Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Things You Learn

Consulate General of the Republic of Poland. Originally built for industrialist Montana mining tycoon Joseph R. DeLamar, between 1905 and 1906, designed by Cass Gilbert. 11:30 PM. Photo: JH.
Wednesday, January 11, 2011. Fair and partly cloudy yesterday in New York. Temperatures less than this past Spring-like weekend, but still nothing like winter as we have known it in this neck of the woods.

The Things You Learn. Yesterday morning at 11, I went over to the Park Avenue Armory to meet with Elihu Rose. Elly, as he is known to his fan base of friends and acquaintances, is one of those New Yorkers who is famous to the famous – for his personality, his intellect (he’s a professor and war historian), his philanthropic participation in the community, and not least: his natural enthusiasm. He is also a member of one of the city’s most prominent of the real estate families.

As I’ve written here before, a little more than a decade ago, Elly got involved with the now late Wade Thompson in a project to rescue the ancient-and-beginning-to-crumble Armory on Park Avenue that had been built in 1880 as the 7th Regiment Armory.
The newly renamed Wade Thompson Drill Hall in the Park Avenue Armory. The original floor of the Drill Room survives all these 132 years later despite extraordinary heavy use by spectators, marching men, cars, Army tanks and thousands of events -- exhibitions, art and antiques fairs. The floor is made of thick, narrow planks of Georgia pine set in sleepers of Long Island locust embedded in asphalt, which rests on a platform of concrete. There were originally gas chandeliers with porcelain reflectors to light the huge room at night. Black walnut cases made by George C. Flint and Company of New York City provided space for the regiment's Remington rifles. Seating for about 1100 was provided on ash settees with mahogany backs in the galleries on the east and west ends on raised platforms. The room has also been used for the Knickerbocker Greys boys' drill school founded in 1881, as well as music festivals, tennis tournaments, grand balls and art fairs. In 1998 after the nearby Central Synagogue burned, it also served as a place of worship.
The Drill Hall at the Park Avenue Armory seen in 1881, with Leopold Damrosch at the podium.
The 7th Regiment was also known as the Silk Stocking Regiment – referring to the elite of the city who in mid-19th century had begun  to move uptown into the areas now known as the Upper East Side.

The Regiment was created in 1806 after British frigates, blockading New York Harbor, fired at passing vessels that resisted a search for British deserters. During that process the British fired on a helmsman who refused to cooperate and killed him. A mass rally calling for reprisals led to the formation of four companies of artillery. 

Although it didn’t become Seventh Regiment, National Guard, State of New York in 1847, those four companies formed the nucleus of what would be. By that time, it had long before become a depended upon militia which served in the War of 1812, quelled civil disorders and helped in fighting fires.

A billboard outside the Park Avenue Armory advertising the upcoming Philip Glass Tune-In Music Festival, February 23rd through 26th. For tickets and information visit or call 212-933-5912.
One of the sets of lockers with its carved lions and clock in a newly restored room.
An honorary roll of a company of the 7th Regiment dated 1880 - 1883, includes many familiar "old New York" names such as Livingston, Rhinelander, Fahnestock, Harriman, Chisholm, Iselin, Rutgers.
The Regiment’s first home was set up in the Tompkins Square market back when the center of the city’s elite lived in the neighborhood.  By mid-19th century, after the Civil War, the city had grown to more than a million citizens, and the elite had abandoned Astor place for sunnier climes on the Upper East Side.

The Regiment, now longstanding and prestigious, needed a neighborhood that was closer to home for its members. In 1875, the city appropriated a lot – the city block between Lexington and Fourth (now Park) Avenues, and 66th and 67th Street – for that purpose.

Money was raised through donations by such prominent New Yorkers as John Jacob Astor, William H. Vanderbilt, E Augustus Schermerhorn, William C. Rhinelander, and James Lenox, as well as from the growing middle class which liked having the protection of the Regiment nearby. More was donated from members of the regiment, from veterans, from local businesses; along with a bond issue. It is the only Armory ever built in the United States by private individuals through donations and fundraising.

They even had what today we’d call a grand fund-raiser – a two week long fair set up on the property  -- a combination of a block party, theatrical entertainment, fortune tellers, shooting galleries, art exhibitions, food fair, sales of all kinds of goods and luxuries such as boats, organs, jewelry, carriages, cats (Angora) and dogs (fox terriers).

There was even a competition as to who would realize the largest profit with the prize being a silver punch bowl sponsored by Brooks Brothers who were making the uniforms for the regiment. The fair was a huge hit, growing more and more popular by the day with people coming back day after day. They raised a total of $140,000 (about $14 million in today’s currency).

