John Freeman Gill
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Goodbye to All That

At the end of this month, the Plaza Hotel will close its fabled doors so that its new owner, Elad Properties, can begin the process of converting the bulk of its rooms into condominiums and renting out new stores. Although much of the plan remains hazy, the prospect of a construction crew stomping through the Plaza's ornate entrance has provoked a cascade of personal, sepia-tinted recollections among anxious New Yorkers. As with most treasured places, it is not just the architecture and décor that people so prize, but the memories that were born there.

The new plans for the Plaza have awakened recollections of the fate of the old Pennsylvania Station, the 1910 McKim, Mead & White masterpiece, the razing of which in 1963 ultimately led to the creation of the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission.

In the 40 years since its founding, the commission has designated 1,119 individual landmarks and 83 historic districts, protecting about 23,000 fine buildings that would otherwise have been vulnerable to demolition. Among them is the Plaza Hotel itself, whose exterior, but not interior, was given landmark protection in 1969.

But in a city all but synonymous with change and growth, there will always be, rightly or wrongly, some loss of cherished buildings. In some cases, these structures possess the ability to transport us to a different, earlier incarnation of New York and, inevitably, a different version of ourselves.

Here are a baker's dozen of such places - all in Manhattan, which has suffered the greatest loss of architectural treasures - that are forever etched in the city's collective memory. All have disappeared since the demise of Penn Station, and most were subjects of controversy at the time of their destruction. They are just a sample of what has vanished.

Taken together, these lost buildings and rooms form a kind of ghost city, an island of memory that hovers above the real, evolving Manhattan. It is a shadow New York that once was and might have continued to be, had the economic and political forces that shape the city been different. It is also the only New York that is a perfect New York, for as Marcel Proust wrote in "Remembrance of Things Past," "the true paradises are the paradises we have lost."

79th Street and Fifth Avenue
1890-1965, 1905-1965, 1911-1965

Built by a clothier named Isaac Vail Brokaw, this cluster of mansions provided a grand architectural anchor for the important corner across from the Central Park Transverse. Unabashedly extravagant, the parent castle was modeled in part on a Loire Valley chateau, while the adjacent building to the north, one of a matching pair constructed by Brokaw for two sons, was flamboyantly Gothic. The mansion to the east was more restrained and classical.

The lamentations over the razing of the mansions strengthened the growing preservation movement that the loss of Pennsylvania Station had catalyzed. "The outcry was undoubtedly what at last induced the mayor to sign the law giving the Landmarks Commission legal powers," the architect Nathan Silver wrote in "Lost New York," his compendium of vanished city structures.

Broadway and 40th Street

In "The Age of Innocence," a novel of New York society set in the 1870's, Edith Wharton wrote that "there was already talk of the erection, in remote metropolitan distances 'above the Forties,' of a new Opera House which should compete in costliness and splendor with those of the great European capitals."

Indeed, when the blocklong Italian Renaissancestyle Metropolitan Opera House was opened in 1883, The New York Times fretted that the auditorium was "on a scale of possibly too great magnitude" and that its lavish interior would "dazzle the eyes." That interior, which was subsequently redesigned by Carrére and Hastings, architects of the New York Public Library, featured an elite set of boxes in an area known as the Diamond Horseshoe, which was occupied by Astors, Vanderbilts and other millionaire patrons.

Anticipating its move to the planned Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Opera gave its last performance at the Old Met in 1966.

Broadway and Liberty Street

When the gracious, 41-story Singer Building pierced the sky above Lower Broadway with its Beaux-Arts, lantern-topped tower in 1908, it was the world's tallest building — until it was eclipsed by the Metropolitan Life Tower just 18 months later. The Singer's tower occupied only a quarter of its lot, elegantly expressing the belief of its architect, Ernest Flagg, that skyscrapers should be set back, so that "we should soon have a city of towers instead of a city of dismal ravines." Demolition of the building began in 1967 to make way for One Liberty Plaza. At the time, it was the tallest building ever demolished.

Broadway and 44th Street

For sheer, unflinching grandeur, it was hard to top the Renaissance-style Astor Hotel in Times Square. The lobby had a 21-foot-high colonnade of marble and gold, while at its rear, encircled by an ornate gallery, stood the "orangerie," a reproduction of an Italian tropical garden.

