Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Jumble on the East Side

Yesterday I had to take my laptop in to hopefully recover all the countless thousands of hours of music I've put on it over the past year or so after it decided to crash, and maybe repair it. I'd even thought a day earlier that I needed to back-up my music to my external hard-drive, but it's also being annoying lately. Please cross your fingers for me. I realized afterwards that I was in the neighborhood of a building I've been wanting to see and had the afternoon free to do so.

I asked the doorman of a high-rise apartment building, who was no help. Finally I realized I'd need to call Information for the address. I tried a wonky payphone that stole my 50 cents. I'm one of the last five people on the planet who doesn't own a cell phone. Sue me. I went into this tacky-ass accessories store that looked like it was selling bracelets for twelve-year-olds at the mall to ask for change for a dollar. The salesperson said no and was pretty much just nasty about it. She grumbled at me, "I can't open the register without a sale." "Oh, this sale is already finished?" I asked, pointing to the customer with her wallet out and poised to hand over money. "Yes." Mmhmm.

Next I tried this tea shop. The salesperson was more than happy to change my dollar for quarters. Since she was so helpful, I thought to just ask her if she'd ever spotted this foundation I was looking for. She hadn't, but offered to look it up for me on the computer. She also offered me a free sample of their spicy black tea, which was extremely delicious. As I told her, I'm much more of a coffee drinker, but I do enjoy a nice cup of tea now and then. The store was Kusmi Tea at Third Avenue and Sixty-First Street. I'm no connoisseur, but for the tea drinkers out there, I highly recommend it. The whole place smelled delicious and the tea was great.

So, business owners, here's how this works. Your employees treat people like crap, and you get called "tacky" and "nasty." Your salespeople are friendly, helpful, nice, and offer free samples, and you get a free plug on blogs like this one. Whether you buy tea leaves from them or not, definitely check out Kusmi Tea if you're in that neighborhood.

She found me the address.

First I just have to mention how bizarre this whole block is. First there's one of the most awkard, ugliest brownstones I've ever spotted in New York. How this disaster was ever allowed to remain standing in an uber-wealthy neighborhood like this I have no idea (one of the other, more conventional brownstones was being lusciously renovated in marble and mahogany as I passed by it). What were they thinking? It doesn't help that it's falling apart, but those bay windows look like an architect from 1930 traveled to 1970 and saw all the worst buildings on the planet to bring back in time.

Next to this is a building which, without knowing up front, I knew had to be Edward Durell Stone just by looking at it, and it is: 130 East Sixty-Fourth Street, "The Corcoran" (1956).

Then there's Martin Scorcese's house, which looks like a Tudor mansion squashed weirdly into the footprint of a New York City rowhouse.

Evidently Steven Spielberg and Zsa Zsa Gabor [LOL] both live on this block, also. [EDIT: My coworker informed me that Spielberg has since moved to a different building.] I'd LOVE to hear some of the impromptu conversations that arise on the way to the corner store around here.

There's the vaguely Georgian townhouse and all the regular but beautiful brownstones on this block, and then we find my intended destination, Philip Johnson's Asia House (1959).

It's such an exquisitely styled Modernist building. But what really impresses me is how Johnson was able to make Modernism feel Asian in some vague way. It's something about the white-painted window surrounds. It works so beautifully. It's something that hints at, say, a black lacquer box or cabinet. The interior of the New York State Theater has a kind of Asian sensibility to it that I also can't quite identify. Both buildings had sculptures by Yasuhide Kobashi: the State has the gold sculptures on the main stairs, Asia House had a piece called The Village, which was the largest terra cotta sculpture crafted since the Etruscan era. I've been trying to find out if the Asia Society still owns it (they've moved to the west side), but I've contacted them about seventeen times and have not been able to get an answer.

Asia House responds so beautifully to the light. The stark black and white of the fa├žade changes its character in so many different ways. Much of the interior has been altered, from what I could tell, by the current owner, the Russell Sage Foundation, which conducts research in the social sciences. There is what looks like a delightful garden out the back end of the building. I was not permitted to go there. The receptionist was very nice, and talkative, but she wouldn't let me go anywhere. She gave me the contact information for their marketing person, but I'm not sure it's worth it to contact her. The furnishings they've chosen for their lobby look mostly like budget motel, so I wouldn't have much grander expectations for the upper floors. The main staircase would have seemed freshly sparse and minimal at the time, but now looks a bit pedestrian, having not been accented properly. In other words, they've chosen to decorate in a way that feels "homey" but it sabotages the interior architecture by making it look industrial in comparison.

All text and images ©2011, Ryan Witte.