Benchwarming: A Sit-Down Tour of New York City
Don't just do something, sit there.
-- Zen Proverb
During my first year in New York,
I couldn't walk half a block without
stopping to gape at some wondrous
foreign object. I stooped to study the
designs of countless manhole covers.
I cowered beneath sneering gargoyles that seemed to
order me to move on.When crossing streets,I'd become
fascinated by a forlorn apartment key embedded in
asphalt like an ancient bug in amber.
After 20 years I still walk the City's streets with fresh
eyes, though occasionally I stop and take a rest. Bench
Warming in New York is the result .
Bench Warming in New York is a seating chart to
a collection of real-life New York dioramas. These
benches are not secreted away nor located in exclusive
haunts. They are all in plain sight. It's the stories they
tell that are hidden.
In the Flatiron
If you're planning a trip to New York City, allow
me to recommend a bench. Your concierge will no
doubt suggest another, but be forewarned -- benches
touted by concierges are usually located near the food
vendors with whom they have financial connections.
The bench I'm plugging has nothing to do with
such wily schemes.
The handsome iron and wood bench of which
I speak is in the Flatiron District, resting on the west
side of Madison Square Park at 5th Ave. and 23rd St. It
is pressed against the chain link fence of Jemmy's dog
run -- the third bench north of the dog run's entrance.
What makes this bench so exceptional is that
it allows you to rest your feet while you investigate one of the city's more fascinating districts. In fact, you
might learn more about the Flatiron District sitting on
this bench than you would if you continued walking.
After you take a seat, look directly across the park to
the enormous granite stump that forms the base of the
Metropolitan Life Tower. The Metropolitan's directors
yearned for a skyscraper, but financial setbacks halted
construction far short of their dreams. This has left
the building with a massive base that conveys the
sense of a pumped up weightlifter straining to press a
But I haven't sat you down to tell you tales of
architectural underachievement. I'm here to tell you
tales of that architectural marvel, Stanford White.
From the Met Life stump, sweep your view 45 degrees
to the left and behold the 19th-century buildings that stand
on the far side of Fifth Avenue between 24th and 25th
Streets. Look for the building that isn't there.
gap in this row of brownstone teeth was once filled
with one of White's most confidential Manhattan addresses -- the one where he kept his private
Here is where Evelyn Nesbit rode White's velvet
swing into New York's erotic history. Evelyn, beautiful
and 16, enticed White beyond all resistance -- for a while,
at least. Their secret assignations ended when White
began looking for less experienced playmates. Evelyn
climbed off the swing and eventually married the off-
kilter heir, Harry Thaw.
Now look beyond the park's northeast corner to
the colossal granite birthday cake topped with one
spear-like golden candle.
This is the New York Life
building. Financed by the actuarial certainty of death,
the Tower lies over the ruins of that shrine to temporal
delights, Madison Square Garden. The elegant, gilded
Garden was White's most famous public building
-- and a venue for both the most outlandish and the
most refined entertainments of his day.
From E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, we know that
Thaw, worked into a froth by Evelyn's accounts of her past escapades with 'Stanny,' shot White dead as
he dined in the Garden's smart, roof-top restaurant.
His Madison Square Garden succumbed 19 years
later. The distinguished Madison Avenue Presbyterian
Church, once adjacent to Met Life and White's last
commission, is gone now, too. The building where he
hung his swing collapsed under its own weight in 2008.
One small remnant of Stanford White's work re-
mains in the park. It's a curved marble plinth that lies
between your bench and the ghost of the old Garden.
White designed the plinth for the bronze statue of civil
war hero, Admiral Farragut. While the memorial was not
raised to honor White, Farragut's "Damn the torpedoes,
full speed ahead!" could pass for the audacious architect's
The well-fed bronze statue of Roscoe Conklin
in the park's southeast corner mocks the feeble
recognition given to White's contributions to the
area. Conklin, a Republican politician, caught
pneumonia during the blizzard of 1888 when he
was trapped for several hours in Union Square
Park, only 10 blocks south of his current location.
Conklin's cronies contended that Union Square
Park owed his effigy a place alongside its memorials
to Lincoln and Washington. His enemies disagreed
and, in a compromise, Roscoe was settled here,
where the always-popular 'Shake Shack' is now
located. His pose seems to express exasperation at
no longer possessing the clout to go the head of the
long line of people waiting to order. If you're hungry,
I would recommend that you join them. Tell them I
Photography by Tore Cleasson.
Article © Barry Udoff. All rights reserved.
Published on 2013-08-12
Image(s) © Tore Cleasson. All rights reserved.