Saturday, September 26, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - The History of Where We Live

I crunched along on the few fallen leaves on Columbia's campus walk yesterday and smiled wide. A perfect fall day took me back to being a student in Philadelphia, the tall, impressive buildings lined with names like Sophocles, Vergil, and Plato reminded me of the joy of academia.

Late in the afternoon I was on my way to see Inna Guzenfeld, an archivist at the Avery Architectural and Fine Art Library at Columbia. The papers and drawings of Emery Roth, the architect who designed and lived in my apartment building, are housed there. During the 1920's Roth was the busiest architect in New York City, and many regard him as one of the founding fathers of the art deco movement. Until I moved into my building two weeks ago, I'd never heard of him and now I think of him and thank him every day.

"No bags, pens, no flash on your camera, touch the plans only on the edges, and we close at 5:00 sharp," said Inna. She had everything laid out for me in perfect order, and all of the materials exactly as I had asked for him. She is the hallmark of efficiency.

There was an architect there doing research. Maybe in his 40's, Elvis Costello glasses, lean, and intense. He looked up at me with some interest.

"Are you an architect?"

"No," I fumbled. "I'm a writer."

"Why are you interested in that building?"

"I moved into it two weeks ago."

"Who's the architect?"

"Emery Roth."

"You live in an Emery Roth building?"


"What floor?"

"Top floor."

"Really?" he said as he quickly removed his glasses. "You know those buildings are stunning. I've had the chance to work in a few of them. Are they doing work on your building?" he asked.

"No, it's actually perfect," I said.

"I'm not surprised," he continued. "That man was a genius."

And then I knew I was on to something.

I have been having architecture dreams, dreams where I feel my way along passages in my building, curling around dark corners to find some secret way through to the light. I've found myself waking up in the middle of the night with complete clarity and scribbling down notes as fast as I can before the images fade from my mind. So it was with great excitement that I learned that the actual building plans, made on linen, were preserved just 15 blocks north of my building by Inna and the team at Avery.

The Archives were freezing, a preventative measure to preserve their contents as well as possible. I peeled back the plans one at a time, pouring over dimensions and lines and descriptions of the very walls I wake up in every morning now. Their pungent, historical smell reminded me of the Fischer Fine Arts Library at Penn where I spent many hours studying and reading as a student. To this day, Fischer is still one of my favorite places on Earth. The floor on my side of the building remains exactly as it was then, in 1924. These were the maids' quarters.

Inna also provided me with the autobiography of Roth, which I quickly devoured, and a book about his work entitled Mansions in the Clouds. Closing time was fast approaching so I was running through the text as fast as I could, continually fascinated that Emery Roth and I share some striking similarities, from the tone of our writing to our family lives as children. His writing style is so relaxed that I felt like he was reading to me, telling me the story of his life. I wondered why an architect committed such personal thoughts and feelings to paper while I also wondered if it was possible to fall in love with someone through his writing, someone I've never met who passed on decades before I was even an inkling in my mother's eye. And then I was reminded of Thomas Jefferson and my affection for him as I read everything he ever committed to paper. Yes, love through writing is possible.

In the final 5 minutes of my time at Avery I found the gems I was looking for. A "Tower Room" was designed for my building, though I have yet to find it. What could someone house in a Tower Room? My mind is reeling with possibilities. Roth lived on the very floor where my current apartment is, on the other side. I found the plans and photographs of it. I believe it's still in existence, exactly as he had designed it for himself. There are numerous references in his autobiography and in his drawings about his desire to build fire-proof buildings - it was of critical importance to him to protect his work from going up in flames. Chills ran down my spine.

What's more, the building where I live provided the pinnacle of happiness for his wife. He designed the penthouse specifically for her. It was the living space she dreamed of, and then a sad set of circumstances set in for her in that very space, and she was never quite the same. The writer in me has been working overtime since leaving Avery. The fact that there were so many photos and that Roth wrote personally about the space in my building where he lived left me with a feeling that there is a story here that can and should be spun out and told.

As I packed up, Inna asked "did you find everything you needed?" "Absolutely," I said, "thank you." The architect next to me looked up and smiled. I suppose my giddiness at my findings showed, and he understood them well. The places we live house special meaning. They aren't just a collection of walls and doors, but they contain intense, personal moments that define our lives. This new space is a new chapter for me, in my life and in my writing.

The image above is not my own. It depicts the lobby of Devonshire House, a building in Greenwich Village of New York City, that was design by Emery Roth in 1928.


Robert said...

Mr. Roth is one of my favorites.
Early in his career, he worked for Daniel Burnham (& Root) and worked on the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago!
Cool that you live in one of his creations! Enjoy it.

Christa said...

Hi Robert,
Thanks for your comment. I'm coming to really love Emery Roth - the more I read about him the more I want to know!

Are you an architect?