Mets-Willets Point LIRR station. In the top left you can see Titan II and Atlas rockets, remnants of the 1964 World’s Fair.
Mets-Willets Point LIRR station. In the top left you can see Titan II and Atlas rockets, remnants of the 1964 World’s Fair.
When I first came to Beacon, New York two years ago, it was this building that lived with me. It was this building that asked me to come back.
Proudly, it dominates the end of Main Street. The former Mechanics Savings Bank is typical of the grandiose, Neoclassical architecture you see in banks across the USA built before the 1930s (as a side note, this reminds me I must soon go back to Columbus, Indiana: a city that helped rewrite the twentieth century banking architecture of America).
Its entrance archway is over three storeys high: taller than any building near it. The architecture tells you that this building is here to stay. That your money is safe with the Mechanics Savings Bank. It will be here forever.
But architecture is rooted in its time—look at the medallions at the top to either side. A muscular worker’s arm is wielding a hammer. It screams of the early decades of the twentieth century. We’ve since become so accustomed to seeing this kind of symbol on Soviet buildings that we regard it almost as a cliche of socialist architecture. And yet here it is, on a bank in the United States. It may seem odd to us, but this kind of decoration was commonplace in the USA. Think of Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals (1932-33). You can even see reflections of this style in the statue of Atlas in front of Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center.
The Mechanics Savings Bank wanted its customers to believe it would be there forever. But it wasn’t. Construction on the bank started in 1928 or 1929, shortly before the Stock Market Crash. Just a few years later, the bank ceased to exist: in 1935 it merged with the Matteawan Savings Bank, forming the Beacon Savings Bank.
Some time around 1960, the building was bought by the Star of Bethlehem Baptist Church and has since then been used as their place of worship. What was once a bank has found new life as a house of god.
Mechanics Savings Bank
Address: 139 Main Street, Beacon, New York
Walking through Beacon, New York I saw this ghost sign—the faded remnants of an old advertisement. I didn’t jot down the location, but I think it’s on the side of 398 Main Street (home now to Roosa and Roosa Law). It reads:
I think the white block below it has another word in it, but I can’t make it out.
Another remnant of the old Beacon, before it declined in the mid-twentieth century (and later reborn as an art centre), I wanted to find out more about Joseph O’Grady.
I found this in the September 15th, 1922 edition of The Plumbers’ Trade Journal:
The large contract for the plumbing work at Marianist College has been given to Joseph O’Grady of Beacon, N.Y.
In all, I found a good few references to Joseph O’Grady from the 1920s to 1931, which is when the sign was probably painted. At just the time I stop finding references to Joseph O’Grady in Beacon, I find one for “Joseph O’Grady Plumbing” in Far Rockaway in 1932. I’m guessing this is a coincidence—it’s an awfully long way to go, and there were many people with Irish names in that area. I also found a few Joseph O’Gradys in upstate New York.
While I wasn’t able to find out anything more about Joseph O’Grady, I was able to find out a little more about his family. He was married to Alice and they had a son, Joseph born in 1916. Joseph practiced medicine and moved to Kansas in 1961. Joseph junior passed away in 2006.
Joseph O’Grady Ghost Sign
Address: 398 Main Street, Beacon NY
Beacon, New York is a strange town. Today it’s a quiet, artsy town with the Dia:Beacon art gallery at its core. Even twenty years ago it was a different place. A former industrial centre, its manufacturing base had collapsed. The city was a mix of faded grandeur and industrial architecture. Often right next to each other.
For instance, this coal silo stands immediately behind a church from 1869. It’s hard to know which building overshadows the other.
Though the silo is rusted and derelict, the plot of land is clearly still used.
The whole town is like this. Two entirely different towns occupying the same physical space. Maybe that’s why I’m so attracted to Beacon.
Derelict Coal Silo
Address: Tioronda & Van Nydeck Aves, Beacon, New York
Hours: Visible 24/7
Flanders, New York, on Long Island is home to this fantastic store in the shape of a duck. An early example of American “giant things” architecture (yes, that’s the technical term), it was built in 1930-31 by Martin Maurer as a shop to sell his ducks and duck eggs. Made out of concrete, it was designed to look like the local Long Island Duck (only much, much bigger). The duck was moved to Flanders from Riverhead in 1937. It’s moved a couple of times since then and is now back in Flanders.
The duck is a classic of novelty architecture and I was excited when I finally got the chance to see it. What better opportunity to try out my new camera and new lens? As it turns out, it would have been better to have practice using my new camera beforehand. Low light + no tripod + inexperienced user = blurry pictures. This is the best of the bunch.
the sad fact is that America’s Suburbia is now functionaly, esthetically and ecnomically bankrupt.
Blake talks about the “placeless” and “uglification” (itself an ugly word. Irony noted, Mr Blake) of American suburbia. And in the middle of this argument, guess which building he uses as an example of this? That’s right, this very Giant Duck.
Why on earth did Peter Blake have it in for our poor duck in particular? As it turns out, he lived next door. I imagine it chapped his hide every time he drove by.
Eight years later, Robert Venturi (whom I shall never forgive for the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London. Clever use of Brunelleschi’s aesthetic, sure, but at the same time a regressive and dreary building) wrote Learning from Vegas (1972, revised 1977). Responding to Blake’s discussion of the Long Island Duck, Venturi uses it as one of his two central examples and celebrates the duck as a “valid” form of architecture:
This kind of building-becoming-sculpture we call the duck in honor of the duck-shaped drive-in, “The Long Island Duckling,” illustrated in God’s Own Junkyard by Peter Blake
As a result of all this “duck” has become the standard architectural term for a building that is a symbol for something else. So, reviled and admired, the Long Island Duck is that rare piece of roadside architecture that has found its place in architectural history.
