Friday, October 28, 2011

Brooklyn 'Hoods Continued: Prospect Park & Park Slope

The Park
Prospect Park is Brooklyn's Central Park.  At 585 acres, with a lake, hiking trails, a forest, zoo, Audubon center, and band pavilion, she certainly measures up against her 843-acre rectangular older sister just across the river.  Prospect Park's interior has miles of hiking trails; the car lanes also have dedicated walking and cycling lanes for about 3.3 miles around the inside the park. If you run or cycle counter-clockwise starting at the southern point, prepare yourself for a good uphill stretch.  When they designed the park nearly 150 years ago, the forest and ravine needed some elevation to work with; the path does not disappoint.  For another natural bonus, cycling in from the southeast entrance you can dodge road apples in the bike path left by horses trotting toward the park. Yes, horses have trails in the park, too.

American history lovers should enjoy learning that the location of Prospect Park was the site of the first major contest of the Revolutionary War.  "In late August 1776, the Continental Army under George Washington fortified passes along a section of Flatbush Avenue that now serves as the Park’s Drive." []  Although this particular battle lacked flair for the history books, in the end, it seemed to work out.  America could freely flourish without interference from across the pond. Part of her flourish resulted in the creation of cool neighborhoods around Prospect Park...

The Slope
Each Brooklyn neighborhood has a distinct personality.  Park Slope, just to the west of Prospect Park, has a charm reflected in the residents, the stores, and the restaurants.  Over the years, it has garnered top ranking for its architectural features, quality public schools, dining, nightlife, shopping, access to public transit, green space, quality housing, and safety.  It was also the home of Washington Park where the Brooklyn Dodgers [then the Brooklyn Atlantics] played.  Park Slope's popularity for the family set rivals that of Manhattan's Upper West Side and the two neighborhoods would be neck-and-neck for the number of dogs and strollers per resident on a given Saturday or Sunday morning! The variety of cafes and eateries in addition to the park, are a definite draw even for those without a stroller or leash!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Grand Central Oyster Bar & Guastavino Tile

Once in a while my life has a moment of synchronicity when everything feels aligned and a sense of peace washes over me.  There is no engraved personal invitation or an explanatory movie trailer prior to these moments; the glorious moment just glides in as a gift and I can choose either to enjoy it or over analyze it.  One such moment recently occurred at an unlikely location: the Grand Central Oyster Bar. The background to this moment is worth elucidating.

One day a couple of years ago, while living on Long Island's south shore, I ran through a nearby neighborhood which has charming historic homes. On one street in particular, nearly every waterfront home is breathtaking; but, as I crossed over a little bridge, a two-story brick Mediterranean-style villa captured my attention. For weeks. I found myself 'in the neighborhood' quite often and even researched it online [it was for sale].  The plain exterior did not do justice to the mesmerizing tiled interior. Aptly named the Tile House, this 4000-square foot home was built in 1912 by Rafael Guastavino, Jr., a name that links to pretty much all of my favorite places in Manhattan. 

Rafael Guastavino Sr. emigrated with his son in 1881 from Barcelona, Spain [Guastavino, Sr was born in Valencia]. Guastavino Sr., a trained architect, became credited as the inventor of the "Guastavino Arch" used in the construction of the New York City subway system. In 1889, he and his son, who had apprenticed under him, founded the Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company.  Guastavino Sr. became known for his tile work, a system in which he adeptly used thin, interlocking tiles with layers of mortar to construct supporting arches.  Remarkably, the company acquired 24 patents for this system during its years of operation. Guastavino Jr. also became famous for his own inventions.  His craftmanship is evident at the Tile House where he even had a separate little structure which housed a kiln for his experiments making tile.  

The Guastavinos influenced thousands of structures and my little blog does not begin to scratch the surface.  Of the many New York structures they influenced, some happen to be my favorite places: 

Alexander Hamilton Custom House [ this building has a Catalonian specialty of stair vaulting; the stairs are constructed using hard burned clay tiles and there are no metal supports]; Carnegie Hall; the Elephant Pavilion at the Bronx Zoo; the Cathedral of St. John the Divine; Grant's Tomb; the Museum of Natural History; and of course, Grand Central Station.

