journalism, from Walt Whitman to Norman Mailer, each celebrating the city’s enduring vibrancy.
Two kinds of writers have left an indelible mark on New York’s literary scene: those who were born here and those who came here as to a cultural mecca, adopting the city as their own with an almost religious fervor.
The first of the latter group was probably “Common Sense” author and patriot Thomas Paine, who spent his last years in Greenwich Village at the dawn of the 19C. New York City typified the confidence and spunk of the young Republic at the time, although literary themes remained pastoral rather than urban. One of America’s first literary giants was New York City-born Washington Irving (1783–1859). In his 1807 satirical essay collection Salmagundi, he referred to New York City as Gotham—the 13C English village where the inhabitants acted like madmen to prevent King John from residing there. Irving also wrote the parodic A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty (1809) under the name Diedrich Knickerbocker, translated as “baker of marbles.” He achieved lasting fame in America with Rip Van Winkle (1819) and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820).
Best known for his work The Last of the Mohicans, contemporary James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851) lived in the city in the 1820s and wrote The Pioneers and The Pilot here, finding adventure not in the city but at sea and in the wilds of the frontier.
Herman Melville (1819–91) was born and lived most of his life in New York, writing his great seafaring saga Moby-Dick here and continuing the literary tradition of the early 19C that focused on wilderness and adventure.
Melville also set pieces in and around the city, including “Bartleby the Scrivener,” an early perspective on the commercial metropolis. Clement Clarke Moore (1779–1863) resided south of 23rd Street in Chelsea, where he wrote the famous poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” that defined the modern image of Santa Claus.
Late 19th-Century New York
By the mid-1800s, Americans had grown aware of their distinct national character, defined in part by the frontier but also by the energy generated through booming economic and technological growth. The Industrial Revolution brought about a transformation in the circumstances of life, changing forever the importance of the city, culture and morality.
The new morality of the modern world was epitomized by one of America’s greatest poets, Walt Whitman (1819–92). Born in New York City, Whitman worked as reporter and editor for the Brooklyn Eagle in the 1840s, developing his forceful physical style and path-breaking sensuality in the bustling metropolis. Shortly after the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855, he served as editor for the Brooklyn Times and continued to capture the lusty spirit of his city in works like the classic Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.
Henry James (1843–1916) reversed the traditional role of writers coming to New York seeking fame. Born in the city, he set several novels and stories in New York, including Washington Square (1880), but spent most of his literary career as an expatriate in London, where he published his most famous work, The Turn of the Screw, in 1898. He returned to write The American Scene in 1907 but died a British subject in 1916.
New York native Edith Wharton (1862–1937) berated and celebrated the Gilded Age of her hometown in novels like The Age of Innocence, which won the Pulitzer prize. The great romantic Gothicist Edgar Allan Poe (1809–49) lived in the Bronx in the 1840s as well as in Greenwich Village and wrote several of his poems and stories here, including “The Raven,” first published in the New York Evening Mirror in 1845. A former New York Tribune reporter, Stephen Crane (1871–1900),helped bring the American novel into the big city with New York City Sketches and Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), gaining his greatest fame with The Red Badge of Courage (1894). Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens, 1835–1910) reported on the city for several Western newspapers, residing in the Village during his sojourns here. William Dean Howells (1837–1920), the “dean of American letters,” came to New York in 1889 to serve as a Harper’s magazine editor. By the late 19C, the city had become the literary capital of the US, surpassing Boston and Philadelphia.
The lure was so strong that English poet laureate John Masefield scrubbed floors in a saloon to support his New York address in the 1890s.