Originally it was much more than a drill hall for the regiment, and that was the plan of the builders. Each company of the regiment was given a room for its members to decorate with their own choices. The greatest interior designers and artists of the day in New York participated including Louis Tiffany, the Herter Brothers, McKim Mead and White, Augustus Saint Gaudens. There was a library. The vast drill space became a venue for dinners, dances, both private and public; drills – the Knickerbocker Greys, children of the regiment members began there. There were concerts and art fairs, and entertainments.

These rooms – all of which had lockers for their members, were club rooms as well as for meetings, with each one custom designed and made (and painted). Each contained a fireplace (fired by gas and/or coals) and a piano and magnificent paneling and furniture in the style of the day.

The Armory became a destination. A thousand people a day might pass through. In a way, what it is becoming for New Yorkers today, is a modern version of what it was intended for by its original builders.

Almost forty years after it was opened, the First World War erupted and changed everything for everybody. The culture and society that existed before changed. So did the Armory and its use. Since its opening it has served the community well in a variety of useful, even crucial ways. But in the past thirty years, it has fallen more and more into disrepair and neglect. This provoked a lot of ideas as to what could be done with it. Like: tear it down and put up a luxury apartment house. That was high on a lot of people’s lists.
A now completed restoration of a Company Room on the second floor. Everything, including the furniture and the lockers on either side of the room, are original except for the chandeliers. When gas was replaced by electricity earlier in the 20th century, the gas chandeliers were ripped out.
However, Elly Rose and Wade Thompson had a vision. And that vision, enhanced by their knowledge of history and of culture, is now materializing. That’s why Elly called me to have a look at the progress they’ve made. Those extraordinary company rooms with their 19th century New York design and décor are now rare except for photographs. The plan now is to make them available once again for dinners, receptions, concerts, lectures and exhibitions.

Looking at them (the project is far from completed – all the rooms – but they’re getting there), I realized that this great old, well-worn ark of building which many of us New Yorkers have long taken for granted, visiting for events for years, is about to become a major cultural destination for the 21st century, a renaissance for us all.

Last night at Doubles, Ambassador Brenda Johnson and Howard Johnson hosted a book signing for Sally Bedell Smith and her new book, “Elizabeth The Queen.” The Elizabeth in Sally’s book is the current Queen.

My interest in the British Queen has never been one of great fascination although like most people I’ve followed her life throughout my life, and as she has got older (and I have got older), I’ve developed a great admiration for a public figure whom I do not know at all except as a spectator.
Sally Bedell Smith signing a copy of her newly published "Elizabeth the Queen" last night at Doubles. Ambassador Brenda Johnson, who hosted the booksigning last night with her husband Howard Johnson, and the author with her book.
Click to order
Two best selling authors meet for an autograph -- Sally Bedell Smith and Barbara Taylor Bradford.
It has been excerpted in Vanity Fair although I hadn’t read it. I was most interested in it because 1. This is not the first or even second or third biography of the Queen, and 2. Sally Bedell Smith is a pleasure to read. Her research is vast and trenchant. She writes very objectively and respectfully, but frankly, about her subjects; I was curious to see what she could bring to the subject that was fresh. I started the book over the weekend and I didn’t want to close it. I’ve got miles to go and there’s much more to say about the book and the author (and the subject) but I’ll leave it for when I’ve completed it. It has been reviewed and well-received already.

Last night’s reception drew a big crowd of New Yorkers. I saw, or saw on the guest list: Martha Stewart, Susan Magrino, Robert and Barbara Taylor Bradford, John Eastman, Christy Ferer, Jeanette and Alexander Sanger, Sharon and Stephen Baum, Deeda Blair, Gerry Fabrikant, Toni and James Goodale, Anne Sutherland Fuchs, Dick Nye and Francesca Stanfill, Daisy Soros, Virginia Coleman and Peter Duchin, Louise Grunwald, Susan Mercandetti; and scores more, all lining up to praise the author and buy her book.
The author and her family, son Kirk, husband Stephen and son David, last night at Doubles.
Addendum. Those who saw this year’s Christmas cards might remember the guy on the green tractor with the horse in the corral. I learned from the man’s wife yesterday that that farm where he’s exercising his farmerly ways under the watchful eye of his four legged friends, is home to three rescued quarter horses as well as three rescued greyhounds “from an New Hampshire track that thankfully closed ... those dogs are so affectionate and loving. When they came to us as 3-year-olds, they had never seen a blade of grass, much less a house with stairs. We also have 2 Jack Russells that my husband bought me 5 years ago. The latest arrival is Willi, a 2-year-old female cat who my New York vet adopted out 6 times and she was returned each time. About to be put down when I got the call, she is now wintering in one of the barns. People are nuts as she is very affectionate, smart and cozy .... You are right, it is a love fest.”

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