December 09, 2003

At the beginning of November my pal Walt, who lives in Phoenix, spent a long weekend in New York, two days with a friend in Morningside Heights, two days with Lloyd and me.  (He has asked that I refer to him as “architectural consultant Walt Lockley,” because, uh, that’s who he is and what he does, but Walt, honey, I can only do it once, or else this post will need a whole ‘nother paragraph.) Walt is not only an architectural consultant, he is an architecture fiend. The phrase “encyclopedic knowledge” gets bandied out much too frequently, in my opinion, but Walt is one of those rare examples of the form defined. Everyone should have a Walt in his/her life. It’s not just that he has fascinating stories and informational tidbits at his fingertips; when he points out interesting facades, sconces, details, he makes you want to learn more. When he encounters something on which he hasn’t read extensively (trust me,this is rare indeed), he doesn’t think twice about going on the building tour. Going out to lunch is now filled with new observations; I look up, I peer at a ledge at this grand old building on 52nd and Lexington (Walt, what is that building? Never mind, I’ll look it up in the AIA Guide!), and wonder at who had the bright idea to put so many rococo pieces on such an Art Deco-ish building. It is because Walt went on the Grand Central Terminal tour that he learned that the famous main concourse ceiling, which was cleaned in a massive and controversial restoration project just a few years ago, has a tiny piece that was left uncleaned, so that anyone who can find it can marvel at how dark and filthy it used to be, and how deep-blue and beautiful it is now. It is because he told me this that I now look for it every night on my commute home. I check to make sure I am not cutting off the flow of traffic, I stop, I look up, and I feel better somehow for having spotted it.

One of the spots he asked to visit was Rockefeller Center. Now, as a midtown worker bee, and one who works just blocks away from Rockefeller Center at that, I viewed his request initially with trepidation. There is almost never a time when Rockefeller Center is not teeming with humanity, particularly ever since the Today show moved into the studio with the picture window. (If you are a traveler to New York City who either visited or plans to visit Rockefeller Center so that the NBC cameras will capture you waving your “Hi Mom!"/"Hi, Katie, Matt and Al!"/"Hi, Texas!” signs, welcome to New York. No, really, we are glad to see you, we know you could have spent your vacation anywhere, I will be glad to give you directions to the subway and I’ll throw in a recommendation for a nice place to have lunch. Just please, please, please remember that while you are standing 12 deep on the sidewalk, I need to get to work. If the NYCTA is up to its usual shenanigans, I am probably late for work. I recognize that you are all very cute, but I am not in a mood to appreciate your cuteness right now.) It only gets better at Christmas, when the Rock Center Christmas tree is lit, and the ice rink is open. Of course I took him there, because it was the only thing he specifically asked for on that day. I crossed my fingers, hoping silently that the throngs of people visiting the NBC Experience store, taking the virtual NBC Studios tour, would not render our visit painful and headachy.

Silly me. I needn’t have feared. Those throngs weren’t interested in the lobby of the Associated Press building, and most of the people at our ultimate destination building, the GE Building, a/k/a the RCA Building, a/k/a 30 Rock, were headed to the NBC store. Walt, on the other hand, was much more interested in checking out the wall murals, which were conceived as a paean to industry and technology as our steppingstone to a Cleaner, Brighter, Better Future. There is nothing quite like the sight of painted gods, 30 feet high, giving birth to airplanes. This is Big Art. Sadly, the one piece of Big Art we would have really liked to see was Diego Rivera’s famous mural, in which Lenin is depicted as a Really Super Guy, while John D. Rockefeller Jr. is shown sipping a martini underneath an ellipsis containing pictures of venereal disease germs. Apparently John D. was not impressed, because he ordered the whole thing painted over. You would think that anyone who allowed gods to give birth to airplanes in his lobby would have more of a sense of humor about this, but there you are.

Before we left, Walt asked if we could look at the mosaic over the Sixth Avenue entrance to the building. I still can’t believe that I worked across the street from this mosaic for over a year and I never noticed it. It is another piece of Big Art, made from over a million tiny tiles. Because it depicts Big Ideas, I feel like I should give it some big, writerly thoughts, but I can’t. It’s just too damn funny.

The mosaic in question was designed by an artist named Barry Faulkner. He was the best friend of another artist with a Rockefeller Center commission, Paul Manship. Faulkner’s vision was to depict Thought as a god, saving the proletariat from the evils of Ignorance, Poverty, Cruelty and Fear, depicted as green coppery wraiths being flung into fiery pits. Said fiery pits are on each end of the mosaic. Averting their eyes from the pits and toward the winged seraphim beckoning them are two pairs of what are meant to be average working-class men and women (it’s the overalls that give it away). The seraphim are assigned names such as “History,” “Religion,” “Drama,” “Politics,” etc. They are all watched over by two angels, department supervisors, apparently, one named “Written Words” and one named “Spoken Words.” Between them is the big boss Thought, of indeterminate gender but dressed rather like the Virgin Mary. We are not talking about subtlety here. This mural ate subtlety for breakfast. The New York Times art critic Edward Alden Jewell said as much when he wrote:  “I have been trying to decide where, in the wide, wide world, this acre of mosaic might make a nice spot, but for the life of me I can’t...As a work of art it is one of the most inept, graceless, empty pieces of mural decoration I have ever seen,” although he did note that at lease the tiles appeared to be cemented correctly.  (Credit for this should probably go to the Ravenna Mosaic Company of Long Island City, Queens, though.) *

The best part of this mural, at least to me, is that three of the seraphim in Spoken Word’s department are named Philosophy, Hygiene and Publicity. (A-ha! So she didn’t just make that up!)

Why, yes, there are photos. See right.

If you have a friend like Walt in your life, keep him, or her, close to you. If you don’t, find one as soon as you possibly can. You have no idea how much fun you will have until you do.

*I found this quote in a new history of Rock Center called Great Fortune:  The Epic of Rockefeller Center. It is written by Daniel Okrent, one of the best and most readable historians extant. In his hands, it is fun to read about rich old plutocrats. We are lucky to call ourselves his contemporaries. Get it at the library, or better yet, ask for it as a winter-holiday-of-your-choice gift.

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