Monday, July 7, 2014

Dracula's Denizen

Photo by Ingfbruno, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
My childhood romps through Central Park in New York City often took me up a steep incline to the summit of Vista Rock, where craggy, creepy, crumbly old Belvedere Castle ominously hulked over me, convincing me beyond any reasonable doubt that Count Dracula dwelt therein. 

(The towering citadel was actually used as the castle of "The Count" on Sesame Street in its pre-restoration days of decrepitude, which suited his batty ways to a T.) 

But the old haunt's weather-beaten door was always barred to me, dashing my hopes of meeting the venerable vampire in the flesh.

Photo by Jesse Richards
Now revamped as the Henry Luce Nature Observatory (named for TIME Magazine's founder), the castle has opened its door, inviting families to see not bats in the belfry, but birds in the Belvedere. 

Photo copyright © by
The observatory has a collection of bird feathers and skeletons and other natural history artifacts for young ones to scrutinize with a scientist's eye through the on-site telescopes and microscopes, which introduces them to the scientific method by which naturalists observe the world, draw conclusions about its inner workings, and share their insights with the community.

Photo copyright © by
Upstairs, papier-mâché reproductions of species of birds often observed in Central Park perch on a plywood tree, piquing family curiosity about what's really flying around out there, encouraging families to watch for the real things from the Romanesque double window or, better yet, the castle terraces overlooking Turtle Pond (below) or along the Ramble just below the great gray bastion.

Photo by Daniel Schwen, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Jesse Richards
Always nature-centered in its own right, Belvedere Castle was constructed in 1871 of gray rock-faced granite and the park’s native schist — a layered crystalline rock as unique to Manhattan as Roxbury puddingstone is to Boston — as a semi-natural outgrowth of Vista Rock, Central Park’s second-highest natural elevation. 

Architect Calvert Vaux and sculptor Jacob Wrey Mould conceived the towered, arched granite edifice as a Romanesque-Gothic folly providing a romantic overlook onto the park’s picturesque scenery — Turtle Pond, the Ramble, the reservoir (now the Great Lawn) — hence its name, Belvedere, which means “beautiful view" in Italian.

Archival photo by Maya Romanoff
Built as a shell with open portals and unglazed windows topped by Mould’s bronze sculptures of bat-winged cockatrices, the castle was enclosed as New York’s Weather Bureau Station in 1919. For the meteorological equipment, the tower’s conical slate roof with copper cresting and flagstaff was replaced by “more martial ghost-walk battlements." (M.M. Graff, The Men Who Made Central Park, 1982) Weather data have been collected there for local reports ever since. 

So whenever TV or radio meteorologists announce, “The temperature in Central Park is…”, that figure comes from the castle in the air.

Courtesy of Central Park Sunset Tours
But when the Weather Bureau Station relocated to Rockefeller Center in the late 1960s, the castle was closed to the public and besieged by decay, neglect and vandalism. Neon-streaked graffiti marred its crumbling walls, weeds sprouted in its eroding mortar, and vandals pushed away sections of its surrounding walls. 

Photo courtesy of Summitas, LLC
But the danger that posed didn't stop my ornery, foolhardy fourth-grade classmate Richard July from insisting we climb all the way up there during our afternoon sports period. 

"But the sign says, 'PLEASE KEEP OFF'!" I cautioned. 

"Aw, who cares about an old sign!" he retorted as he gave me a shove—subconsciously wanting to push me over the cliff with the old walls, perhaps.

In the end we didn't take a tumble into Turtle Pond, but we got chewed out plenty by Mr. Dietz, our sports teacher, for defying his peremptory order, "No wandering off by yourself!", for boldly going where no man was allowed to go, and for nearly breaking our necks (or getting them bitten by Drac, whichever you believe).

Photo courtesy of New York Architecture (
But the humor turned to pathos in 1975 when I read in The New York Times a sad story about Belvedere's besiege, described much the way I did above while presenting plans for its renewal. Times critic Paul Goldberger pronounced it "a near ruin" in his 1979 guide to the architecture of Manhattan, A City Observed: New York.

