Landmarks

Lewis Mumford, writing about the Brooklyn Bridge, noted that it stood out because it was “a powerful work of the imagination.”  Although dismissive of Gotham’s skyscrapers, this aspect is what made the bridge, for Mumford, a landmark.  Moreover, it had to move from the imagination to play on the intellect: to be considered, mulled over, and interpreted.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, but along the same vein, is the topophiliac response.  Yi-Fu Tuan, an eminent geographer, has argued that humans have an emotional response to certain landscapes and structures.  Some of those response are genetically driven while others are culturally derived.  Brooklyn BridgeBut the end result is that our emotional responses to what we see set up our memories; our emotions mark or “landmark” our visual input.  Others, most notably architectural critic J.B. Jackson and visual studies professor John Stilgoe, have drawn similar conclusions about the vernacular world.

Given those parameters, this past week has produced many landmarks.  As both an historian and a carpenter, landmarks tend to follow a specific pattern for me.  After spending several years as a union carpenter working on bridge projects, the Brooklyn Bridge provoked a visceral response.  While nothing I worked on is comparable to this historic structure, I could imagine building forms and staging, climbing ladders, and walking planks.

Edward Behr MansionI spent many more years building houses, an activity that generated satisfaction and pride.  To stand back at the end of the day and survey your work, realizing it may well stand past your life, gave me a sense of fulfillment.  That is why the Behr Mansion stood out.  Not to disparage architects (but I will a little) it is easy to draw on paper a place, a house.  Turning a flat image into a landmark is the work of craftsmen, however.  Again: my houses were not in any way along the level of the Behr Mansion.  But I could well imagine the skill required to build and the pride the craftsmen took in their work.  For me, their stories are not lost.

Such a perspective began to develop when we travelled Sunday night to the Brooklyn Historical Society.  As noted in a previous post, a scowling medieval warrior, glimpsed between the leaves, reminded me of my own “warrior.”  An emotional response, but one followed by an intellectual query: Why all those “heads”?  What were they symbolizing?  And how, the builder asked, were they made and fixed to the structure?  Those types of questions popped up repeatedly and will be explored more fully in Along the Shore: Landmarks.

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Seeing my Punk

Brooklyn Heights is a beautiful neighborhood, albeit one that has benefited from historical protection and gentrification.  Some of the architecture is stunning and the”building accessories” not only draw the walkers’ attention, they play on memories in interesting ways.  Above, I saw a medieval warrior attached to the Brooklyn Historical Society, scowling down through the leaves with his game face on.  In my mind it morphed into my own “warrior,” scowl in place, getting ready to wage battle, likely with the “authoritarians” in his life.

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Hot Town, Summer in the City

There is nothing like walking in New York City in the summer.  I did it last in the early 90’s and said never agian.  I must have forgotten that when I signed up for Brookly in late June.

While one of the five boroughs, Brooklyn seemed to be the second city–sometimes proudly stating themselves as such so as to draw the distinction with rich Manhattan to the west.  But the tide of affluence is rolling on, knowing no bounds like rivers or borough districts.  That seemed especially apparent on one street corner in Greenpoint.

During the nineteenth century, the area was row housesubiquitous for its row houses.  Here are a few on India Street, at the intersection with Manhattan Avenue.  Generally they were three or four stories, shared common side walls, and fronted right on the sidewalk.  They were the backbone for working-class Brooklynites.  But they were cramped and built to widely varying standards.

In the 1860s, Charles Pratt esablished the Astral Oil Works, a kerosene refining facility, in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn.  Although Pratt merged with Standard Oil in 1874, he maintained a strong interest in his old works and its workers.  The Astral was not the first such project in Brooklyn—similar devleopments were already built in Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill—but it did reflect Pratt’s philanthropy and social concern.  While made of brick like many of the row houses, its similarity ends there.  Six stories high, the buildings detaling stands out.

The buildings massiveness hits the observer first.  Keeping with its size, the building’s style has a slight castellation, giving its size the image of strength. as seen in these two pictures.  the other aspect of style that stands out is the rounded motif, seen in the picture above right and in the picture below of one of the entryways.  Over a hundred years later the building still is a landmark of Greenpoint and attracts the eye with its traditional, strong presence.  Meant as housing for workers, likely immigrants and second generation families, the architect moved beyond the utilitarian to make a statement, giving the building character and distinction.

Across the street from the Astral is a new building.  Striving for the sky, it meets the needs of economizing a small footprint, giving the developer greater returns on their investment.  Sitting next to the Astral its dissimilarity stands out.  It lacks both the detailing that draws the eye and the style that speaks to character.  Every corner or seam seems exactly like the one above it, below it, or next to it.  There is no “ah” moment like one has when you round the corner of the Astral and see the medallion on the wall pictured below.  Aside from its height, this modern building doesn’t connect in an emotional way.  In a sense, that is what makes it a landmark.

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