Just a few blocks from my apartment sits this three-story, four-apartment, yellow-frame home at 99 Ryerson St., between Myrtle Avenue and the roaring Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. It was at this home that, 152 years ago, Walt Whitman worked on his epic masterpiece, Leaves of Grass. It is a pretty wack looking house. The aluminum siding is rather sad and it would be nice if some sort of plaque was up so you knew it was once his home.
She may look harmless but this woman was ruthless. As the de facto ruler of the Qing Dynasty, Tzu Hsi ruled over China (behind the curtain) with an iron fist from 1861 to her death in 1909. She was not beneath killing anyone who stood in her way no matter who they were. At the age of 26, five years after giving birth to the Emperor Xianfeng’s only son, Tzu Hsi, known as Royal Concubine Ysi, was a widow. The Emperor’s death resulted in a power struggle between the Emperor’s main consort Shun Si and Tzu Hsi. It is alleged that the struggle ended with Tzu Hsi launching a coup arranging for the murder of Shun Si as well as the murders and dismissals of eight chancellors. Tzu Hsi announced that it was the Emperor’s decree to have her- being the biological mother of the new emperor and the imperial consort - named the co-regent of the young emperor. The young emperor’s title was hence given as Tongzhi, meaning ‘ruling together’.
When Tongzhi died at the age of 19, Tzu Hsi was not ready to cede her control of China. Instead she broke the normal secession rules and announced that her 3 year old nephew would be the new heir. This would allow her to continue her rule with the new heir, Emperor Guangxu, too young to do anything about it.
Her throne was in the oppulent Forbidden City and she was known for her excesses in a time when the court was nearly broke. She rather famously embezzeled funds from the navy to construct a beautiful summer palace for her own pleasure. That decision may have led to China losing the Sino-Japanese war (and the island of Taiwan) due to lack of funding for the navy.
Eventually, Emperor Guangxu grew old enough to want to rule and launched a reform campaign. In return, Tzu Hsi launched a coup against Emperor Guangxu’s Wu Hsu Reform. After that, she executed the main reform party members and from then on she put Emperor Guangxu under house arrest.
It is said that Empress Dowager Cixi had her own ways to maintain her beauty even at an old age. She kept the habit of having sliced ginseng in her mouth to nourish her body, and ate pearl powder, eight-treasure ointment and flower food (food made of flower and other food materials) as nutrients every day. She ate light, slept badly, had an opium pipe night cap and liked her attendants to stay in her bedroom until she fell asleep.
I was recently in Hong Kong and learned about the publication of the supposed memoir of Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse, a British writer who lived among the Chinese from the late 1800’s through his death in 1944. The book is creating a firestorm of controversy and is not being released on Mainland China due to its graphic sexual content.
In it, Backhouse claims to have had an affair with the Empress (eventhough he was an open homosexual) and to know the true nature of her death. The official record states that she died of natural causes, but Backhouse alleges that she was murdered by her rivals after arranging the murder of her nephew the Emperor Guangxu a day earlier. Backhouse claims that on the morning of November 15, 1908 in a reception room of the Imperial Palace in Beijing The Empress Dowager was meeting two senior officials, one of them a senior military officer, Yuan Shikai . The two asked her to abdicate and appoint them as regents to the newly appointed young emperor. Incandescent with rage, she ordered the two to be dismissed, tried and executed for treason. Yuan took out a six-chambered revolver and shot her three times in the stomach. As she bled profusely, she called for the two men to be beheaded and breathed her last. The eunuchs around her screamed their grief. This account of the Empress’ death is quite dramatic and makes for a great movie ending to her life. Her rule effectively ends monarchy rule and begins the ascent of modern communist China.
I bought this box from the Brooklyn Flea to store things in. I was always curious about where it came from. Apparently, it was from the Sherry Store on Madison Avenue in New York, which is now the Hermes Store. I feel like things used to be made so well that you could use them over and over again for different purposes. That a candy box was so pretty and functional makes me happy.
I’m sure it seems like all I research about is architecture, but I am trying to find new pursuits. Still a building can tell you so much about a people. I would like to write a short story about the cursed and luxurious Royal Palm Hotel in Miami. Legend has it that it was built on a Tequesta Indian village open from 1897 to 1930 when it was demolished following irrepairable damage from the hurricane of 1925. Shortly after the hotel was opened 60 skulls were found and thrown into barrels, given away as “souvenirs” to the tourists. An atrocity of disrespect to the Indian graveyard that must have been below.
The hotel was one of the grandest in the nation at the time featuring an enormous swimming pool. It was the start of the rich East coaster tradition of vacationing in South Florida for the winter. The long journey was made possible by the construction of a railroad that went all the way to Miami, which would forever change the once swampy Indian village into the metropolis we know now.
Whenever I am forced to go to Connecticut for one reason or another, my preferred route of travel is the Merritt. The reason is not only because it is more scenic and has less traffic than 95, but also because of the historic bridges that line the highway. I’ve annoyed many of my friends with my notation of each bridge we go under to comment about the art deco details that I admire as we speed by at 75 miles per hour.