Photo courtesy of I Do New York
Photo courtesy of I Do New York
The mighty fortress was on the brink of collapse when the Central Park Conservancy rescued this damsel in distress in 1983. Its restoration included reconstruction of the original tower roof and colorful wood terrace pavilions from their extant foundations, which brings more depth and dimension to the pedestrian's visual experience of the castle by showing how precisely Vaux framed views of the park, the city and the tower itself with the lace-collared terrace columns. 

Furthermore, Belvedere's renaissance was just in time for its use as a filming location for the 1984 Merchant-Ivory film The Bostonians, based on Henry James’ Victorian-era novel, starring Vanessa Redgrave and the late Christopher Reeve of Superman fame.

By Karen Johnson, courtesy Creative Commons
Drac may have flown the coop, but its eeriness lingers: every Halloween, the cockatrices signify it as the “Spooks at Belvedere” haunted castle. Other free family programs there include storytimes with the Princess of Belvedere Castle, stargazing and birding programs. 
Photo by Jim Henderson

Photo by Wally Gobetz, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
A birdwatcher’s paradise, Belvedere’s terraces are pristine places to observe egrets (above), hawks, kestrels, osprey and other ornithological exotica. The Nature Observatory’s Discovery Kits, containing binoculars, maps, guidebooks and notepaper, let children make their own scientific discoveries about the Ramble’s birds or Turtle Pond’s amphibians, reptiles, insects and shoreline plants, including lizard's tail, bulrush, blueflag iris, turtlehead... and, speaking of which, don't forget the pond's namesakes...

Photo by Larry Hedrick, courtesy of
Henry Luce Nature Observatory at Belvedere Castle in Central Park, New York City, is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is free to all. For more information, call (212) 772-0210 or contact

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Portland's 'living room'

Photo by Cacophony, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The more congested and stressful city life becomes, the more we long for that “village square” that was so central to our city’s beginnings — the great open, common space where neighbors shared the latest news, children and dogs played, merchants traded, politicians spoke, demonstrations and festivals took place, concerts were enjoyed, and citizens stopped for a breather from the day’s tensions — before urban growth and rising land values often obliterated this oasis.

Photo by Steve Morgan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Luckily, Portland, Oregon, has revived it as Pioneer Courthouse Square, a 1.56-acre brick pedestrian respite from city clamor with something for everyone: trees, flowers, public art, chessboards, café, food and flower vendors, amphitheatre seating, and a waterfall cascading down a dual sculpture of domino-like granite blocks into a moat. 

Photo courtesy of
This frames the “drawbridge” entry into the Portland Oregon Visitor Association’s Visitor's Information Center, where tourists receive endless info about the city, state and square, and where Portland’s public transit agency Tri-Met offers route schedules and trip assistance for the city’s buses and Metropolitan Area Express (MAX) light rail trolley system. Planned in conjunction with the development of MAX, the square also contains Portland’s main bus/rail hub.

Occupy Portland with the Pink Martini Orchestra, October 26, 2011.
Photo by Ray Terrill, courtesy of
Attracting some 26,000 Oregonians daily, Pioneer Courthouse Square hosts events as diverse as its design elements: spring’s Festival of Flowers, summer’s Sand in the City sandcastle contest, a winter holiday tree- lighting and band concert, and year-round health fairs, movie nights, performances, rallies, speeches and vigils, for which the two amphitheatres are made to order. 

Photo by Noliver, courtesy of Wikimedia
Photo by Cacophony, courtesy of Wikimedia
Monumental columns simulate classical temple ruins in tribute to the amphitheatres’ Greek origins. Artworks along the column row celebrate the city’s history and rainy climate, including scenes of Portland past and present and J. Seward Johnson’s bronze statue of a man offering his umbrella (left). The Weather Machine, a 33-foot ball-topped metal column (right), announces tomorrow’s weather daily at noon with trumpets, flashing lights, a mist spray, and the emergence of a gold-leaf sun, silver great blue heron or copper dragon from the ball to proclaim fair weather, cloudy or drizzly conditions, or rainstorms, respectively. Like a mercury thermometer, a stack of lightbulbs on one side of the machine lights progressively upward as the temperature rises. 

