Joseph Mitchell’s Regard for Ornament

April 18th, 2014 · 2 Comments · Columns and Features, Explore New York

Joseph Mitchell possessed a lifelong fascination with New York City’s survivors, both its characters and its buildings, especially ones that often escaped notice. For some 26 years, from 1938 to 1964, his essays in The New Yorker portrayed the city’s inhabitants from the bearded Lady Olga of circus sideshows and the stout Germans carrying their own sets of knives who were the chefs of the old East Side school of beefsteak dinners to the fringe of the fringe who peopled McSorley’s saloon and even the minutiae of the types of rats that populated the city’s five boroughs. Then after 1964, no essay of Mitchell’s appeared in The New Yorker. Yet, through the rest of his time there until his death in 1996, Mitchell continued to go the magazine’s office each day.

Though Mitchell did not submit a word for publication after the mid-1960s, he kept on writing – and walking the city. Mitchell’s walking was an obsession that set in early. When Mitchell first came to the city in 1929, at the age of 21, one of his editors at the New York Herald Tribune advised Mitchell to “walk the city, get to know every side street and quirk and character,” according to an introduction to a Mitchell essay in The New Yorker. He obviously took this to heart, for many decades, and his stories rendered the results of his explorations as he depicted the city’s steelworkers, longshoremen, restaurant proprietors, movie house bouncers, social club operators, and others among the unsung and the oddball.

But his love of buildings drew attention much later. An essay published after his death revealed more about how Mitchell walked the city constantly and noticed with his writer’s fine eye the distinctive, the beautiful, and the quirky in New York’s buildings. During what others have called Mitchell’s “period of silence,” he was writing, at work on a memoir that he apparently never completed. The New Yorker published an excerpt of this unpublished memoir, “Street Life,” on Feb. 11, 2013. (While doing research in Mitchell’s papers, Thomas Kunkel, who is writing a forthcoming biography of Mitchell, found unpublished excerpts of his writing and gave the excerpts to the magazine.) “What I really like to do is wander the streets aimlessly in the city,” Mitchell wrote. “I like to walk the streets by day and by night.” He also might ride in a “dozen or fifteen or twenty” different buses in a day.

To Mitchell, New York’s buildings were imbued with life and spirit in the same ways as the people he had written about. He was especially captivated by the ornamentation and features of the city’s older buildings, and he would get off buses or take sudden detours in his walks to get long and closer looks at them. Older churches that people had transformed for other denominations enthralled him, as did many other old buildings, such as hotels, restaurants, saloons, courthouses, newspaper plants, piers, ferry houses, and banks. If more of the financial interests today believed as Mitchell did, New York might well not see so many sleek new glass towers in place of the older buildings with their carvings, cast-iron medallions, gnarled stone faces, terra cotta cherubs, metal cornices, and such.

An eagle – a symbol of watchfulness and power – is surrounded by decoration on an archway of the 1904 former IRT subway powerhouse on 11th Avenue from West 58th to West 59th Streets.

In “Street Life,” we see Mitchell’s reverence for the elements around him that had somehow survived and remained as living ties to the often-forgotten souls of generations ago.

“Ever since I came here I have been fascinated by the older buildings of the city,” Mitchell wrote. “The variety of it fascinates me, and also the ubiquity of it, the overwhelming ubiquity of it, the almost comical ubiquity of it. In thousands upon thousands of blocks, on just about any building you look at, sometimes in the most unexpected and out-of-the-way place, there it is. Sometimes it is almost hidden under layers of paint that took generations to accumulate and sometimes it is all beaten and banged and mutilated, but there it is. The eye that searches for it is always able to find it.”

Its endurance astonished Mitchell: “There are some remarkably silly looking things among these ornaments that have lasted for a hundred years or more in the dirtiest and most corrosive air in the world, the equivalent of a thousand years in an olive grove in Greece, and there is something triumphant about them — they have triumphed over time and ice and frost and heat and humidity and wind and rain and brutally abrupt temperature fluctuations and rust and pigeon droppings and smoke and soot and sulfuric acid, not to speak of the perpetual nail-loosening and timber-weakening and stone-cracking and mortar-crumbling vibrations from the traffic down below. Furthermore, they have triumphed over profound changes in architectural styles. I revere them. To me, they are sacred objects. The sight of a capricious bit of carpentry or brickmasonry or stonemasonry or blacksmithery or tinsmithery or tile setting high up on the façade of a building, executed long ago by some forgotten workingman, will lift my spirits for hours.”

Like his evocation of a fading-away world in his essays, of Calypso singers, clammers in “dilapidated sloops” using tongs and rakes, and the Mohawk ironworkers who helped build New York’s skyscrapers, Mitchell possessed a sense of a “sure-to-torn-down-any-time-now city.” Decades later, New York has, indeed, witnessed much that has been demolished – which makes it all the more compelling to wander aimlessly in the city, as Mitchell did, and feel a touch of exuberance over that which somehow survives.

Geometric “brickmasonry” at 26-28 Leroy St., in the West Village

The scrollwork and delicate wrought iron above a doorway at the Temple House of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn

Terra cotta ornament on a Greenwich Street building

This “giant of finance,” as the figures atop 20 Exchange Place are known, has seen plenty of ups and downs around Wall Street since the building’s original construction in 1930-31 as the City Bank-Farmers Trust Company.

The cast-iron vault lighting on the outside step of a Tribeca building, developed to allow light to pass into a basement, has its own beautiful pattern.

Art Deco panels on an apartment building at 3 East 84th Street

The stone and brickwork of St. Augustine’s Church at 290 Henry Street in the Lower East Side, first built as All Saints Free Church in 1827-1829 and enlarged 20 years later

A rich facade of varied patterns at 60-62 Lispenard Street

One of the many gargoyles on the Emmet Building at 89-95 Madison Avenue, on the corner of East 29th Street

Note: On Saturday, May 3, at 12 Noon, I will lead a walk, “Wonder and Oddity: Building Ornament Near Bowling Green.” With essay passages by Mitchell as a departure point, we’ll discover the incredibly rich features of buildings in a swath around Lower Manhattan’s Bowling Green. The objective is to come away with not only an appreciation of these elements around Bowling Green, but a heightened sense of observing these “sacred objects” in our midst every day. The walk is part of the Jane’s Walk annual global festival of free, locally led walking tours, which honor urbanist and activist Jane Jacobs.

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