Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Rhinelander Remains

New York is filled with hidden pieces of its own vanished history. One of those pieces is tucked away behind the big yellow public school on 11th Street and 6th Avenue. There you will find, built into the back wall of the school's cafeteria, an impressive set of Gothic-revival wrought-iron railings. These are all that remain of Rhinelander Gardens.

Berenice Abbott photo

my flickr

Built in 1854 and designed by James Renwick, architect of Grace Church and St. Patrick's Cathedral, Rhinelander Gardens featured decorated balconies and front gardens. Looking at it now, you might think it was for the very wealthy, but its rental apartments harbored many artists. John Cheever lived there. So did Robert Motherwell. Theodor Dreiser wrote An American Tragedy here.

Rhinelander Gardens stood on 11th Street for a century before it was demolished. In the 1950s, the city wanted a school and the choice was between Rhinelander or Patchin Place. (Back in the day when writers and artists could survive and produce in the city.)

Poet Harvey Shapiro tells the story of the battle in Dan Wakefield's excellent book New York in the 50s, saying that the Patchin Place people (himself, e.e. cummings, Djuna Barnes) must have worked harder with their petitions and protests because Patchin Place still stands and all that's left of Rhinelander Gardens is that salvaged section adorning the school that replaced it.

It is mostly forgotten now and the railings have achieved a sort of invisibility. Only people attached to the school can enjoy them, but they might not even see them. I snuck back there to snap these pictures, accompanied by a mother who was pleasantly surprised to see something she'd never seen before. "I never noticed that," she said. "God, they're beautiful."

See all my photos of the Rhinelander relics on Flickr


Anonymous said...

I think part of the reason that these old, beautiful buildings are being destroyed and replaced with bland modernist monoliths is that nobody has any appreciation for good architecture. When most people look at a building like this, all they see is old, and years of planned obsolescence have taught us that new is always better than old. It's a continuation of the same technology-will-always-make-our-lives-better faith that gave J. Bruce Ismay the balls to claim that God himself couldn't sink the Titanic.

Mark said...

I read and saw pictures of the Rhinelander houses in an old book called Lost New York, many years ago. It was to my extreme pleasure that I located the iron work some years later, while walking through a flea market in the school yard. New York is full of small treasures like this; things no one seems to notice anymore.

Mieko said...

As an alum of P.S. 41, I remember this beautiful iron work which framed our cafeteria. Teachers told us of how many Bohemian artists of the time lived in this area, particularly for a time Mark Twain.

The school building is not the most attractive, but the culture of the school has a profound respect for the arts and the past. Its a very unique place.