Image courtesy of Portland Public Schools.
As befits any common space, public input shaped Pioneer Courthouse Square from the start. It was the site of Portland’s first public school, Central School, from 1856 until railroad tycoon Henry Villard purchased the land in 1883 to build his 17-story Portland Hotel, capitalizing on the Northern Pacific Railway’s arrival here

Dedicated in 1890 with majestic chateau roofs and turrets, the hotel was Portland’s social center, a fashionable place to wine, dine and recline, until the Great Depression hastened its demise and it was razed in 1951 for a parking facility (below). (A cast-iron gate from the hotel stands on the square’s eastern side as a memorial.)

Photo courtesy of
A plan to clear the site for public use was proposed in the early 1970s, and in 1975 Mayor Neil Goldschmidt negotiated with the Meier & Frank department store to sell the lot to the city for that purpose. In 1980, the city held a design competition for a new public square.

Photo by Bruce Forster, courtesy of
Portland architect Willard Martin’s design team was chosen from 162 candidates. The project, however, sparked opposition from Mayor Frank Ivancie and local business owners and nabobs, on the grounds that a new public square would attract vagrants.
Photo by Bruce Forster, courtesy of

But this resistance was overcome when city commissioners Charles Jordan and Mike Lindberg led the “Friends of Pioneer Square” citizens’ coalition in raising $750,000 from the sale of 50,000 donor-inscribed bricks to save the $7.3 million project from back-burner oblivion.

The 2011 Christmas tree at Pioneer Courthouse Square. In the background is the historic
Meier & Frank Building
(1909-1932, Doyle & Patterson et al.), which now houses Macy's
department store and "The Nines" hotel. A MAX light rail train passes by on SW 6th Avenue.
Photo by Steve Morgan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Pioneer Courthouse Square was dedicated on April 6, 1984, before a crowd of 10,000 welcoming Portland's new "living room" with great aplomb. Since then, Pioneer Courthouse Square Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, has managed the park in public-private partnership with the city, through which local business owners sponsor public events in the square year-round.

Among the best attended events were then-First Lady Hillary Clinton’s 1994 appearance, which attracted a record 55,000 people. On June 27, 2006, about 8,500 fans cheered the Oregon State Beavers as the 2006 NCAA College World Series Baseball Champions. On July 14, 2009, comic Dave Chappelle performed before a joyous throng of 8,000 to 12,000.

Photo by M.O. Stevens, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
And yes, the square’s namesake still stands beside it. Built between 1869 and 1903 from an Italianate design by Alfred B. Mullett, the cupola-crowned Pioneer Courthouse is the Pacific Northwest’s oldest extant federal building and the second oldest federal structure west of the Mississippi River. It houses the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

U.S. Post Office and Subtreasury, Post Office Square, Boston, completed c.1885, razed 1929.
Photo courtesy of the National Archives.
Incidentally, Mullett also designed Boston's original French Second Empire U.S. Post Office and Subtreasury (c.1885), where the U.S. District and Circuit courts for the District of Massachusetts met until the building was razed in 1929 for the present-day Art Deco John W. McCormick Post Office and Court House. Mullett's edifice also gave rise to Post Office Square, making it a model for Portland to follow 100 years later.

City Hall Plaza, Boston, in 1973. Photo courtesy of the U.S. National Archives.
Conversely, Pioneer Courthouse Square has become a model for Boston in the sculpturally creative use of brick and granite to set up a public arena for diverse activities, resting places, conversation pieces and landscape textures. Which explains why so many more crowds are drawn to it than to City Hall Plaza. 

So what about Boston's 'living room'?
Thank you for visiting. I welcome your comments!

Friday, June 13, 2014

Attic baths: cramped, or creative?

Having once roomed under a roof and made do with facilities not much roomier than the tent I holed up in at Boy Scout camp, I can relate to those loath to confine their bath to attic-level. 

However, the images below show how an attic's gables, pitches and dormers — as well as the odd, quirky spaces they form — open up endless creative potential for the reimagination of your bath.

The sky's the limit

Courtesy of
Courtesy of
The slopes clearly set the limits on cubic footage for these baths, but in doing so they become an asset for light and the illusion of limitless space. The double skylight hovers over the tub in the Prague bath at left, letting users sunbathe while they bathe without peeping-Tom embarrassment. The running skylight cut into the roof's ridge floods light throughout the Danish bath at right, offsetting its triangular "tent" confinement, with help from the linear placement of the tub, vanity and commode along the edges and the shower at center to max out headroom and elbow room.

