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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

09 January 2008

Losing New York: History Without Horse Sense


As Joni Mitchell sang in BIG YELLOW TAXI,

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
Till it's gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot.

Hacks and Taxis. Hmmm … maybe they call it “history,” because it’s not there any more.

I am currently lamenting the demise of the only riding stable in Manhattan. The Claremont Academy was the only game in town (although there are stables in other boroughs of NYC that rent hacks) for years, although there was an intermittent blip on the horizon when the developers of the vast Chelsea Piers sports complex opened a ring, ringside on the banks of the Hudson. But no one went, perhaps because the fees to rent a horse just to ride in an oval for an hour were too exorbitant, and that location is currently where NYC’s police horses are stabled.


So, after 115 years, The Claremont Academy, which is right on the block where I live, shut its doors, cynically telling its loyal fans and clientele that they did everything they could to avoid closing it. This is where I took my first riding lessons, learning enough skills to go out to Central Park and ride beneath the cherry blossoms. (Okay, technically we weren't supposed to do that because it was off the bridle path, but my sexy blond instructor was a marvelous rule-breaker. His credo seemed to be, "If it's a sensual experience, do it.")

Gee; they've since fenced off the cherry blossoms. Wonder why they did that! :)

I used to live about a mile and a quarter (that's the length of the Kentucky Derby, BTW) from Claremont, but also on a block that led right to Central Park, and what a delicious thrill it was for me as a historical fiction writer to hear the frequent clip-clop of the carriage horses pass right under my window as I worked. Every time I heard the hoofbeats, not only would I smile, but I would be transported to another place and time -- perhaps Georgian or Regency England, or perhaps a New York that used to be, and which is getting scarcer and scarcer as the developers take over, and reduce historical landmarks -- not only our research sources, but our local character -- to rubble. Or worse -- to condos.

Then, when I moved uptown to the same block as Claremont, I was delighted not to have to relinquish the sound of hoofbeats as well. After all, how rare is that in Manhattan!? So when the riding academy's owner announced the closure to the press less than a week before shutting its doors, I marched down the block to join the tearful protestors, fellow riders, and fellow history lovers. Rumors abounded that the owner had been offered as much as $11 million by a residential developer. Since he would neither confirm nor deny, people pretty much accepted the speculation as at least mostly true.


This is what the ring looked like when I used to ride in it:
And here is what it looks like today, as a developer makes way for a bunch of new pricy condo apartments. Oh, goody. Just what we need.


So I am in mourning for this occasionally odiferous slice of old, and now lost, 20th c. New York. Just as I mourn the loss of the old Madison Square Garden (the third one built, at 50th Street and Eighth Avenue, which we used to go to when I was a kid and my father took me to the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey circus),

Madison Square Garden (incarnation III)
and the old Penn Station, which was wayyyyyyyy before my time, but which was evidently a temple to the notion of travel, an awe-inspiring edifice.


The old Penn Station, site of the current Madison Square Garden


I wrote a mystery (currently languishing in my filing cabinet) that was set in NYC in 1947, in the post-war era of the Stork Club and high hopes, and had to go to my parents' memories, and the NY Historical Society for my research. Sherman Billingsley's legendary Stork Club, where all the glitterati went to party, and where Walter Winchell derived much of his celebrity gossip, is long gone from 3 East 53rd Street, its glamour days relegated to memory. Now, there's a place I certainly would have loved to have "researched" firsthand!


Are there any historical locations where you live that have bitten the dust? Were any of them sites you used for your research (for their facades, gardens, or atmosphere, for instance)?

8 Comments:

Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

One musn't forget the great blood bath aka the destruction of the Helen Hayes, the Morosco, the Astor, the Bijou, and the Gaiety theatres in 1982 to make way for the Marriott Marquis Hotel, one of the ugliest hotels ever built and the site of the next RWA Conference in New York.

5:51 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

EKM, did you go down and protest when they were about to tear down those theatres? I did, but I was afraid to get too close, since I didn't want to get arrested.

The Marriott Marquis is an architectural disaster, and if I recall correctly, the theatre, which was built in the lower level as a concession to the gorgeous ones they hit with the wrecking ball, is a lousy, souless cavern; and you even have to walk what feels like half a mile to find the ladies' room at intermission!

