Where New York City puts its best foot forward
`THAT enfabled rock, that ship of life, that swarming million-footed, tower-masted, and sky-soaring citadel that bears the magic name of the Island of Manhattan.'' Thomas Wolfe's description of the heart of New York City in his novel ``The Web and the Rock,'' published in 1939, could have been written today. How does one get to know a city of this immensity?Skip to next paragraph
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A good start is to take a walking tour.
On any given weekend there are a variety of guided walks offered by organizations, companies, and individuals. Several are listed in New York Magazine under ``other events,'' or in the New York Times on Thursdays and Fridays. In addition, the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau gives free information on all aspects of the city, including companies that provide custom-designed walks.
One Saturday, after consideration of all the choices - Soho's Shops, Firehouses of Lower Manhattan, Movie Stars' Homes of the West Side, Murray Hill's Historic Landmarks - I joined the group tour to see the Art Deco buildings of 42nd Street.
The tour began in front of the Daily News building. After paying the $8 fee, collected by the Art Deco Society of New York, we split into two groups.
Our guide, Kyle York, explained the criteria necessary for a building to qualify for the Art Deco classification. It was perfectly illustrated by the Daily News building in front of us: Craning our necks skyward, we saw that it rose 16 stories from its base, then the mass was gracefully cut back to a quarter of the lot size. This became the requisite ``free-standing tower.'' Windowless stretches of brick, alternating with sections incorporating glass, added significantly to the necessary vertical feeling of zooming straight up.
An intricate design on the fa,cade of the building looked as if it had been cut by a laser beam. The sides were ornate as well - a characteristic of Art Deco structures. The style, mainly derived from Cubism, also borrowed elements from Aztec, Mayan, and Egyptian architecture.
Next, we visited the famous silver curves of the Chrysler Building. Mr. York told with enthusiasm how this shining, elegant, rocketlike structure met Art Deco standards. ``Certainly, there is no problem understanding this is a free-standing tower, because they got the corner site. It's what all the Art Deco architects wanted. If they couldn't get it, they'd make it happen by cutting in an alley or doing a little bit of trickery to fool the eye.''
Mr. York, charging across busy streets with the bravery only seen in a New York native - temporarily leaving a few timid types behind - led us to look at 10 Art Deco exteriors in all. We also visited several lobbies - when the doormen granted special permission.
York said the lavish detail so apparent in the construction of these buildings was affordable only because of the skilled immigrant artisans who came to the United States before the 1930s, when the style was popular.
After a few stops, we turned our attention to what was once the ``tallest building in the US,'' the Empire State Building. York told us wonderful stories about how the edifice got its ``hat,'' or very top portion, designed by architect William Lamb. He also told us about the B-25 bomber that crashed into the tower in 1945, during a blackout. Then he pointed in the opposite direction: 500 Fifth Avenue is almost a mirror image - without the top - and thus is nicknamed the ``Little Empire State Building.''
Three-and-a-half hours after beginning, we finished the tour with the original McGraw-Hill Building, unusual because of its green color. This is attributable to a tinted terra-cotta exterior. The interior is reminiscent of the old Flash Gordon movies, with lights circled with several parallel metal bands, like cylindrical Saturns.