As the Great White Way flourished, the Astor became the strip's most popular meeting place, its famous circular bar always populated with actors trading gossip. Cole Porter gave the locale a knowing wink with his lyrics "Have you heard that Mimsie Starr. . . just got pinched in the Astor bar?"

136th Street and Convent Avenue

From 1918 to 1966, thousands of New Yorkers poured into this colonnaded Greco-Roman amphitheater for summer open-air concerts — classical, jazz and more — that cost as little as 25 cents.

One person who remembers those events is Claudette Law, from the Pelham Parkway area in the Bronx. In the 1950's, she used to take the subway with her small son each Independence Day to watch Louis Armstrong play at the stadium, a performance that was always followed by fireworks. "I remember Louis coming out," said Ms. Law, 72, "and his wife got up once and told us his birthday was really on the first 'but we always celebrate it on the Fourth' and he was always here to celebrate it."

She added: "He was quite picturesque himself. He had his white handkerchief, and he'd just be waving it around."

But she is unsentimental about the loss of the stadium. "I was born in Harlem Hospital, and the building I was born in and every building I lived in before this one is gone," Ms. Law said.

"You can't go around missing things," she added, laughing. "Otherwise, you'll be still sitting here, missing."

West End Avenue at 81st Street
1890 -1979

The neo-Gothic exterior of All Angels' Episcopal Church was well regarded, but its interior was spectacular. Among its treasures was a two-anda- half-story Tiffany window and a pulpit ringed with limestone angels that wrapped around the banister and paraded toward the top. There, a carved wooden angel leaned out and blew his trumpet into the center of the sanctuary.

"What I would do in midweek would be to get the drums out and play them in the sanctuary," said Paul Johnson, who was a member of the church's music group in the 1970's.

"No one else was using the sanctuary at the time and so my practicing didn't bother anyone," he added. "There was a wonderful effect in the afternoon, when the setting sun, the afternoon sun, would hit the Tiffany window, which was on the northwest corner, and so it bathed the whole back end of the church in this very golden light, because there's a lot of gold and gray-blue in that window. Of course you had oak pews, and you had the red carpeting, so all of that was made more golden out of the light.

"That's one of my very special memories; that's just me being alone in the sanctuary."

43rd Street and Madison Avenue

Constructed by New York Central Railroad as an accessory to Grand Central Terminal across the street, the Biltmore appealed to lovers for decades. Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald honeymooned there so boisterously that they were asked to leave, and the Biltmore's solid bronze clock was a popular meeting place for amorous couples.

When Holden Caulfield showed up in the lobby for a date in J.D. Salinger's 1951 novel, "The Catcher in the Rye," he was struck by the crowd of young women. "I was way early when I got there," he recounted, "so I just sat down on one of those leather couches right near the clock in the lobby and watched the girls. A lot of schools were home for vacation already, and there were about a million girls sitting and standing around waiting for their dates to show up. Girls with their legs crossed, girls with their legs not crossed, girls with terrific legs, girls with lousy legs, girls that looked like swell girls."

46th Street near Broadway

When the theater opened, under the name Folies- Bergére, its vibrant terra cotta facade of gold, turquoise and old ivory instantly made it "the brightest, most eye-catching theater along the Rialto," Nicholas van Hoogstraten wrote in his 1991 book, "Lost Broadway Theaters."

For seven decades, generations of theatergoers strode under its marquee to see luminaries like Bela Lugosi in "Dracula" and Audrey Hepburn in "Gigi." But in 1982, the Helen Hayes — it had been renamed in 1955 to honor the doyenne of the American stage — it was razed along with two other vintage Broadway theaters, the Morosco and the Bijou, both from 1917, to make way for the Marriott Marquis Hotel.

The Helen Hayes and the Morosco conveyed a sense of occasion that avid theatergoers find lacking in newer auditoriums. "Theater architecture generally was designed so that the show would begin before the curtain went up," said Joseph Rosenberg, who conducts theater-oriented tours in the city. "It's like walking into a church. You walk into a church, and you get certain feelings and certain warmth and certain expectations of what's going to follow."