The expansive open space of Grand Central Station feels as relaxing as the Roman Baths that influenced the design. When you step into the entrance way to the Grand Central Oyster Bar, it feels more intimate without feeling claustrophobic. Your eyes cannot resist the aesthetically teasing design that zig-zags its way up the arches and ceilings. When you walk inside the restaurant, besides being overwhelmed by the smell of shellfish, the spaciousness and sensuality is striking.  Neutral toned smooth and textured tiles enhance the comfort created by wood panels on the walls inside the restaurant and the adjacent saloon.  In the main dining area the vaulted ceilings appear to play with light and create a dreamlike atmosphere. This space feels alive and timeless.

The Oyster Bar is almost 100 years old. In late February 1913, the same month Grand Central Station began service, Grand Central Oyster Bar opened its doors for business from patrons who were long distance travelers and commuters.  Over time, though, train travel decreased and the restaurant [and station] fell into disrepair. By 1972 the Oyster Bar was bankrupt and remained empty until 1974 when it was revitalized.  In 1997 the restaurant suffered an immense fire that destroyed the entire restaurant but not the structure.  It was quickly renovated and has continued operating where it reportedly serves about 5 million oysters a year!
After researching the Tile House and then discovering a similar thread of artistry in all these other places that had captivated me, I could not wait to visit the Oyster Bar. Sitting in the main room I could take a moment to really see and feel the details of the design and the space.  What had drawn me to that particular house on Awixa, or what had motivated me to learn more about its architect became irrelevant. What matters is that we follow what we are drawn to and recognize, in the structure of our lives, we are placing our own tiles, in a design unique to us. 

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Governors Island

Although a few locations in Brooklyn and around New York Harbor have amazing unobstructed views of Lady Liberty, without exception, my favorite viewing spot is Governors Island. Accessible only by ferry from June through the end of September, this little 172-acre arts-and-recreation island [103 acres were added in 1912 with landfill excavated from the Lexington Avenue subway line] has a delightful park and 2.2 mile paved pathway, which pedestrians and cyclists circumnavigate for awesome views of three Manhattan boroughs. 
Governors Island has been officially recognized as the birthplace of the state of New York in 1624.  Prior to that, of course, a few other sovereigns had dibs on this prime piece of real estate, which also addresses the curiosity of where the name originated.  Due to the plentiful trees like hickory, oak, and chestnut, the natives called the island Pagganck, or "Nut Island."  It was 'purchased' for private use in June 1637 [for two ax heads, a string of beads, and a handful of nails], and called  Nutten Island [translated from Dutch] until 1784, when it was officially named Governors Island by the British who gained control for 'His Majesty's Governors.' 

Fast forward to the War of Independence and the realization that a coastal defense would be helpful in this geographic area.  By 1800 when New York transferred Governors Island to the United States for military use, construction had already begun on forts and defenses.  The island's military importance continued until about 1966, when it became the largest Coast Guard base.  Remnants of this installation, which had about 3,500 residents, remain visible in deserted buildings, placed like tombstones throughout the interior of the island. These creepy deteriorating buildings are an anachronism that detract from the beautiful open space and views along the perimeter.

When the Coast Guard left in 1996, "President Clinton designated 22 acres of the island, including the two great forts, as the Governors Island National Monument." [See]  The federal government sold the remaining 150 acres of Governors Island to the people of New York for about a dollar [not much appreciation from the ax-and-beads price....] with the condition that it be used only for public benefit. This condition has created some economic and political debate.  

Without the ability to create casinos, high-priced condominiums, or resorts, the suitable alternative resulted in a great picnic, art, and outdoor space. Dave Matthews has a place to perform and former officers' quarters now house art exhibits along a tree-lined path. Gourmands can come across the harbor to pay $75 for an all-you-can-eat barbecue, or they can bring a picnic and enjoy a good book, like I did.  You can rent bikes or bring your own; you can buy a picnic or bring your own. You can relax in a hammock or an Adirondack chair, or actively explore the old fort and read the occasional placard detailing the island's history.