Published by Safe-T-Gallery Inc.
Don Burmeister: Owner/Editor
Barbara Confino: Associate Editor
Documenting local architectural history from 1640 to 1967, the New York Landmarks show at the Historical Society presents 90 black-and-white photographs of buildings from all five boroughs. Consisting almost entirely of exteriors, matted and typically about eight inches high, the images line the walls of a generously proportioned hallway next to the principal paintings gallery.
While significant mostly as straightforward records of the landmarks, many images demonstrate a special sensitivity to the art of photographing buildings. A practiced use of light, shadow and framing highlight key details, textures, masses and volumes, helping to bring these buildings to life as individual objects occupying three-dimensional space. (Of course, the viewer should understand that black and white compositions, which stress the opposition and gradations of light and dark, do not necessarily show the balance of forms of the same things seen in color.)
As I scanned the long walls of the installation, certain ones seemed outstanding. The most successful exterior shots show the building at an angle from the street as in the Highbridge Woodycrest Center in the Bronx, or the Whitehall Building, a pre-World War I grouping near Battery Park. The use of raking light to bring out the recessed forms of doorways, windows and cornices is well demonstrated by photos of the 1853-1881 Joseph Papp Public Theater. And in the High Gothic Revival St. Patrick’s Cathedral, opened 1879, seen from the southwest with its thicket of crockets and various other protruding parts, its south tower (completed a decade later) to the left, a glass office tower looming in the background to the right. But especially striking with a low running horizontal shadow from an out-of-frame wall to the right is the stark Brooklyn Clay Retort and Firebrick Works Storehouse from 1860 in Redhook. Further, the Little Red Lighthouse from 1880, now relocated to Fort Washington Park, is notable for the way light from one side washes over the curvature of the tapering silo-like form and how the encircling fence of narrow vertical iron bars juxtaposes with its delicate and form-embracing shadow.
Most striking among the half-dozen or so interior landmarks is the symmetrical, nicely cropped photo of the 1930-1931 auditorium at the New School of Social Research with its concave formation of layered bands above the arch surmounting the stage, prefiguring the interior of Radio City Music Hall. Finally, simply as an architectural record, the most unusual example may be Marcel Breuer’s trapezoidal 1956-57 Begrisch Hall at Bronx Community College.
An explanatory panel for each image gives the architect, dates both of construction and significant changes, and the date landmarked. The text is thorough, providing an explanation of each building’s architectural style, its original and current use, along with the occasional helpful comment about other aspects such as façade color and materials. Photo credits are included.
All images in the New-York Historical Society show are taken from Diamonstein-Spielvogel’s book, The New York Landmarks. This selection, from a photographic trove of some 1,290 individually designated landmarks, was curated by Dr. Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, who helped establish the New York Landmarks law and found the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and who was also its longest serving commissioner. An opening panel states that the photos were taken between 1967 and 2011.