The Little Theater, on 44th Street, was renamed the Helen Hayes Theater in 1983, a year after the original was razed.

14th Street and Irving Place

For 100 years, the German baroque interior of Lüchow's was as stuffed as a sausage casing with oompah music, gemütlichkeit and the smell of sauerbraten. The distinguished but eclectic clientele included Diamond Jim Brady, H.L. Mencken and Enrico Caruso. Ascap, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, was formed in the restaurant in 1914, and Gus Kahn is said to have composed the lyrics to "Yes, Sir, That's My Baby" on a Lüchow's tablecloth.

"A fragrance, delicate, but not weak, and slightly male, rides the air," is how the artist Ludwig Bemelmans described the atmosphere in his introduction to "Lüchow's German Cookbook" in 1952. "It composes itself of the aromas of solid cooking, of roast geese and ducks... Through it is wafted the bouquet of good wines, and above this hangs the blue cloud of the smoke of rare cigars. This obscures the stag and moose heads that are part of the décor, along with samples of the ironmonger's art."

After the restaurant vacated the building in 1982 for a short-lived stint near Times Square, preservationists fought to save the structure, but it was razed in 1995 after a fire.

79th Street near Columbus Avenue

The synagogue was an imposing six-story structure with Byzantine influences, but for those who loved the place, the attachment was more personal and cultural than architectural. "Mount Neboh is not the Taj Mahal, and nobody says it is," Alan Towers, a neighborhood resident, told The Westsider, a local newspaper, in 1981. "I think it's unorthodox, it's odd, but so is the whole Upper West Side. In the East 60's, they would think it's an eyesore. We think it's the crown jewel of the street." In the mid-80's, the building was razed and replaced with an apartment house.

Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and 135th Street

Smalls', a rollicking 1,500-seat Jazz Age nightclub, was famous for elaborate floor shows, stride piano and performances by the likes of Fats Waller and Willie (The Lion) Smith. While some notable Harlem Renaissance nightspots, like the Cotton Club, admitted only white patrons, Smalls' welcomed both blacks and whites, who were served by singing waiters on roller skates serving Chinese food.

Vacant from 1986, Smalls' three-story building was topped with three new stories and reopened last year as a public school, which shares the structure with an International House of Pancakes.

"What's been lost," said Michael Henry Adams, a Harlem architectural historian, "is the actual physical space where the Suzy Q dance was created in the 1940's, the actual physical space where waiters delivered trays of drinks while dancing the Charleston or on roller skates, and the actual floor that they did it on."

34th Street at Herald Square

Tucked into the basement of the McAlpin Hotel, the grill was a vast, kaleidoscopically ornamented terra cotta grotto. Multicolor ceramic embellishments flowed up the thick columns and across the vaults of its ceiling, and maritime murals lined the room.

"Even the radiator grills were punctuated with beautiful ornament of ceramic," recalled Susan Tunick, president of the Friends of Terra Cotta, and the murals, she added, were "absolutely thrilling."

"You could see Wall Street; you could see early schooners," she said. "It went all the way up to the phenomenal steam liners, the big ocean voyage cruise ships."

While leading a walking tour in 1990, Ms. Tunick stumbled across evidence that the Marine Grill was being demolished. "There was a huge Dumpster outside the back of the McAlpin, filled with the room," she recalled. "It was really horrible."

After its demolition, the once splendid grotto became a storage room for the Gap. Ms. Tunick and others managed to salvage a few of the maritime murals, six of which are on display in the Fulton Street Broadway- Nassau subway station.

17th Street near Second Avenue

Antonin Dvorak, the Czechoslovak composer, lived with his family in this nondescript brick row house from 1892 to 1895, during which time he composed "From the New World," his most famous symphony. "We live four minutes from my school in a very pleasant house," Dvorak wrote to a friend in Prague shortly after moving to New York. "Mr. Steinway sent me a piano, free, so we have one good piece of furniture in the parlor. The rent is $80 a month, a lot for us, but a normal price here."

In 1991 the Dvorak house was designated a city landmark on historical and cultural grounds, but the designation was overturned by the City Council, and the house's owner, Beth Israel Medical Center, demolished it to make way for an AIDS hospice.

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