A Delicious Period in U.S. Architecture
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Beekman Place began to emerge as an enclave of rich bohemians around 1920. At first, it was anything but quaint and quiet, as it is today, but noisome with industry and tenements, like Sutton Place to the north. River House, all the way east on 52nd Street, is not on Beekman Place, but partook of the same wave of riverfront redevelopment. This apartment building, one of the city’s handsomest, rose in 1931 on the former site of a cigar factory and a furniture factory.
River House does not seem to us today to be, strictly speaking, a riverfront building, because it is separated from the water by the FDR Drive.The drive, however, wasn’t built until several years after River House opened. In its early years, River House was indeed a riverfront building, with its own dock for the use of the building’s yacht-owning residents and of the yacht-owning members of the exclusive River Club, housed in the building. From the club, it took the newspaper and departmentstore tycoon Marshall Field III but 35 minutes by yacht to his home in Port Washington, Long Island.
Henry Hope Reed, who included River House in his survey “Beaux-Arts Architecture in New York,” pointed out that River House was the setting of Sidney Kingsley’s 1935 play “Dead End,” made into a movie in 1937 by director William Wyler. “Dead End” shows us the rich and the poor living side by side in an area only halfway emerged from slums to exclusive residential neighborhood; while the rich docked their boats on the riverfront, slum kids swam in the East River.
The wave of gentrification coincided with a delicious period of American architecture and design. Many of the best buildings had some of the jazzy panache we associate with Art Deco, without necessarily being Art Deco. They partook of a light and airy classicism, a style well-served by the neo-Georgian details on the facades of River House.
The architects of River House were Bottomley, Wagner & White. One of the great American architects of the 20th century William Lawrence Bottomley was born and bred in Manhattan, and attended Columbia before heading to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
But we associate Bottomley with Virginia, where he designed scores of houses, including 20 still standing in Richmond. Virginia’s contribution – Bottomley’s houses, Ellen Glasgow’s novels – seems somehow emblematic of the fragrant breeze of beauty that swept through American architecture, interior decoration, women’s clothing, popular song, and prose style from the 1910s to the 1930s, providing models we might do well to emulate today.