By the 1910s, Greenwich Village had become the country’s bohemia, attracting avant-garde writers, artists and thespians, including playwright Eugene O’Neill (1888–1953), poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892–1950), author Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945) and poet Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869–1935). O’Neill based The Iceman Cometh and his 1921 Pulitzer prize-winning Anna Christie on his 1916 forays in the Village, while Millay used the neighborhood as the setting for Second April and Renascence. The radical aspects of Village life included the socialist magazines Seven Arts and The Masses, the latter involving revolutionaries Max Eastman, Art Young, John Reed and Floyd Dell. Poet Marianne Moore (1887–1972) arrived in the city in 1921, becoming editor of the Dial in 1925 and living out her life in Brooklyn. She was followed in 1923 by North Carolina transplant Thomas Wolfe (1900–38), who wrote Look Homeward, Angel in 1929 and You Can’t Go Home Again (1940). F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940) brought his party to town on more than one occasion as the city cemented its cultural position in the late 1920s.
As the Village continued its ferment, the midtown Algonquin Hotel became host to the Thanatopsis, Literary Inside Straight, and Round Table clubs. The latter group became an institution, led by drama critic and raconteur Alexander Woolcott, columnist Franklin P. Adams, and three figures associated with The New Yorker magazine: editor Harold Ross, author Dorothy Parker and humorist Robert Benchley. Established in 1925, the New Yorker elevated the standard of American discourse to a new, articulate and sophisticated level. For three generations its writing and criticism have attracted a nationwide audience, and its list of contributors includes many of the greatest 20C American writers, including essayists E.B. White and Edmund Wilson; novelists J.D. Salinger, Saul Bellow, John O’Hara and John Updike; film critic Pauline Kael; humorists James Thurber and Calvin Trillin; and musicologist Whitney Baillett.
The concentration of African-Americans in Manhattan’s Harlem neighborhood after the turn of the century created an atmosphere of independence and cultural pride that fostered the 1920s awakening known as the Harlem Renaissance. Even earlier, pioneering poet and author Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906), living in the African-American bohemia of the Tenderloin, had celebrated the black spirit in his 1902 Sport of the Gods. W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk (1903) brought recognition to the problem of the “color line”; he formed the NAACP in New York with poet James Weldon Johnson and others in 1909.
But it was the rapid growth and sometime prosperity of Harlem after 1910 that nurtured the greatest flowering of African-American arts and literature in the 1920s. Alain Locke’s 1925 The New Negro: An Interpretation summarized the attitude and expectations of a community that found, in New York City, the support and freedom to express itself. Langston Hughes (1902–67) captured the streets of Harlem in The Weary Blues (1926) and recognized that Harlem was no longer simply a place but a symbol of African-American identity. Other important poets included Countee Cullen (1903–46), with One Way to Heaven (1932), and James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938), who released The Book of American Negro Poetry in 1922. Novelists included Jean Toomer (1894–1967), author of Cane (1923); West Indian native Claude McKay (1890–1948), who wrote Home to Harlem (1928); and Zora Neale Hurston (1891–60), whose landmark Their Eyes Were Watching God was published in 1937, when the stark realities of the Great Depression and racism had eclipsed the optimism of the Harlem Renaissance.
Coming Out of the Depression
The Great Depression marked a respite in New York’s literary history as the city’s urban atmosphere provided the backdrop for Ellery Queen mysteries and for sophisticated sleuths Nick and Nora Charles in Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man. New York-born Henry Miller (1891–1980) went bumming around Paris in the 1930s, where he wrote the path-breaking Tropic of Cancer before returning to the city in 1940 and then relocating to the West Coast. New Yorker John Dos Passos (1896–1970) served up his critique of the nation in the novels USA and Manhattan Transfer. Day of the Locust author Nathanael West (1903–40) was born Nathan Weinstein in New York City before moving on to Hollywood. Others continued to make the pilgrimage to New York, including Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca (Poet in New York) and Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky (Brooklyn Bridge).
New York emerged from World War II more powerful, attractive and determined than ever as it sought to become the world’s cultural capital. Norman Mailer’s hard-bitten, macho New York style rocked the world in 1948 with his sensational novel The Naked and the Dead. He continues to serve as a literary native son for the increasingly cosmopolitan metropolis. Playwright Arthur Miller (1915–2005) wrote the epochal Death of a Salesman in 1949. The 1950s saw the great Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (1914–53) succumb to the lure of New York City and an excess of drink at the White Horse Tavern.