Courtesy of
Courtesy of Swatt | Miers Architects,
The twin skylights and twin windows at left bask the shower in sunlight, virtually vanishing its glass barriers and broadening the bath's spatial sensation beyond its attic confines. The perpendicular tub/shower placement yields more floor area, and the grayscale palette neutralizes the glare but keeps the atmosphere buoyant. At right, the roof's shallow slope empowers the skylight as a "skyroof," giving guests at the Tea Houses in Silicon Valley, California, the next best thing to bathing out in the open. The deck-like plank floor and bare concrete walls add to the outdoorsy feel.

Courtesy of
Courtesy of
These skylights make the shower a separate experience from the rest of the bath. You step into a splash of light — a cheery alternative to the average dark shower stall where you can't find the soap — and get a "sun-shower" that can help you dry off faster at high noon! The skylight at right shines through the shadow of the rafters and defines the width of the shower for greater elbow-room than the average attic shower stall. Glass block sheds additional light on your cleansing, making you forget you're in an attic.

Glass and brick

Courtesy of
Here the common attic features of industrial skylight and chimney actually shape the shower of the master bath in this loft master suite. The shower stall is structured around the chimney that goes through the skylight, emphasizing the solid-void contrast of the two elements and shedding light on your shower experience so the chimney doesn't cast a shadow on it. The brick wall the chimney grants the shower also gives you a bit of the feeling of bathing on Beacon Hill.


Courtesy of
Here the tub not only gets the splash of light it deserves, but the light source is compatible with its recipient in terms of curves and contours. The "eggshell" tub (and matching bowl sink) is customized to fit under the eyelid dormer, for a real eye-opener to sinuous sex-appeal in attic bath design. The common white finishes light up your eyes further as you walk in to soak in the sun and soap.

To each its own

Courtesy of
Here's where tub, shower and floor each gets its own skylight, for an all-around sunbath that makes the attic shine rather than shadow. The yellow wall treatment intensifies the sun as it shines on your soak, scrub, shower, shampoo and shave. The gable also adds quirky roof dimensions to the shower, making it feel like home in itself.
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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The bath: from functional to fantastic

The New Architecture throws open its walls like curtains to admit a plenitude of fresh air, daylight and sunshine. 

Instead of anchoring buildings ponderously into the ground with massive foundations, it poises them lightly, yet firmly, upon the face of the earth, and bodies itself forth, not in stylistic imitation of ornamental frippery, but in those simple and sharply modeled designs in which every part merges naturally into the comprehensive volume of the whole. 

Thus its aesthetic meets our material and psychological requirements alike.

— Walter Gropius, The New Architecture and the Bauhaus, 1925

This was especially true in the bath, which Gropius limited to the bare-bones basics and confined to the bare-minimum galley space it needed to meet his family's fundamental needs. These baths in Gropius' 1938 house in Lincoln, Massachusetts, which he designed as his residence when he was professor and later dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, show how the industrial aesthetic of his Bauhaus School does meld into a unit. The consistency of black linoleum, chrome metal, white porcelain and curved edges forms the bath as a purely functional but adequately comfortable place to get in, get clean, and get out. For a "stylistic imitation of ornamental frippery" would tempt people to linger longer in the loo, captivated by the cosmetic eyeful, keeping other people waiting.

Photo by Cliff, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Frank Lloyd Wright had a similar idea for the baths in the Usonian Houses he designed as back-to-nature, back-to-basics homes for his less well-to-do clients. This bath at the 1941 Pope-Leighey House in Alexandria, Virginia (for which Wright reduced his fee when the construction costs jumped), is also reduced to functional and spatial essentials. But the added touches of red brick, Tidewater red cypress finished in clear wax, and a concrete floor painted in Wright's trademark Cherokee red (radiant-heated by hot water pipes) give the space a warmer, friendlier, more nature-calming experience than the antiseptic, metallic impersonality of Gropius' lavatories. Yet Wright's finishes are still simple enough not to tempt the eye to gawk at the beauty, follow the details-within-details, and detain the bather.

Back to nature?
Sadly (or happily?), today's baths snub the Masters' minimalism to become comfort castles overflowing with enough eye-grabbing aesthetics and body-bounties to make you never want to leave the lav. 

