Classical New York: Discovering Greece and Rome in Gotham ed. by Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis and Matthew M. McGowan
Lamenting lost haunts is a regular past-time for long-time walkers in New York City. Favorite streets are palimpsests of personal reference and, often, of loss and commemoration: where once a favorite bar, now a frozen yogurt shop, [End Page 236] where once a beloved bookstore, now an array of ATMs, where once friends congregated, coders now cluster in temporary work-spaces. For the walker in New York City who is also a student of classics—whose memory is inhabited by an idiosyncratic catalogue of various monuments of Greece and Rome, experienced in books or in situ—Classical New York: Discovering Greece and Rome in Gotham serves to deepen and sometimes chasten—or, at least, set in perspective—melancholic attachments to the lost sites of personal experience. Other and deeper layers of significance and re-interpretation, of commerce-driven loss and transformation, emerge. If lost haunts remain lost, other sites gain layers of resonance; one's catalogue of presences and appropriations thickens. As with the best studies of classical reception, perspectives are lengthened and variegated— and one's own dialogue with the city and with antiquity gains complexity.
The editors, Macaulay-Lewis and McGowan, have gathered an illuminating set of studies of the reception of Greek and Latin antiquity within the architecture and art of New York City from 1830 to 1940, with an especial emphasis upon the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The nine chapters of the volume (plus an "Introduction" and a concluding "Reflections") include familiar topics and sites—Old Pennsylvania Station, the antiquities collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the sculptures of Rockefeller Center—as well as lesser known buildings—Gould Hall in the Bronx—and buildings now lost or never built. While some essays focus closely on the details of a particular building's history and iconographic program, other essays foreground historical and social context; the individual essays, each of which is deeply researched and thoroughly annotated, effectively complement each other. Classical New York has been edited with evident care—and even its price is reasonable.
For this reader, Allyson McDavid's meticulous study of "The Roman Bath in New York: Bathing, the Pursuit of Pleasure, and Monumental Delight" was especially engaging. McDavid looks beyond the (often studied) influence of the Baths of Caracalla and of Diocletian upon Old Pennsylvania Station and the New York Public Library to the abundance of actual bath-houses in New York City in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Intercutting architectural and social history, McDavid's account of the thermae of New York City illuminates their origins in philanthropic concerns for the urban working class, their aspiration to articulate the civic values of an emergent metropolis, and—most interestingly—the ways in which individuals found less prescribed pleasures within their pools and recreational spaces. John Ritter's fine essay on "The Expression of Civic Life: Civic Centers and the City Beautiful in New York City" likewise articulates a tension between classically inspired ideals—the democratic, anti-individualist, anti-capitalist tenets of the City Beautiful movement—and the demands and contingencies of commerce and local politics. Ritter's account of the vicissitudes of bringing into being a Civic Center inspired by classical—and later, Enlightenment—principles of discourse and community is a case study of how ideals founder amongst the exigencies of money and real estate. It is but a very small imaginative step to move from Ritter's account of the Civic Center project of the early twentieth century to the newly opened Hudson Yards, where the meticulous plans of commerce have obliterated any claims of collective life.
In Matthew M. McGowan's chapter on the use of Latin inscriptions in New York City, he tells the very funny, very telling story of a faulty inscription on the façade of the New York Academy of Medicine: ACADEMIA MEDICINAE NOVA EBORACENSIS. Though the error was noticed early on, the Academy president refused the funds to fix the inscription, secure in his belief that few would recognize the error. The Latin inscription itself, even if gibberish, would [End Page 237] be enough to attest to the august status of the Academy. In contrast to this account of "Classics" as an empty signifier of power, Classical New York features a variety of other, more vibrant uses of the classical tradition, most often in tension with the imperial, commercial imperatives of the emergent metropolis. The history that emerges is valuably complex and presently alive.