In the 1950s and 60s, New York evolved into the cultural capital of the Jet Age, as writers, artists and aesthetes gathered in Greenwich Village’s Cedar Tavern, fostering the spontaneity and experimentation of New York-school poets like Frank O’Hara and Barbara Guest and beats like Allen Ginsberg (1926–97), Jack Kerouac and Gregory Corso.
The period marked a resurgence of African-American literature in New York, with poet Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and author James Baldwin, whose important novels Go Tell It on the Mountain (1952) and Another Country (1962) are set in the city. Langston Hughes achieved new levels of poetry and commentary with Shakespeare in Harlem (1942) and Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951), while Ralph Ellison (1914–94) fired an early civil rights salvo in 1952’s Invisible Man.
A Living Tradition
During a 1963 newspaper strike, editors Robert E. Silver and Barbara Epstein founded one of the most important literary publications of the 20C, the New York Review of Books, now a biweekly that is indispensable to the serious and amateur critic alike. New York City is often the centerpiece for American comedies and slice-of-life dramas, as exemplified by comic playwrights Neil Simon and Wendy Wasserstein, and film directors Woody Allen and Spike Lee. The Black Arts movement of the 1960s brought Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou and Gil Scott-Heron to a growing audience that had become national in scope by the 1980s. E.L. Doctorow captured modern Gotham in a series of tragic and violent novels, including Ragtime (1978) and Billy Bathgate (1989).
The moral vacuity of the 1980s provided the setting for Tom Wolfe’s searing Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), while Oscar Hijuelos’ Pulitzer prize-winning The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989) captured the rhythms of the city’s Cuban community. In Underworld (1997), Don DeLillo weaves the Bronx of the 1950s and 1990s into a complex tapestry of the postwar era. Other leading New York authors include Gore Vidal, Paul Auster and the late Susan Sontag. The Nuyorican Poets Café in Alphabet City, propelled by its weekly poetry slams, has in recent years become a mecca for an exuberant, multicultural spoken-word movement.
The city continues to draw literary pilgrims from across America and the globe, seeking critical approval, publishing opportunities and the manifold inspiration presented by the city’s ongoing human drama.
Since the 1920s New York’s teams and its athletes have played in the limelight of the world’s media capital. First there was Babe Ruth (1895–1948), who came to the city in 1920 as a great ballplayer and in a few years became an immortal. The Babe’s Yankees are, of course, the prime symbol of the city’s dominance, but are only one of a total of nine professional sports teams in the four major sports—baseball, basketball, football and hockey.
The very first baseball games were played in Manhattan in the 1840s by players such as Alexander Joy Cartwright who formalized the layout of the diamond and the rules of the game. In October 1845, he and others organized themselves as the New York Knickerbockers, the game’s first team. The city entered the big leagues for good with the formation of the New York Giants in 1883, and by 1924 the team had won 10 pennants in 20 years under manager John McGraw.
The Polo Grounds, their horseshoe-shaped home in upper Manhattan (shared with the Yankees until Babe Ruth’s popularity led McGraw to evict them), was the site of one of baseball’s enduring moments: “the Catch,” made by Willie Mays, running full speed, back turned to the plate, in the 1954 World Series. The Giants’ nemesis, the Brooklyn Dodgers, lost when they were bad and lost in heartbreaking fashion when they were good. No matter.
Brooklynites flocked to Ebbets Field to root for “dem bums.” In 1947 Jackie Robinson (1919–72) broke baseball’s color line, heralding the Civil Rights movement. Robinson, Duke Snider and the Boys of Summer were the class of the league in the 1950s.
Noted for their succession of strong arms (Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Dwight Gooden) at pitcher-friendly Shea Stadium, the expansion Mets are loved less for their dominance than for their underdog spirit.
The Yankees (who were, like Babe Ruth, born in Baltimore) moved to New York in 1903, their third season. In 100 years the team has won 39 American League pennants and 26 World Series.