6:42 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Oh, that's so sad! A few years ago, the Compass Rose in the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco (a beautiful, redwood paneled room with floor to ceiling murals based on 18th/19th century paintings) was turned into a fancy restaurant. They painted over the beautiful murals and paneling. And a wonderful place to gather with friends for afternoon tea or pre-dinner or post-theater drinks in gone.

I went to an RWA conference at the Marriott Marquis in the early 90s. The elevators got so overloaded by the volume of traffic that my friend and I had to carry our luggage down 34 flights when we left.

7:23 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I think I was still in high school back then, and considering that I had to lie to my mother every time I went over to my boyfriend's, by telling her I was studying in the library, somehow I don't think being caught on camera protesting would have been a good idea!

And yes the theater at the Marriott Marquis is pretty shabby in the sense that there is no real lobby area, since it's in the hotel, and the bathrooms are also out in the hotel area. Very poorly designed. Ah where is the modern day Stanford White when you need him?

7:25 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Ohhh, Tracy, the Compass Rose sounds like it was so beautiful. What are people thinking??

And speaking of Stanford White ... the building on 22nd Street where he entertained Evelyn Nesbit on his red velvet swing, collapsed a couple of months ago into a heap of rubble. If it had been better preserved to begin with ...

Then there are the Plaza Hotel's fabulous public rooms, banquet rooms, and legendary restaurants (Palm Court, Oak Room, Oak Bar, and Edwardian Room -- the last of which was unfortunately redone some years ago) that were subsumed into Elad Properties' new only-a-sheikh-can-afford-to-live-there condo/hotel complex. They're supposed to leave a few of the marvelous historical spaces intact, but they want to lease the areas for commercial shops, so that means you'll likely be having a half-caf macchiato at the Starbucks Palm Court while trying on Lucky Jeans in the Oak Room. It's heartbreaking. Eloise must be plotzing.

I had a drink in the Oak Bar with a friend shortly before they closed down the Plaza for its rape ... I mean renovations ... and confess that I liberated the glassware. I considered it an act of historic preservation!

They're shutting down the historic Pierre Hotel for "renovations," too. I hope they don't end up trashing the marvelous Rotunda (where I have enjoyed many an afternoon tea), with its famous mural of 1960s celebrities (Jackie Kennedy, Andy Warhol, etc.) painted by Edward Melcarth.

7:40 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

At least they've kept the lovely Bemelman murals at the Carlyle and the King Cole mural at the St. Regis. Thank god for small favors. I'm sad about the Edwardian Room, but they had the worst afternoon teas there. It's like they couldn't even be bothered anymore.

That's so sad about the Compass Rose, Tracy. It's exactly the type of place that I would have loved to have gone to this summer while at the conference.

I just wrote a post about Evelyn Nesbit and Stanford White over at Scandalous Women. How sad that building where such decadent goings on has disappeared. It's like that chunk of Chumley's falling down.

7:53 AM  
Blogger doglady said...

I don't understand a society that values so called progress to the detriment of the monuments of the past. Maybe that is why I love the little town where I live. Wetumpka is used by many movie companies because it has changed very little in the last 100 years or so. Oh, the perimeter has grown up into the typical ugly urbanity, but downtown is still an elegant, sleepy little town stretched along the banks of the Coosa River for a summer nap that never ends. Several of the antebellum homes in town are kept in pristine condition and most of the interior and exterior scenes from The Grass Harp were filmed in them. Of course every town has its cretins. An old couple up the road from me lived in a 100 plus year old farm house. When they passed away the kids sold the property and let the fire department burn down the house as an exercise. I have pictures of it before the fire and after and I have been going by every day and "rescuing" bricks from the two fireplaces and the rest of the house to use in the English garden I am creating on my property.

7:40 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Your prospective garden sounds wonderful, doglady!

How can we learn from history if we wipe out all trace of it? It's a rhetorical question, I know.

I love visiting cities like Venice and Bath that have entire areas barely touched by 20th/21st century architecture. I feel at home in those places. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for indoor plumbing and central heating ... but I feel like the beauty and majesty of the great homes, elegant municipal buildings, and grand hotels has been lost on the past few generations of architects. NYC is full of soulless, unimaginatively designed boxes, with more of them being built every day, with no acknowledgment, or at least an homage to what we've lost in the process.

8:15 PM  

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