Book review: Photos bring into focus contrast between 1920s, present-day NYC

By Sara Polsky | September 15, 2009 02:19PM

A selection of photos from Richard Berenholtz’s New York Deco, from left: 40 West 40th Street, 181 Madison Avenue and the old GE tower. All photos copyright Richard Berenholtz from New York Deco.

The most recent real estate boom brought New York City eye-popping real estate prices and loans that still haunt developers and building owners.

An earlier economic boom in the 1920s, followed by another devastating bust, produced the opulent Art Deco designs of many existing New York City skyscrapers.

These buildings are highlighted in New York Deco, a forthcoming book of photographs by architect-turned-photographer Richard Berenholtz. The 130 photos (see a few samples, above) are accompanied by quotations from famous New Yorkers who lived in the city in the 1920s and 1930s.

The mosaics, murals and sculptures that adorned the city’s Art Deco buildings are particularly striking in contrast to the stalled construction fears and architectural scale-backs that have marked New York City over the past year.

Berenholtz’s photos do a good job of showing meaningful architectural details far above eye level or too intricate for a rushing pedestrian to notice. A photo of the Chrysler Building, for example, highlights the building’s gargoyles that are shaped like radiator caps, hood ornaments and hubcaps.

Other buildings’ features focus on nature rather than industry.

At the Chanin Building, at 122 East 42nd Street, a frieze above storefront level tells the story of evolution. The architects of 55 Central Park West used a darker red for the base of the building, gradually building upward with paler materials, so that the sun always seems to be shining on the building.

Many of the quotations, from Cole Porter, Frank Lloyd Wright, Thomas Wolfe and others, add to the sense that the buildings were constructed during a lighter, more joyful time.

“These skyscrapers, who belong to a brotherhood of giants, help each other to rise, to prop each other up, to soar until all sense of perspective disappears,” as Paul Morand said, a quotation juxtaposed with a photo of the American Standard Radiator Building at 40 West 40th Street.

Berenholtz’s photos provide a survey for anyone interested in 1920s architecture or Art Deco design, though experts might not find much here that is new or detailed. The photographs and quotes are also, more generally, a reminder to New Yorkers of how beautiful and creative the city’s buildings can be.

“I have looked down across the city from high windows,” Ezra Pound said, a quotation that accompanies one of Berenholtz’s panoramas of the city skyline. “It is then that the great buildings lose reality and take on magical powers.”

New York Deco, Photographs by Richard Berenholtz, Welcome Books, $19.95, 157 pages