The Merritt Parkway was built during the Great Depression as one of Roosevelt’s Public Works projects. Projects like these were meant to create jobs during the struggling economy. It was supposed to be the American family’s highway - a peaceful direct route from the suburbs to the big city of New York.
My favorite of the bridges are in the Trumbull area near the home of one of my good friends. The winged stonework on the James Farm Road is imposing and beautiful. The other stand out for me is the incredible ironwork of the Greenwich bridge.
Each of the bridges is totally unique. I love the clean curves of the one below near Trumbull.
See the details…sometimes I feel like the artistry of the regular world has been lost in modern times. The fact that a simple highway overpass bridge can have this type of sculpture is beautiful to me.
I am kind of obsessed with this guy. It started like this:
First, I fell in love with the beauty of Vassar College’s campus (pictures below), which Olmstead designed. I can’t tell you how many hours i’ve spent lounging or reading in the grass all over that place.
Afterwards, I moved to New York City and lived a few blocks from Central Park, also designed by Olmstead. Then I moved to Brooklyn and lived a few blocks from Fort Greene Park, which he designed too. For such a small park, he has created so much variation. There are hills, paths going in all directions, tennis courts, fields, and even a lovely square for the creepy Martyr’s Monument. Not to get off subject, but the Prison Ship Martyr’s Monument is something else I’ve researched and is truly weird 19th century stuff. Basically it’s a giant urn in the middle of the park (see below) where the bones of more than 11,500 prisoners of war from the Revolutionary War lay in a mass crypt.
Anyhow, my favorite thing about Olmstead is that he specializes in creating beautiful outdoor environments that are ideal for relaxation. He’s a genius in creating the perfect patch of grass to lay down and chill in the sun. That literally is my favorite thing to do in life. I am a professional at relaxing.
In researching Olmstead it turns out he was kind of insane. He completed over 550 projects (and I mean big deal stuff like the grounds of the Capital, The Biltmore Estate, and Prospect Park) during his career. This is all the more impressive considering he didn’t even start his career in landscape architecture until the age of 35. Whenever I hear stuff like that I wonder if I’ll have a totally different career that I haven’t even considered in 10 years time. All the awesome works Olmstead created during his career must have been a strain because at the age of 73 he suffered a mental breakdown that would send him to an asylum where he would spend the final 8 years of his life. A lesson learned: Don’t work too hard. And spend more of your time chilling in the park instead of building them.
I live a few blocks from two of the most beautiful banks in New York City: The Dime Savings Bank of New York on Dekalb Avenue & the Williamsburg Savings Bank on Hanson Place. Dime Savings is now a Chase, while the Williamsburg Bank has been converted into luxury condominiums. The lobby is used as the Brooklyn Flea on Sundays.
Before federal regulation and the FDIC existed, banks had to look prosperous to attract customers. They also had to be built with enough stone, marble and steel to appear able to protect itself against robbery.
I actually opened an account at the Chase/Dime Savings primarily just because I like the building so much. These are old photos but it pretty much looks the same. The ornate details in the ceiling surrounding the dome structure are particularly hypnotizing.
Once when I went in waiting for a banker, I couldn’t stop staring at the ceiling. When the banker came up I was so excited and exclaimed, “Wow, you are so lucky to work in a building this beautiful.” To which she just stared at me kind of annoyed and said, “How can i help you?”. I thought she should be much more excited to be working in a palace.
A quick search on German architect Mies (as he apparently liked to be called) produced some great material. Below is his Farnsworth House in Plano, Il. Again, it’s so cool that you can find historic modern homes in places like Plano, Il. This one reminds me of a yacht.
I really enjoy houses that are on stilts. They make me think about the stilted homes that line the canyons of the San Fernando Valley in LA. I’ll have to do some research into who made those houses and how they stay up during earthquakes. They scare me yet i’m fascinated by them.
Houses on stilts in the canyons of LA
a Mies designed home in barcelona
I came to find out Mies is the same person who designed the iconic MR arm chair and the Barcelona chair (below). I’ve seen them both at DWR so they probably also have a few at MOMA.
the MR chair the Barcelona chair
It is said that Mies inspired the twin towers at the World Trade Center in NYC with his Lake Shore Apartments in Chicago. The photos below of the apartments certainly show the similarities in design.
The house that was in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is for sale. I love mid century architecture and furniture. One day I would love a modern (1953) home like this. I also want a 200 year old Victorian. They are both historic but in very different ways. Guess I will need both.
Anyhow, when I started looking for more photos of the interior I learned that it was designed by A. James Speyer, a protégé of Mies van der Rohe. The glass pavilion which is really just a fancy car garage was designed by the architect David Haid. Naturally I need to find out who these people were and what other awesome stuff they’ve made. So that has led to a new set of research which I will have to expand on at another time.
In the meantime, below is what I’ve researched on Speyer thus far.