Tuesday, December 18, 2007

I’m Dreaming of a New York Christmas Part 2

This the second part of a three part post, part 1 is here.

Offices of all sorts line the street. I point to the wreaths hanging on the buildings. Wreath however is a pallid word for these adornments. A wreath is in our minds 18 to 36 inches in diameter and made of fir branches. That some of these are constructed of evergreen branches is the only point of comparison. To show as anything but a token acknowledgement of the season when mounted on massive buildings, the wreaths have to be on a similar scale. Are the smallest four feet across or six? It is certain that the largest is more than a dozen feet across. Not all are made of fir. Red, silver or gold Christmas tree ornaments are often used instead. As the afternoon darkens all are highlighted with snow.

Unseen on the side streets as we continue north are the Harvard Club, the New York Yacht Club, the Century Association and other bastions of wealth and comfort, no doubt made the more cheery by the cold and white that swirls around us.

We pass the faux log entrance to the Philippine building and soon thereafter the sandstone art deco buildings of Rockefeller Center appear on our left. Snow clinging to the sides of the buildings where the wind has plastered it on like stucco.

We turn and look down the mall between the French Republic Building and the British Empire Building. This latter if urban legends are to be believed would have been the British capital in exile if the battle of Britain had gone differently. At the far end of the mall, the RCA building rises like the cliffs of Dover from the sea. These are but the frame for a double row of white angles trumpeting the good news. Is it the news of the messiah’s birth or of the lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. This is left ambiguous.

We stroll along the mall and peer over the railing that marks the edge of the sunken court yard. A small mob zips across the icy surface of the skating rink built here during the winter. The skaters seem almost to be performing a temple dance before the gold statue of a languid Prometheus delivering fire from the heavens. This brings to mind the pagan origins of the Christmas tree, but the tree itself has never been far from our thoughts towering as it does 50 feet above us.

A glass elevator lowers us through the sidewalk to the underground level of the huge complex. As we sip Starbuck’s coffee on chairs in their shop facing out onto the town square of this subterranean city, I tell you about the passages that radiate out from this spot.

You could travel three blocks west and about eight blocks from north to south . Restaurants serving formal French cuisine rub shoulders with McDonalds. Florists sell plants from stores that never see the sun. Candy shops, ice cream parlors, and book stores cater to the whims of people hurrying to the two subways that link this looking glass world to the rest of the city.

Most ubiquitous are newsstands and outlets of a local chain of drug stores. These latter hint that despite the inviting shelter and warmth of this underground mall, breathing the recycled air of tens of thousands of others is less healthful than the brisk winter above.

It is with regret that we leave this warmth and again board the glass elevator for the surface. As we exit we tuck our scarves more securely under our chins and look again into the sunken plaza. The dance continues, but snow is gathering incongruously on the flames of Prometheus’ gift to man.

We turn and walk back past the trumpeting angles. Looming out of the swirling snow, is the storefront of Saks Fifth Avenue. The façade of the building is lit by electric snow flakes that light in turn, coordinated with Christmas music that tinkles from speakers mounted around the building. (Video here) We cross the street and pause briefly to enjoy the smell of roasting chestnuts sold by a street vendor, then plunge into the famous department store. Artificial, but beautiful faux snow covered tree limbs punctuated with white lights decorate the interior creating a winter wonderland effect that seams to compliment rather than clash with the perfume and jewels being sold.

We pause but for a moment here. Upstairs we could buy goods ranging from rugby shirts to diner jackets, but it was the white splendor of the first floor echoing the weather out side that we wanted to see. Leaving this temple to mammon, we are confronted by its rival, St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

This gothic building looks as if it was transported intact from France. When the land was first bought and construction commenced on this second Catholic cathedral of the city, it was called the bishop’s folly because people thought it so far north that no one would ever come. It covers an entire city block and is a testament to the importance of Catholicism even in this very protestant country and to the faith of the immigrants who‘s earnings financed its construction.

As we head north once more, the people thronging the street are thrust before us. Unlike most of the city, here it is the prospect of spending money rather than making it that draws the largest part of the crowd. The two groups are very distinct. Clothing is one mark that distinguishes them, but under winter wraps this is less plain than it would be in summer. But these obvious marks are not necessary. One can tell them apart by how they walk and the set of their face. Are they seeing what is in front of them or what is around them? Do they walk briskly or stroll?

We chose the later option in both cases and so it takes a little longer to reach the Anglo-Norman bulk of St. Thomas’ Church, the Episcopal entry into the Fifth Avenue large church competition. We turn in to look at this monument to the Anglo Catholic. In the narthex is a mosaic that celebrates the end of the second world war. The arms of the big four, the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union are at the four cardinal points of a circle that includes the arms of the other allies.

The sound of singing draws us into the nave where we can see the church’s famous choir of men and boys practicing. The beautiful high notes of the trebles and the stirring rumble of the bases blend into a heavenly sound. The boys in the choir attend the St. Thomas Choir School a boarding school run by the church for the choristers. We sit in a pew for a few minuets listening, then get up and look at the side chapel, the statue of the virgin, and stand quietly before the carved list of the parish’s war dead. We reflect for a minuet on the lives cut short that we might live in freedom, then we head back outside.

Before leaving the shelter of the church steps, we rebutton our jackets and adjust our hats. Then we step into the snow covered streets and head north once again. Through the swirling snow we see Cartier’s store rapped like a giant present. The scaffolding that protects pedestrians from falling debris from work on the building had been transformed with the use of pine boughs into a forest of pine trees Cleverly placed speakers serenade us with Christmas carols as we stroll by the sapphires and diamonds. Even Brooks Brothers has a few Christmas decorations hidden among the preppy cloths.

Towering out of the white is the glass and bronze of Trump tower. We walk under the large wreath hanging over the entrance and enter into the pink marble and brass atrium. Water cascades five stories down one side of the atrium with plants growing in niches along the wall. We could go up the escalators for coffee or down them for a cocktail, but we have a long way to go before reaching home.

Next door, is Tiffany & Co. who’s windows have charming holiday still lives, studded with the firm’s jewels. As we continue north, the Plaza Hotel emerges from the swirling snow. The building is now under renovation and conversion with some of the floors being converted into condominiums for the rich and famous.

We cross the street to where an equestrian statue of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the artist who designed the twenty dollar gold piece, guards the entrance to Central Park. We duck down a flight of stairs into Central Park and all of a sudden we seem to be in the country.

Trees hang over the path which circles a pond slowly accumulating a rime of ice. Bushes poke their branches through the rapidly thickening blanket of snow. As we stroll along the sound of music draws us further into the park.

Dogs frolic in a snow covered field just before we reach one of the few roads that run through the park. Horse drawn carriages and pedecabes carry tourists through the park. The music we have been hearing seams to be coming from behind a rock ledge. The rock slopes up so we are able to clime it without difficulty. When we reach the top a splendid view opens before us.

Below is the source of the music, Wolman Rink. Hundreds of skaters promenade on the ice in a counter clockwise circle. White puffs of smoke stream from the rosy faces of the skaters as they move with the Christmas music.

The trees surrounding the rink make it look like a pond in the woods used for winter sports, but if one looks up, the buildings of Central Park South tower above the scene. It is the epitome of Manhattan an island 14 miles long that has been transformed for the enjoyment of man. Apartments and offices of a highly urban character over looking a park of lakes, trees, and meadows. Elsewhere in the park are a merry-go-round, a restaurant, sports fields, and a zoo, but we have miles to go and the snow is getting deep.

Part 3 is here.

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