A Tear For A Lost 57th Street

Is it possible to grieve for a building? Well I guess I do. When I was looking for my first job in the mid nineteen fifties -- a lit major with few prospects -- I found one as an editorial assistant at a small quarterly magazine called Tomorrow -- whose offices were in a lovely old 1920's office building -- 29 West 57th Street. It once was the offices of Chickering the piano mfgr on what was then called Piano Row -- it's style was sort of gothic, sort of French, mainly just sort of with enough decoration on the facade of gilded symbols with saints or angels to indicate that some architect had put some thought and artistry into the making of it -- but in truth it was just an old fashioned NYC office building -- squeezed between others of the same vintage.

I worked there for several years as I tried to get a toehold on a career as a playwright and screenwriter.

My adventures in that remarkable office are locked in my memory -- our boss was a trance medium in cape and turban -- her business manager was her dancing teacher from the Savoy in London, her lover was a French resistance hero who had lost his nerve, the others were a wonderful group of misfits -- used in the best sense of that word -- for the "fits" are not worth knowing. Clients of the medium included Gloria Swanson and Aldous Huxley and a very rich Congresswoman from the Midwest whose late husband gave orders to her from the great beyond through the medium -- orders to support this enterprise which included two publications and a foundation. Hard to believe but my spirit medium boss hired me because she claimed to admire my "aura." These days I try to keep it hidden under my baseball cap. For all the craziness -- and there was plenty -- I found a great deal of old fashioned kindness there, of course I might have confused kindness with good manners -- but they are not disconnected.
Well, riding on the 57th Street bus going east this afternoon I saw a great hole in the ground where the lovely old office building once stood. The building had been demolished (an act of vandalism that I put in the same category as the destruction of the ancient ruins by the Taliban in the middle east}. The destruction by the builder Vornado was well planned. While being considered as a landmark -- protected by the city -- the builder stripped the sculptural ornamentation off the 29 W 57th Street facade in order to prevent the building from being designated an individual landmark.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission had been in the process of evaluating the property based on an earlier Request for Evaluation submitted by the Save Rizzoli Committee. When the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation informed the owner-builder that the property was eligible for listing on the National Registry in early February, Vornado executives allegedly went ballistic. Not long after that, After Hours work permits went up and jack hammering on the facade commenced. It was the exact game plan that Donald Trump had used in stripping the bas reliefs and art from the beautiful Bonwitt building that became the brass without class Trump Tower.

The Trumpian Taliban is planning to put up some sky scratching all glass high rise in the space. The last time I felt such sadness for buildings was when I visited London shortly after the war and saw the destruction that the German bombers had done, the giant holes in the ground that had once been lovely Georgian houses and ancient churches.

It is but the latest act of vandalism by my beloved NYC that refuses to properly protect its elegant but elderly architectural past as it bows down to a new generation of hustler/realtors. This building was probably not of great historic/artistic value to anyone but me and the millions of passersby who found 57th Street charming until Trump tore down the old Bonwit Teller department store and put up his tower of Babel. 57th Street was once our Rue de Rivoli -- now it is a hodgepodge of ugly modernism -- "less is less" towers of Babel that do not speak different languages but grunt at the sky -- a street lacking all architectural grace -- it is now "Anywhere USA" so Goodbye to all that architectural charm -- the splendid details and the human scale that make a city livable. A small tear for 29 West 57th Street -- and perhaps another tear for the 20 year old boy who worked there and loved the eccentric people and the neighborhood with its bookshops and thrift shops -- all gone. Replaced by robots with cellphones and buildings that look like dystopian nightmares.