Long Island Big Duck
Address: Big Duck Park, Flanders Road, Flanders NY
Hours: Visible 24/7, Store open 10-5 Mo-Sa; 1-5 Su
The First Day of Spring, 2013
It’s been spring for a week, but at last it feels like the first day of spring. After a long winter, I walk through Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens, New York City and I hear birdsong. People jogging, cycling. Kids playing soccer. A cool, March sun wakes the world up again. I feel happy and relieved.
Walking down Book Row, Fourth Avenue on Manhattan. You’re after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s new novel, The Great Gatsby. It got good reviews, but no one’s buying it. You smile to yourself when you reach Chapter 2 and the description of the Corona Dumping Ground in Queens:
About half way between West Egg and New York the motor road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land. This is a valley of ashes — a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens … But above the gray land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic — their irises are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness, or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days, under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.
April 30, 1939
The New York World’s Fair opens. City Planner Robert Moses cleverly got the New York World’s Fair Corporation to pay for the conversion of the Corona Dumping Ground into Flushing Meadows Park, site of the World’s Fair. Paths laid out, a gigantic lake. So many sites to see.
It opened months before the outbreak of World War II.
The Fair lost money and the park was left unfinished. Buildings were demolished or left to fall down. Robert Moses’ plans for a grand park in Queens had failed.
October 24, 1949
President Truman is present at a ceremony laying the cornerstone for the new United Nations headquarters. Architects for the General Assembly building are Le Courbusier and Oscar Niemeyer. Between 1946 and 1951 when it has no home, the General Assembly meets in various locations, including the abandoned New York State Pavilion in Flushing Meadows Park.
April 22, 1964
Gates open for the second New York World’s Fair to be held at the Flushing Meadows-Corona Park (“Corona” had been added to the park’s name that year). He wanted to finish his park.
Kennedy had been assassinated five months before. In a little over two months’ time, President Johnson will sign the Civil Rights Act. By the time the Fair opened for its second season in 1965, American troops were on the ground in Vietnam.
As with the 1939 Fair, after two seasons, the pavillions were broken up and the exhibits either destroyed or scattered throughout the world. And, just as in 1939, the Fair lost money.
The First Day of Spring 2013
I longed to see this park for years. To see the remnants of two World’s Fairs. I am searching the country to find as many of the scattered remnants as possible. But this is the epicentre. Most buildings are long gone. But enough remains for it to be interesting… some still in use, others abandoned. The park still feels half-finished. Incomplete.
The photograph at the top shows the Unisphere as it looks today, centrepiece of the 1964 World’s Fair; behind it is the last remaining building from the 1939 World’s Fair, the New York State Pavilion. In a series of posts, I am going to share with you some the things I found in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park: their stories, their decay and their history.
This is one in a series of linked posts on the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs. Follow this link to see the others.
There is a fracture in New York City. Walking down a shabby little alley in TriBeCa, you look to the side. A tiny room. Open doors. A small, but perfectly formed museum.
The woman sitting by the door notices you, welcomes you in. She is sitting in front of the gift shop (a shelf with pencils, badges and neatly folded tshirts) and the coffee shop (a K-Cup dispenser). You part the transparent plastic curtains and walk inside.
If the Museum feels like you’re in an elevator, it’s because it was built at the bottom of an elevator shaft in an old factory. The alley doesn’t feel safe, but once the curtains fall back behind you, you’re in a quiet space. A misplaced museum of misplaced objects.
Over at We are the Market Alex Kalman, one of the Museum’s creator’s, explained the motivation:
For us Museum is a collection of modern day artifacts. We love how much you can learn about societies around the world by looking at their small cultural output—not necessarily as creative as art but their products. We like thinking of these objects as proof of story or existence, when you’re face to face with an object you can’t deny it. We love cultures creating. We try to remind people of the value of things by putting them into the mmuseumm.
A museum of found and collected objects. It has a permanent collection, including a shoe said to have been thrown at President Bush in 2008 and a terrifying immersion water heater from Lithuania. There’s a collection of photographs rejected from a Cambodian restaurant menu, three electric razors owned by Al Goldstein (owner of Screw magazine), soap bars carved using a pencil by a murderer while on death row.
Just looking at the hundreds of items in this tiny little space, that isn’t enough.
You call up a number and punch in the code by each item to hear its story. Everything has a story. Some are brief, some lengthy, some terrifying, others hilariously funny.
As you look around, a couple more people arrive. The guard advises that the museum is full and that maybe they should walk around the block or grab a coffee before coming back. The museum is full when three people are there.
That’s the blessing and the curse of the Museum. It opened in the summer of 2012; it’s open weekends 11am-7pm; the rest of the time you can view the items (and call up the number) through viewing windows. For as long as it remains a small, misplaced home for objects with unique stories it is one thing. A moment of beauty, the highlight of any visit to the city.
But can it last? I hear more and more people talking about Museum. I’m one of them too. We’re all urging you to go. It was even featured in Time Out New York. Soon I’m picturing a long line of people waiting, drumming their fingers, to get in. The sense of discovery I felt at finding this place and the leisurely time I spent on the phone listening to stories… it won’t be the same.
The Museum is beautiful and absurd. The most refreshing museum I’ve visited in years. I want you to see it. By seeing it, we may change it. But you have to go. Oh, and treat yourself to a little something from the gift shop while you’re there: we want it to be around for a long time to come. Whatever that looks like.
Address: Courtlandt Alley between Franklin and White Streets, TriBeCa, NYC
Hours: 11am-7pm Saturday and Sunday, visible 24/7 through the windows