The Theory and Practice of Architectural Ecstasy: A Visit to New York’s Park Avenue Armory

by Seth Joseph Weine
Fellow of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America

Photos by ICA&CA Member Pamela Johntson

Seth Joseph Weine

How come nobody’s talking about architectural ectasy?

Oh, we’ve recently heard from some design bards about “pleasure” and “happiness”—and I recall a book with the cutely provocative title, Thermal Delight In Architecture. Once-in-a-while, one even hears a design described as “sexy,” but it is mainly used as a term of escalated praise, akin to “cool.” But “ectasy”?—no, I don’t think it comes up much in design literature.*

Indeed the trend in architectural writing has, on the whole, been in the opposite direction. In the last couple of decades, academic trendophiles have produced a plethora of ahedonic gobbledygook they’re calling “theory”—remember all that joy-crushing deconista language about “the gaze”? And how about those long whiney disquisitions with p(art)s of words br(ok)en up with b[racket]s and (parent)heses? Future readers will find these texts as inaccessible as we now find Middle-English. Well, perhaps that’s no great loss.

By architectural ecstacy, I mean those moving experiences produced by an intense encounter (usually unexpected) with a masterful design work.

You’ve all, I hope, had some. Victor Hugo’s chapter on the design of Notre Dame (in that Hunchback novel) ends with such powerfully rising energy that it could be so described. For Schutze, it must have been his saturating immersion, while a student, in the oeuvre of Baroque Rome. I’ve heard that Mies experienced one when he finally saw an American I-Beam (as contrasted with the awkward structural steel profiles available to him in old Europe). And Pope never seems to have gotten over his love-at-first sight infatuation with the Ionic capital of The Theater of Marcellus—he returned to it again-and-again over decades of design output. For Jefferson, I think it was encountering skylights on his initial trip to France (he was so thrilled, that when he came back he immediately installed 287 of them in Monticello). Philip Johnson’s lectures were always delightful: he’d vividly recount peak architectural encounters during his wide travels—and judging from Francis Morrone’s lectures, he’s had nothing but such experiences! [Ditto for David Garrard Lowe.] An architecture school-friend of mine, touring Casa Mila, tried to convey the pleasure he felt, saying that he could not believe the gift that Gaudi had offered up for his eyes. And another student tried to convey her heightened experience in Chartres Cathedral: “I don’t know if God exists—but if he does, this is his address!” Among mine: coming face-to-face, at age 12, with a pristine white Bugatti Royale; the first time I studied the plates for Chambers’ Casino at Marino; a senses-exploding first few days in Rome; and gazing down on the grand stairs of the San Francisco City Hall, as they flowed lava-like over the main floor’s Pantheon-patterned stone paving grid—those stairs were alive!—and I was almost in tears.

To this list, I now have an addition: Manhattan’s Park Avenue Armory, seen during a recent ICA&CA tour.

Veterans Room by Louis C. Tiffany, Associated Artists

You know this post-Civil-War building, designed by Charles William Clinton (later a partner in the country’s most prolifically successful firm you’ve never heard of: Clinton and Russell). Indeed you could not miss it, as the Armory occupies the full-block spanning Lexington & Park Avenues, between 66th & 67th Streets. The front and rear facades (facing the avenues) are martially strong brick fastnesses. They bookend the mid-block body of the building: a vast barrel-arched hall—once primarily used for military muster & drill, and now familiar to most of us as a venue for art & antique fairs.

The Armory’s exterior, with its functionally articulate shell, is one of the jewels of Manhattan architecture—but it is while exploring the interior where the aforementioned architectural orgasms come in. And yes, that’s a plural, for the interiors are many, varied, and each richly stimulating. Every exciting and prominent interior designer of the day—a small army of them—was involved, not the least of which were Tiffany, Stanford White, and the Herter Brothers. Who would have thought that the militarily-minded leading families (who led and funded this silk-stocking regiment when erecting this headquarters) would go in for the most energetically exotic styles: no-holds barred Moorish, Art Nouveau, Celtic, Eastlake, and Robber-Baron Victorian-Opium-Den-Classical. It looks like a hot dream of pere Bugatti—but the Armory’s designers were working a generation before that master, and at a scale (and budget) that he could only have dreamed of.

We’re talking about room-after-room done up in varying modes, luxe materials & carvings, lofty ceilings, crazy-wonderful gigundo light fixtures, all overlaid with a fine collection of militarily themed mementos and artwork. And where else in New York will you see double-height columns enwrapped in chains, or Guimard-like ironwork flowing through a locker-room?

Mary Divver Room (originally a ladies reception room) by Herter Brothers

Hallways and Staircase: George C. Flint & Co.

Hallways and Staircase by George C. Flint & Co.

The Drill Hall

The Drill Hall of the Park Avenue Armory

But that’s not all. As the final leg of our visit, we were brought onto a balcony overlooking the grand space of the drill/exhibit hall. Really now, “grand” is not the word. From this elevated point-of-view, the space is so pulling, so lifting, so surprising in it’s expanse (even after the splendid and sizable rooms one has just been through), that, upon entering, you just go “AHGHHH!” I’ve heard of certain deep natural ravines where the view is so seductively compelling that—even though it would be self-annihilating—one wants to dive into them. This space had something of that.

HISTORIC RECEPTION ROOMS PHOTO GALLERY

DOWNLOAD THE INTERIORS GUIDE

Very special thanks to the Armory’s historian Kirsten Reoch, our learned guide, and to Pamela Johnston for use of her photographs taken during the tour.

The Institute gratefully acknowledges Hilton-VanderHorn Architects for sponsoring our Discover Classical New York tours this season.


* To be fair, Tzonis & Lefaivre’s book on Classical Architecture does have a sensual moment. Ok, its on page 37. And I suppose the recent attention to (and translation) of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili should be put in the assets column.

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