“As I Stood There, ‘Twixt Earth and Sky”


The Empire State Building has been named by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. The building and its street floor interior are designated landmarks of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commissionand confirmed by the New York City Board of Estimate. Designed by Gregory Johnson (reputedly, in two weeks!!!) and his firm Shreve, Lamb and Harmon, built by Starret Brothers and Eken, financed by John J. Raskob (creator of General Motors) under the chairmanship of Alfred Smith, former Governor of New York, the building was constructed in a little over a year and officially opened on May 1, 1931.

Unfortunately, its opening coincided with the Great Depression and this resulted in most of its designated office space remaining unrented and the building unprofitable. Critics began calling it the “Empty State Building” and derided it as a white elephant. Visitors to its observation decks were the Empire’s State Building primary source of revenue for its first years of operation; this would continue to be the case, more or less, until 1950.

Within less than six years, over 3,000,000 people from all over the world had visited the building’s two observatories: the broader 86th floor gallery and the primary 102nd floor tower. There are many stories regarding these first visitors to the Empire State Building and the following are only a handful.

An experienced pilot and his wife. She was terrified of flying and had never set foot in an airplane but when she reached the gallery she took-off with abandon; when she ascended the tower, she was soaring with fascination. The view from 1,250 feet of New York City and beyond enthralled her so, that she even wanted to climb the mooring mast (a misguided and abandoned extension to the tower for dirigible landings) for an even better view. Meanwhile, her aviator husband, who had flown thousands of miles around the world, was terrified by this static height and stood inside the terrace’s glass-enclosure.

One day the King of Morovo in the Solomon Islands (soon to witness some of the bloodiest fighting of World War II) arrived. His name was Kata Ragoso, a giant chieftain with a kinky jounce of hair and bare legs beneath his wildly colorful apparel. His like had never been seen on Fifth Avenue before…at any altitude. Oblivious to the curious stares of others, he abandoned himself to his delightful viewing of the city: drawn out like a tapestry before him, the stream of automobiles and ships moving diversely on streets and rivers, gleefully chuckling and excitedly commenting on various sights in his native language.

A young Mexican girl who had come to New York from Texas, staying with a family in Brooklyn. She was glib towards most of the sights of New York City until she came to the top of the Empire State Building. She trembled with emotion and began to cry, not uttering a single word until she returned to the home where she was staying. She tearfully remarked that she’d “rather live in Texas…everything here is so towering it frightens me.”

Two great men stood atop the Empire State Building one overcast day in 1932 and conversed for the press: Alfred E. Smith and Winston Churchill. Smith, as chairman of the project, had made the Empire State Building’s creation and future plans a personal crusade and would talk with anyone who would listen, tirelessly endeavoring to rent its empty office space and show a profit. Some beneficial moments of national and international public relations were always welcome.

In the course of their casual talk, Smith and Churchill shared views and impressions of what they observed. “I can’t see the Statue of Liberty,” Churchill mildly remarked. “You can on a clear day,” answered Smith. “Ah, quite so, quite so, ” Churchill agreed, “the Statue of Liberty does seem to be in a bit of a fog, what.” As the talk proceeded, Churchill said that he had “never been so high up before.” To which Smith replied, ” And I don’t suppose I shall ever get any higher myself.” Alfred Smith would remain a legend in New York State, while Winston Churchill would go on to be a legend for the world.

Of all the visitors to the Empire State Building’s aerie heights, no single person captured the majestic view and grandeur of the building with more intensity and passion than Helen Keller. Rendered deaf and blind as a child by an affliction (possibly meningitis), she was still able to see and hear with the heart of a poet. In a letter to Dr. John Finley, she wrote as follows of her visit:

What did I “see and hear” from the Empire Tower? As I stood there ‘twixt earth and sky, I saw a romantic structure wrought by human brains and hands that is to the burning eye of the sun a rival luminary. I saw it stand erect and serene in the midst of storm and the tumult of elemental commotion. I heard the hammer of Thor ring when the shaft began to rise upward. I saw the unconquerable steel, the flash of testing flames, the sword-like rivets. I heard the steam drills in pandemonium. I saw countless skilled workers welding together that mighty symmetry. I looked upon the marvel of frail, yet indomitable hands that lifted the tower to its dominating height.

Let cynics and supersensitive souls say what they will about American materialism and machine civilization. Beneath the surface are poetry, mysticism and inspiration that the Empire Building somehow symbolizes. In that giant shaft I see a groping toward beauty and spiritual vision. I am one of those who see and yet believe.


Sources: Atop the City’s Great Peak by Julia Chandler; NY TIMES, January 17, 1937

Churchill Is Guest Of Smith On Tower; NY TIMES, February 10, 1932

Wikipedia & related links


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Keep Them Dogies Movin’

The latest marvel of yesteryear to captivate scholars and historians today: “cow tunnels.” What, you may ask, in heaven, hell and New York City is a cow tunnel? While a few individuals know what they are (were, I should say) no one is certain that they actually existed here.