The team’s pantheon of sluggers—the Babe, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Reggie Jackson—have all achieved a fame that transcends the game. With the 1996 arrival of manager Joe Torre and shortstop Derek Jeter, the latest Yankees dynasty won six pennants and four World Series between 1996 and 2003. In 2005, 2006 and 2007 the team made it to the playoffs, only to lose in the first round. The Yankees ended their 85-year run at historic Yankee Stadium in 2008, moving to a new state-of-the-art facility adjacent to the old stadium in the Bronx.
New Yorkers didn’t catch football fever until 1925, when Tim Mara started the Giants in the fledgling NFL. That year, 70,000 filled the Polo Grounds to see the team take on Red Grange and the Chicago Bears. Season tickets to “Big Blue” games, at Yankee Stadium, and since 1976 at Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands, have been handed down through the generations.
The team’s loss in the 2001 Super Bowl to the Baltimore Ravens evoked memories of the 1958 Championship Game, “the Greatest Football Game Ever Played,” a seesaw battle it lost in overtime to the Baltimore Colts.
The underdog Jets’ 1969 Super Bowl victory over, once again, the Colts, “guaranteed” by flamboyant quarterback “Broadway” Joe Namath, legitimized the upstart AFL and paved the way for the leagues’ eventual merger. The team has won three Superbowl Championships, the latest in 2007 under quarterback Eli Manning.
New York basketball is first and foremost a street game. Only blizzards interrupt half-court games of “21.” Not surprisingly, New York has sent a stream of flashy point guards to the pros, from Bob Cousy to Stephon Marbury. Atop the city’s hoops world sits the Knicks, an original NBA franchise whose legendary early-1970s squad, led by Willis Reed, Walt “Clyde” Frazier, and “Dollar” Bill Bradley, twice won championships. After a period of decline, the team rebounded with the hiring of Pat Riley as coach in 1991; fans flocked to Madison Square Garden to cheer (and boo) center Pat Ewing and the intimidating, defense-oriented Knicks.
Born with the ABA in 1967, the Nets, featuring the gravity-defying “Dr. J,” Julius Erving, enjoyed early success and a few ABA titles. The team entered the NBA in 1976, then moved to New Jersey, where they remained on the periphery of the city’s sports consciousness until 2002, when they rocketed to the NBA finals as the Knicks team disintegrated. The Nets returned to the NBA finals in 2003, losing to the San Antonio Spurs. The team has announced plans to move from New Jersey to Brooklyn by 2011.
One of the NHL’s “original six” teams, the Rangers, and the team’s intensely loyal fans, had suffered through a 54-year drought between championships when Mark Messier, exiled from Edmonton, led the squad to a Stanley Cup in 1994. The Islanders, an expansion team formed in 1972, quickly assembled a nucleus of eventual Hall of Famers (Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, Denis Potvin) whose graceful play won four straight Stanley Cups in the early 1980s and helped transform the game’s roughhouse image. The Islanders made it to the playoffs in 2007, but the New Jersey Devils, who arrived from Colorado in 1982, are generally regarded as the area’s best team. Their tenacious defense, spearheaded by goalie Martin Brodeur, brought them three Stanley Cups—in 1995, 2000, and 2003—and a sizable following.
John L. Sullivan (1858–1918) fought at the first Madison Square Garden, located in, yes, Madison Square, in 1883. In subsequent years and incarnations, the Garden became the country’s boxing mecca. The current Garden was the site of the famous 1971 Ali-Frazier fight. Yankee Stadium also hosted key bouts, including Joe Louis’ (1914–81) victory over German Max Schmeling, before 70,000 fans. The ascendance of Las Vegas and Atlantic City as boxing locales spelled the end of the city’s preeminence.
The Belmont Stakes, the third leg of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown, is held at Belmont Park, on Long Island. The National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows hosts the US Open, a grand-slam event. Lifelong New Yorker John McEnroe, famous for his big mouth, short fuse and quirky, brilliant play, won the tournament four times, to the delight of local fans. Brazilian soccer legend Pélé, playing for the Cosmos, electrified New York in the mid-1970s, though local enthusiasm, and the league itself, petered out a few years later. The famed New York City Marathon, held the first Sunday in November, draws some 30,000 runners and more than 2 million spectators.