If there’s one architectural style and historic period that best represents New York to the world, it has to be the Art Deco look of the Roaring ’20s. Think the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, Radio City Music Hall, Rockefeller Center, the former American Stock Exchange Building. Manhattan’s greatest and most recognizable landmarks were all designed in the Art Deco aesthetic and hail from one of the greatest boom periods of perhaps the most booming city in the world. So influential were the city’s skyscrapers to the period’s look that an alternative name for Art Deco at the time was “Skyscraper Style.”
While Art Deco—or Art Moderne, as it was originally called—was launched at the 1925 Parisian Exposition Internationale, America—and New York City in particular—quickly became the world capital of the ambitious, ornamental, forward-thinking style. Art Deco’s heyday was short: The 1939-40 New York World’s Fair in Queens can be seen as the bookend to the Paris Exposition. And yet New York’s great Deco masterpieces remain a testament to that age’s ongoing influence.
The glory of the age, and America’s prominent aesthetic and cultural influence on it, can now be seen at MOMA’s new joint reinstallation of European and American art, “Reimagining Modernism: 1900-1950.” While historically the two continents have been presented separately, this new reframing allows visitors to MOMA’s outstanding collection to more fully appreciate the depth of early American Modernism, which forms the backbone of the museum’s collection.
While post-WWI America emerged as the world’s industrial, technological, and economic super power, Art Deco, which united clean, modern, industrialized lines with beautiful reimagined decorative motifs from around the world—Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greek, Native American—perfectly captured the young nation’s new global dominance. The optimistic marriage of industry and design survived even the Great Depression, when the Empire State Building’s decorative elements were constrained by the financial obstacles of 1931. Compare its airy but relatively plain mast to the more purely decorative terraced stainless steel crown of the Chrysler Building, begun in 1928. The Empire State Building nonetheless remains an iconic example of the Art Deco style, with its underlying emphasis on verticality and the celebration of manufactured and technologically produced lines shining through.
Today’s New York shares a great deal with the Manhattan of the Roaring ’20s. Skyscrapers are popping up anew around the city, and the lower end of Manhattan is experiencing a residential boom as today’s movers and shakers seek out the new luxury Flatiron condos and other lower Manhattan developments that surround the city’s financial and business districts.
Those who have a taste for old-fashioned style and elegance are aware, of course, that along with the preservation of places like Pete’s comes a premium on preserving the past—and while the neighborhoods of lower Manhattan are booming with new construction, some of the most luxurious neighborhoods, like Gramercy Park and Madison Square, are actually characterized as much by splendid restorations as by new development. Those seeking Madison Square Park condos and Gramercy Park condos for sale can find some superb Art Deco structures to call home. An excellent example can be found in the refurbished condos in the 1927 building at 88 Lexington Avenue, rechristened 88 Lex. The building’s exterior has the geometric, vertical lines of its era as well as a classic light color, set backs to create a stepped outline, tall arched windows at street level, and arch detailing on the corner windows at the top. Meanwhile its interior features the smooth brushed-aluminum doors and fixtures of the period as well as aluminum-inlaid stone floors, and continues the characteristic vertical lines of the exterior with tall ceilings and geometric vertical stone panels in the lobby.
While the soaring city skyline captured the spirit of the Roaring ’20s and sent it aloft, that spirit was equally bright and alive on the streets below. New technologies—automobiles, radio, moving pictures, electrification—propelled the world out of the wartime economy and mood and established the modern consumer society. New York constructed the Holland Tunnel and the George Washington Bridge to accommodate its growing population and the emerging demands of automobile traffic. The Plaza Hotel became a favorite spot for cultural heavyweights like F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Women got the vote and got rid of corsets and the restrictive expectations of the pre-war era. The Harlem Renaissance anchored the Jazz Age, the Stock Market rose to unprecedented heights, and Babe Ruth joined the Yankees. Again, today’s New York with its booming bar and restaurant scene, expanding retail and leisure opportunities, and optimistic business environment captures something of the spirit of the earlier age.
Hence, for instance, the new “speakeasy”-type bars popping up all over the city—though there is nothing like quaffing a drink or two in a location that was serving them up even when alcohol was illegal. Pete’s Tavern, the oldest continually running bar in the city, disguised itself as a flower shop during Prohibition—but its original tin ceiling and gorgeous rosewood bar survived, and residents of the nearby town homes and Gramercy condos can pull up and order a beer just as the businessmen of that era might have done.