Last Friday, summer hours took effect in New York offices with a creative bent. The owners have given up resisting the irresistible pull of summer weekends, and many offices close at lunch. So, this afternoon, Ms NOLA and I are going to pick up where we left off last summer, with a visit to the Cloisters.
I hadn't been to the Cloisters in years before last August's junket. I noticed a few changes, but it was still what was my favorite place to be when I was eighteen or so. Now that I've explored authentically medieval sites in London and Paris, I remain rooted in Manhattan when I visit the museum, even when I'm crossing the reconstitution of stones that is the Chapter House. I am very much aware that the structure is about ten years older than I am, a gift of the John D Rockefeller, Jr. The ancient, but very familiar objects - familiar because I stared at them so hard when I was young - remind me of me, as I was long ago; like hit songs from the past, they conjure up expectations and misconceptions alike.
No, the draw to the Cloisters is Fort Tryon Park, in which the museum is situated. Blanketing some of the highest elevations on the island, with trim perennial gardens and dense woodlands, the park will serve as a satisfactory substitute for the hardly less faux countryside in which I grew up in Westchester. You can hear the city bustle if you try, but the summer insects make more agreeable music. The panorama of the Hudson is majestic, almost primeval, thanks again to the Rockefellers, who bought up the New Jersey bank north of the George Washington Bridge (before there was a bridge, I think) and then presented Palisades Park to the State of New Jersey. The only structure clearly visible from Fort Tryon Park is a rather routine religious looking building, an Episcopal monastery I am told, endowed by the grandees to provide an visual echo from across the river.
If I'm lucky, it will have rained (and stopped raining) before we arrive, and the air will be heavy with earth. That is one of the things I miss most in Yorkville. Even in Central Park, there are two many nearby internal combustion engines, and too much landscaping as well, for the smell of earth to come through.
Last week, we headed downtown. After lunch with friends in Lincoln Square, we took a couple of trains to the Wall Street station that comes up right in front of Trinity Church.* We popped in for a look at the beautiful stained-glass windows, which glared brilliantly in the afternoon light. Designed by Richard Upjohn in 1846, it is to my eye one of the most perfect specimens of Gothic Revival, suggesting its models rather than pretending to copy them. Out in the churchyard, I wondered what the view must have been when the church was surrounded by prosperous houses. That would have been long before the present structure went up; the neighborhood was solidly commercial by the time of the revolution. The real archaism here is that Trinity Church remains set in the same spot.
Ms NOLA was duly impressed by Kathleen's unusual view, which includes an edge of the World Trade Center site, which is even at a distance an obviously unnatural clearing. Closer to hand is the tippy-tippy top of the crocketed spire of Trinity Church. Perhaps because of a lack of context - how big is the top of a spire? - the pinnacle seems to be no more than a yeard outside Kathleen's window; if you really stretched, you could touch it.
Confidentiality agreements prevent me from discussing the topography of Kathleen's desk in detail. There is room for one legal pad at surface level, surrounded by neat piles of varying height. Kathleen says that she knows the contents of each of them, and I believe her. but seated behind them she does rather look like a Sleeping Beauty who has awakened on her own and is waiting for a prince to show up with a machete. I was very sorry not to be that prince.
Not wanting to tie up Kathleen (although she and Ms NOLA had an earnest conversation about an important matter), we set out on a sentimental journey through Ye Olde Wall Streete of RJ's Youth. Bear in mind that I have only worked in two tight neighborhoods, Wall Street and the Galleria area of Houston. (All right, there was a year on Buffalo Speedway - hardly a distance from Post Oak.) The memories that Wall Street evokes are not quite so sweet as those roused by the Cloisters, but they are by no means miserable. My very first job, moreover - in the mail room at Empire Trust, which was folded into BoNY while I was still working summer jobs - acquainted me with the crazy layout at a tender age.
We headed east along Wall Street, passing the Morgan Guaranty Bank, with the blast-riddled patches of gouged stonework. I pointed out that the serene façade that now graces the Metropolitan Museum's American Wing stood just to the right of the Federal Building, which, like Trinity Church, was itself an entirely different structure at the time. We turned right at William Street, so that Ms NOLA could meet a star of Inside Man, Twenty Exchange Place. We circumambulated this building, which occupies its own not very large block (as blocks go), and then passed into Hanover Square, where I reminisced about falling in love with martinis at Delmonico's. (I didn't even think to check out if its still in India House). Walking through Stone Street and coming up behind Goldman, Sachs, I observed that all the quaint old buildings had given way to new - a pity, but the quaint was probably pretty rickety. We crossed Broad Street and wound our way to the Customs House, where it took me a mortifyingly long time to identify each of Daniel Chester French's allegories of the Four Continents, two of which are imperial caricatures of Africa and Asia. I used to have that stuff down cold.
We crossed State Street and passed into Battery Park, where the renovation of the central allée meant a lot of torn-up railing. The confluence of uptown tumblers and their entourages with tourists created an ambience very reminiscent of Late Seventies, not a good period in New York history. When we made our way to the Front, Staten Island was invisible, and the Statue of Liberty and the towers of Ellis Island were mere silhouettes in the haze. We paused at the East Coast Memorial, a monument to sailors who lost their lives defending the Atlantic Coast in World War II; I have always found this to be a very powerful work. Not so much the eagle, but the slabs of granite bearing the names and ranks of the fallen.
When we had drunk in as much as we could of the seawater, its swelling so unlike a river's or a lake's, we left the park and walked up Broadway, passing the monstrous bull in bowling green whose testicles have been rubbed to a coppery brightness by superstitious passers-by (the idea). We passed in front of Trinity Church again in order to stand opposite the Equitable Building, 120 Broadway. This is where my father worked when I was a boy, and the coolest thing in the world was to ride the elevators up to his office, which was on a high floor. The doors, made of glass and chicken-wire, allowed you to watch the floors fly by, which would have been dizzying enough. But the elevators were operated by uniformed speed demons whose way of briskly decelerating a few floors below your destination invariably made you feel as though all your internal organs were about to thrust up through the rest of you. The building remains, but the operators were long ago superseded.
The only other place that my father worked at while our family lived in Bronxville was at One Chase Plaza, still one of the strongest examples of the International Style - and another creation of Rockefeller largesse. Dad's view of midtown from the fortieth floor was so spectacular that people would come in to make use of his mounted binoculars. The view was wrecked, utterly, by the extremely homely Home Insurance Building, two blocks north, on Maiden Lane; Ms NOLA and I passed it a few minutes later, paying it much less attention than the Federal Reserve Building, a redoubtable Florentine palazzo of New World dimensions.
And that was it. We continued up Maiden Lane to Broadway, and then up Broadway, and then around the corner and down into the Fulton Street station. I felt as if I'd been much farther from home than the other end of Manhattan (oh, dear, what a slip). With the World Trade Center gone, the neighborhood was much more like the one that I knew as a teenager, when there was very little of interest to the west of Broadway. Nor did we make it to the river, also transformed since my bank days. (June 2006)
Who knows how long it will be before I go back?
*On this link, scroll down to the super aerial photograph. Kathleen's office is about 1.5 centimeters from the top of the steeple, at about eleven o'clock (she's at the first setback). 120 Broadway is the building a few doors to the left, the one that is shaped like an H. Just beyond that, Chase Plaza. Most of the territory that Ms NOLA and I covers lies at the base of those canyons.
Copyright (c) 2006 Pourover Press