In the 1950s Robert Moses, New York’s bully-boy developer (a familiar type in these parts), had a suggestion for citizens who objected when he razed their neighborhoods: “Go to the Rockies,” he told them, implying that city life is bulldozers, cranes, and scaffolding and to resist them is to resist being urban and modern.
Moses notwithstanding, modern life in New York has plenty of allure but its pleasures do often seem to me tinged with sadness. The new captivates us even as its undertow is the loss of so many buildings, shops, and streetscapes that were once familiar and dear. For someone caught in the crossfire of these conflicting emotions, certain city landmarks acquire symbolic weight. The Park Avenue Armory, site this month as it has been for many years of the Winter Antiques Show, is, for me, one of them. And not just because it is huge, fairly old…and still here.
The armory strikes me as a wonderful amalgam of history and modernity, open to transformation and careful of the past. Its history is suggestive: it was built for the silk stocking Seventh Regiment with money contributed by many of the city’s grandees; its initial purpose was not to prepare for foreign wars or invasions but to quell the domestic strikes and riots that came in the wake of a depression and threatened the status quo of the Gilded Age. In that sense and in its neo-Gothic architecture it looked back. But the interiors that were commissioned from Louis Comfort Tiffany, Stanford White, and Herter Brothers were right up-to-date in their peacocky flash and filigree.
Some of these rooms have been restored recently under the Park Avenue Armory Conservancy, some will be restored, and some have been reinterpreted. And while this has been going on the Wade Thompson Drill Hall has become the most versatile art space in the city, a gigantic canvas where Peter Greenaway can stage cinematic projections of Leonardo’s Last Supper, where Ann Hamilton’s multimedia installation “The Event of a Thread” allows us to participate in the art of our time, and where the Winter Antiques Show returns each year to suggest that we can move forward by going back, and that New York is not, or not always, a city where all that is solid melts into air. The armory is a triumph.
This issue is, I hope, also a triumph and similarly nimble in keeping us attuned to the fruitful intersections of past and present, from the vast treasures of Newport to the history of southern portraiture, to fine collections of American furniture, Western saddles and spurs, and African art. An issue, like the drill hall, big enough to contain multitudes and intimate enough to spotlight individual masterpieces.
Beyond all of this I want to draw your attention to our tribute to Wendell Garrett who died on November 14 and is very much missed here and in the world of art and antiques. There will be a celebration of Wendell’s life at the Winter Antiques Show on January 28, 2013 at 10:00 a.m. at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City.