the glass slipper of Bryant Park

Reporting my two Chelsea stories last week, I had cause to learn about the Bank of America’s new tower at One Bryant Park, as I prepared to talk to Jared Gilbert and Alice Hartley of architecture firm Cook+Fox about green buildings. (The BOA tower is slated to earn a “Platinum” certification from the U. S. Green Building Council). Turns out that given the site, near the park that 30 years ago had a seedy rep (so much so that we thought this movie was set there), the architects reached back much further: to the 1853 World’s Fair, when New York decided to best London and build a Crystal Palace.

As I said to a colleague, “That’s all a history slut like me needed to hear.” I spent far too much time reading about the building, designed by architect George Carstensen. It filled what is now Bryant Park with nearly 40,000 square feet of glass, 1,250 tons of iron and 70-foot columns supporting its central dome. Walt Whitman, still in his exuberant “Manahatta” phase, wrote of the result, which supported all that glass with 19th-century iron:

… a Palace,
Lofter, fairer, ampler than any yet,
Earth’s modern wonder, History’s Seven out stripping,
High rising tier on tier, with glass and iron facades,
Gladdening the sun and sky – enhued in the cheerfulest hues,
Bronze, lilac, robin’s-egg, marine and crimson
Over whose golden roof shall flaunt, beneath thy banner, Freedom.

I spend a lot of time writing about newer glass behemoths in this rapidly changing city, like Renzo Piano’s Times Headquarters or Jean Nouvel’s haute condo complex in Chelsea. The closest they get to such poetry is New York Times architectural writers exulting about Nouvel’s “undulating glass wall.” Which is to say, not so close. I wonder if Dostoevsky, who cites the London version of the palace as among his spurs to renounce modernism in favor of dour religious fundamentalism, would have been even more offended by this glass temple of commerce in the Babylon of Manhattan.

He likely was not surprised in 1857, when — in the middle of the annual fair of the American Institute — the building’s “fireproof” wooden/iron frame smoldered and snapped, its glass shattered and melted. (Made me think a little of the recent wave of glass flying to the ground, from the Times building and other glass towers.)

I wonder if Cook+Fox has paid extra attention to that fire as they designed One Bryant Park. Or if somewhere in their minds, in between such laudable goals as energy efficiency and air quality, they hearDostoevsky’s ghost warning that all glass carriages need to be put away at midnight.

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