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Displaying items by tag: Museum of the City of New York

Jacob Riis may have set his house on fire twice, and himself aflame once, as he perfected the new 19th-century flash photography technique, but when the magnesium powder erupted with a white, blinding light, he illuminated some of the darkest corners of Manhattan’s impoverished tenements. Despite the journalist now mostly being remembered for his photography of turn-of-the-century New York City, he only considered himself an amateur, a “photographer after a fashion.”

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A New York exhibition looks at the career of photojournalist Jacob Riis whose images of New York City's slum conditions more than 100 years ago helped spur social reforms.

"Jacob A. Riis: Revealing New York's Other Half" opened Wednesday at The Museum of the City of New York.

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Many believe New York’s pioneering Landmarks Law, enacted in April 1965, was the key factor in the rebirth of New York in the final quarter of the 20th century (continue reading about New York's Landmarks Law on It fostered pride in neighborhoods and resulted in neighborhood preservation in every borough, connecting and motivating residents and bringing new economic life to older communities. It ensured that huge swaths of the city remain a rich complex of new and old. It also ensured the creative re-use of countless buildings. At the same time, a new body of important architecture has emerged as architects, clients, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission devised innovative solutions for the renovation of landmark buildings and for new buildings in historic districts. The law spawned creativity in architects’ responses to building preservation that has enhanced the cityscape in all five boroughs.

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The Museum of the City of New York in Manhattan is presenting “In a World of Their Own: Coney Island Photographs by Aaron Rose, 1961-1963,” the first exhibition of the photographer’s images of sunbathers and swimmers at Brooklyn’s most famous beach.

The diversity of people --and what they are doing -- is immediately arresting, as the photographs capture intimate portraits of regular and uninhibited New Yorkers in a world of their own.

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The Museum of the City of New York recently made available on its website some 62,000 historic images of New York City. The images, in the main, date from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1950s and were taken by such luminaries as Berenice Abbott, Samuel H. Gottscho, Andreas Feininger, Jacob Riis, and the Wurts Brothers. They document buildings and interiors, streetscapes and skylines, as well as fashion and events.

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One sign of a powerful style is its invisibility. It is so familiar it is scarcely noticed. It is so natural, how could things be otherwise? We don’t really pay attention to the style itself. Instead we notice contrasts, variations, violations.

One of the achievements of the illuminating exhibition “The American Style,” which opens on Tuesday at the Museum of the City of New York, is that it helps make the invisible visible. With photographs of grand mansions and suburban residences; with images of high schools, apartment buildings, town halls and post offices; with examples of mass-market furniture and finely made cabinetry; with pewter candlesticks and pictorial wall murals and floor plans, the exhibition gradually helps us see what is all around us. Its subtitle defines the terrain: “Colonial Revival and the Modern Metropolis.”

Colonial Revival, we come to recognize, is latent in much of our architecture, furniture and urban design. And the show’s creators — Donald Albrecht, a curator at the museum, and Thomas Mellins, who has recently mounted the New York Public Library’s centennial exhibition — argue that this style, while strongly associated with the six decades that framed the beginning of the 20th century, is still so influential that it has become (even when rejected) “the quintessential American style.”

Architects and designers, professionally attentive to such matters, will not be surprised by that assertion or by the arguments the curators make. But many of us, only intermittently attentive, will discover, like Molière’s bourgeois gentleman, that we have been speaking “prose” all our lives — prose written in the language of this style.

But what is Colonial Revival? What effect does it have? Why has it been so powerful? When we enter the gallery, the first object we see is a mahogany-colored door within its frame, recently created by Peter Pennoyer Architects for a house in Nantucket, Mass. It is handsome, grand and, in certain respects, thoroughly familiar. But seeing it out of context, we become aware of its distinctive detail: symmetrical rectangular panels with a centered knocker; crisp, geometric framing with columns flattened into pilasters; a semi-oval fan window above, its decorative curves gently softening the door’s commanding rectitude.

The door is almost an abstraction of the style, drawing on some elements, stripping away others, emphasizing a commanding, classical authority. Its allusions are to the architecture of Colonial America, which was itself a kind of reduced version of Georgian English style.

There should be more analytical detail about Colonial Revival here, as in the generally helpful companion book; it would help to be patiently shown the character of that grammar, tracing its allusions and its transformations. But we begin to piece elements together ourselves in the examples on display, seeing the relatively flat facades, rectangular foundations, columned porches, paneled wood doors, shingled roofs, red brick.

We see, too, how these various elements can be used to create buildings that are both imposing and comforting, grand and quaint. A 1939 Howard Johnson’s in Queens seems to put the word colonial in quotation marks. And we look at a 1915 monograph showing the work of McKim, Mead & White, whose principals toured New England in the 1880s, learning from its colonial buildings, before becoming influential shapers of the Colonial Revival at the end of the 19th century.

Photographs of George Washington High School on Audubon Avenue in Washington Heights, built in 1925, and Benjamin Franklin High School on the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive in Manhattan, built in 1941, show buildings that invoke the colonial past not just with their names but also with porticos resembling pillared Greek temples, topped by cupolas meant to echo small-town churches and city halls.

They also reveal a double aspect of the style, which is one of the things that has made it so flexible. In one respect it elevates a building, invoking the classical past that the founding fathers had also looked to for inspiration; the place is meant to be imposing, worthy of allegiance and devotion. In another respect, it humbles that same building: It is not meant to overwhelm but to welcome. It turns the grand into something comfortable. The cupola and slate roofs; the swinging window shutters; the simple, whitewashed woodwork: here is the democratic side of pillared grandeur.

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