Apparently in the 1870s, with a growing population presenting a growing demand for meat, cattle traffic had become increasingly heavy. To expedite the process of conveying cattle to the butchers and, hence, to the dinner tables, a tunnel was built at 12th Avenue and 34th Street in Manhattan where most of the slaughterhouses were situated.

There’s one reference to the tunnel from 1997, when author Brian Wiprud wrote about “watching a crew install a drainage basin on Greenwich Street when they came upon a wall of wood about ten feet down. A laborer went into the hole with a torch and came out saying it was an oak-vaulted tunnel ten feet wide by eight feet high that trailed off an undetermined distance in either direction. It was then that an old man from the neighborhood stepped up to the trench and said, ‘Why, I see you found the cattle tunnel!”

Not to be deterred by vague allusions and flimsy evidence, the Gothamist dug through Google Search’s illuminating if bewildering pathways; just when they were about to resign themselves to coming up empty they came up with a PDF.

Dated 2004, it contains a correspondence from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation “assessing the architectural and cultural uniqueness of the cattle tunnel. On page 73 of the document it’s stated that “The Manhattan Abattoir had a dock at the foot of West 34 Street in the 1870s, and cattle were brought to their slaughterhouse between Eleventh and Twelfth Avenues beneath the streets via a cow tunnel….”

The document lists two historical underground cattle passages from the 1870s that are listed as still being in existence, one at West 34th Street and another at West 38th Street, both along 12th Avenue. And in 2004 the agencies noted, “Given their potential distinctiveness as some of the few remaining subsurface features representing the 20th century meat industry in Manhattan, if intact, the cattle tunnels may meet the criteria for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.”

More could be found on cow tunnels: Brian Wiprud’s (Tribeca Trib, June 1997) “Bum Steer” and at Edible Geography.

Source: The Gothamist

The Bitter To The Bitter End?

I’d like to thank New York City Feelings for reminding me that The Bitter End, NYC’s oldest rock club, is still alive…and, I would hope, somewhat well and perhaps still rocking. In fact, it was designated a landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission on July 23, 1992. Time and tide, and associated eventualities, often caused me to lose track of some of my favorite haunts from bygone ages–The Bitter End being one of them.

Nevertheless, like me, a rather stoic antiquity in the depths of Park Slope, Brooklyn, the Bitter End is also stoically weathering its own state of antiquation in Greenwich Village, Manhattan. Nostalgically situated on Bleecker Street, a street trodden by creativity in all its various incarnations, the club was opened in 1962 by Fred Weintraub. But it was Paul Colby, Weintraub’s booking agent and manager, who was destined to make The Bitter End legendary.

Colby had worked as a music publicist for such giants of the music world as Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra and Duke Ellington; he later did production work for the like of Miles Davis and Tony Bennet. He possessed an extraordinary sense for the music business; a talent for determining the infinite nuances of music trends and popular tastes. He took over ownership of The Bitter End in 1974 and, for 24 years, guided the club through one of America’s most eclectic if erratic social revolutions; quite successfully, the club went from hip bistro to cultural mainstay.

With Theresa Sareo at The Bitter End, NYC

Major albums by such stars as Peter, Paul and Mary, Randy Newman, Curtis Mayfield, Arlo Guthrie, Tom Paxton, Pete Seeger, The Isley Brothers and the Serendipity Singers have been recorded live at the Bitter End. Continuing in that tradition on May 16, 1996, Tommy James recorded his latest Compact Disc, Tommy James’ Greatest Hits: Live from the Bitter End proving that this is one nightclub that does not take refuge in the past.

“The best play at the best,” says owner Paul Colby and while it is true that some, like Bob Dylan, will probably not come again; and some, like Harry Chapin or Tim Hardin or Phil Ochs tragically can never come again, the Bitter End is still, at 147 Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village, waiting for that next star to light up the skies. History of The Bitter End

However, you can’t go home again, no matter how hard you shake, rattle and roll…even if it’s to a club that’s attained landmark status. I doubt if anyone (including the proprietors) guessed that The Bitter End would’ve been around until the bitter end. Most of the musicians that I saw perform there are either gone (like Harry Chapin and Phil Ochs) or (even worse) attempting to prolong a now senescent career.

Whereas competing clubs, like the Village Gate and Folk City, inevitably yet dignifiedly resigned themselves to dust, my spies tell me that The Bitter End has resigned itself to mediocrity: nondescript bar bands cranking out insipidity, etc. Then again, most of today’s clubs are composed of nondescript bar bands…why not go to The Bitter End, perchance to catch the faint murmuring of legendary sounds reverberating off its walls?