Yet some still want to feel natural, like this one, which flaunts the knots in its pine, the beams in its ceiling, the stones in its stairs and floor (and fireplace!), the wood-finish in its water-jet hot-tub, and the calculated window-view of evergreens and mountain ranges to make your bathing experience seem back to nature — though Mother Nature has fooled you this time by not providing these materials for free like in days of old. For the chandelier gives away the wealth spent on this, as does the gas fireplace that warms your towel-down after you (finally) get out of the tub.

Photo by Don Cochran, courtesy of Holmes, King, Kallquist & Associates
Abraham Lincoln could never dream of this kind of log-cabin luxury, which gives the rich the illusion of roughing it. 

Here the logs are more ornamental than structural and functional, never letting you lose sight of the "natural" wonder of those ringed cross-sections, hatchet-hews and bark-scars as you water-jet yourself soft and clean in the soaking tub, which is simply crafted so as not to distract from the subdued natural effect. 

The variegated brown floor and shower tiles continue the woodsy, cavernous feel into the shower, but in a way that removes you further from Lincoln's struggles for survival, especially when you step into the shower's vast glassed space and turn on the massaging showerheads and steam-jets.

Photo courtesy of
Here's an attempt to reconcile Wrightian naturalism with Gropian functionalism. 

This bath combines the rustically erratic stacked fieldstone of the former (making rock's natural contours your steppingstone to your bath!) with the factory-processed glass block of the latter. 

The conventional floor and wall tile smooths out the composition as a mediator between these nature-vs.-machine polarities while providing a compatible contrast of its own: good old black-and-white.

However, opposites do have commonalities here. The wobbly texture of the glass bricks is simpatico with the rugged roughness of the stone, and the grays of the aluminum and the stones do jibe agreeably. And the common theme of the grayscale throughout the bath is the ultimate unifier here.

Photo courtesy of
This takes the stone a step further, organically evolving the tub and shower out of existing ground-rock, bringing them back to their tidal-pool and swimming-hole roots. The wood-plank ceiling is a fine curvilinear complement to the contours of the rock-tub, keeping the scene natural and fluid, like the water and the rock it shaped over eons.

Photo courtesy of
This bath "rocks" with nature, reframing the shower as the rain and the waterfall that were its origins. The stacked stones evoke nature's erosion of ancient ruins. The nature views (through one-way glass, hopefully) bring the real thing into the picture, so "it's like taking a shower in Ireland," as Irish Spring Soap jigged on the radio in the '70s.

Photo courtesy of
Totally dissolving its picture window, this one brings us one step closer to nature, the way it "throws open its walls like curtains to admit a plenitude of fresh air, daylight and sunshine" even more than Gropius' baths could do — to the point of giving the bather the ultimate "public bath," hence a risk of embarrassment upon emerging from the tub should hunters or horseback riders happen to approach from afar. 

The white porcelain bowl-tub theme repeats itself admirably as twin bowl-sinks designed to appear detached. The knotty wood vanity brings more nature inside, while the mirror-doors on the medicine cabinets expand the effect of the box-burst into "light, space and greenery" of nature beyond the galley confines of the bath.

The result is a balanced compromise between nature and manufacture, neither one upstaging the other.

Simple and sharp
Gropius' vision of "simple and sharply modeled designs" can go beyond the pragmatic into the stylistic, as this combo of clean lines, rich textures and curved forms shows. Frosted sea-green glass, woodgrain veneer, Carrara marble and pearly-white porcelain calmly complement the soothe of the bath, contrasted by the big-city vibrancy of the view.
M Lab-The Country Home,
Linc Thelen Design,
In fact, simple sharpness is transcendent to many styles, from a modern contrast of tinted glass membranes with solid wood planes (left) to classic subway- tile walls where a clean glass-and-metal framework emphasizes the grout lines.

'Ornamental frippery'
Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of
Compare that to these showers of excess: classical columns, relief carvings, silken swags, frilled pleats, milled panels, marble floors and light crystals make up a 'plumbing plus' spectacle only Gropius and Wright would want to get out of.

A fine line
Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of
By contrast, these baths do as the Victorians did: tone down the trim for just enough elegance to confirm your standing in society but not so much visual detail as to tempt you to wear out your welcome in the washroom and keep others waiting. 
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