Ben Hur Bric-à-brac

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Jan. 9, 1925 cover by Hans Stengel.

MGM spent nearly $5 million (about $70 million today) to make the silent epic Ben-Hur, filming the movie on location in Egypt, Italy and the United States. The New Yorker’s film critic Theodore Shane was not impressed.

Shane wrote that $4,999,999.95 had been spent “on massive effects and the remaining $.05 on drama.”

He noted, however, that the original story, an 1880 novel by Lew Wallace (who was a Union general in the Civil War, among other things), was pretty lacking in drama to begin with, just a “piece of bric-à-brac romance (that was) nothing more than a super Rover Boys story touched up with a Biblical background.” Here’s Shane’s entire review of the film, which was released by MGM on December 30, 1925:

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A Nickel’s Worth of Drama…Ramon Novarro (left) and Francis X. Bushman mix it up in Ben-Hur (1925) (Virtual History)

This was actually the second Ben Hur film. The first was made in 1907, a 15-minute silent costing $500 (and it really was made on the cheap; the producers stole some shots of a mock chariot race at a fireworks show at Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, and then added some interior shots to complete the picture).

For the 1925 Ben Hur, filming on location proved difficult from the start. Italy’s new leader, Benito Mussolini, was in an anti-American mood when production began, and labor disputes often delayed filming. By all accounts, conditions were miserable. Kevin Hagopian, in an essay for the New York State Writers Institute, observed “The worst agonies were reserved for the film’s climax, the chariot race. Legendary second unit director B. Reeves Eason’s nickname “Breezy” was certainly not earned by his work on the Ben-Hur set, for his merciless pace cost the lives of over a hundred horses. As (actor Francis X.) Bushman said sadly, “If it limped, they shot it.” A stunt man was killed in a chariot crash, and Navarro himself only narrowly escaped death.”

The troubled Italian set was eventually torn down and a new one built in Culver City, California. The crowd scenes and master shots for the race were done in a single day, with forty-two cameras covering the action.

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The famed chariot race was shot with 42 cameras (Bridgeman Images)

In “Profiles” Esther Carples looked at the life of Sergei Rachmaninoff, who was widely considered one of the great pianists of his day, and as a composer represented the last vestiges of Romanticism in Russian classical music. Carples painted a portrait of a brooding genius, a man with aristocratic bearing who lived in lonely exile from his native Russia.

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Sergei Rachmaninoff in 1921. (Library of Congress)

In 1921, Rachmaninoff bought a house on 33 Riverside Drive in New York City, where he lived until 1925. There he consciously recreated the atmosphere of Ivanovka (his beloved Russian summer house) entertaining Russian guests, employing Russian servants, and observing old Russian customs.

*****

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Jan. 16, 1926 cover by S.W. Reynolds.

Let’s move on to the next issue, Jan. 16, 1926. “The Talk of the Town” noted another loss of a Fifth Avenue landmark with the Savoy Hotel was falling to the wrecking ball.

The Savoy, built in 1891-92, was slated to be replaced by The Savoy Plaza Hotel, which itself would be demolished in 1965-66 (amid significant public outcry and protest) to make way for the eastern headquarters building of General Motors.

It was observed that the new year would see a boon in construction of huge new buildings along the Avenue, and buildings only five years old (such as Heckscher Building) would be dwarfed by the new towers.

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Another One Bites The Dust…The Savoy Hotel (stuffnobodycaresabout.com)

The New Yorker continued to have fun with actress Gloria Swanson’s pretensions to royalty (she was married to the Marquis de La Coudraye at the time). This time it came from the pen of Jimmie the Ink (James Daugherty), part of his series of drawings that coupled famous people of the day in comic situations:

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To close, two ads from the Jan. 16 issue, this one appealing to Anglophilic, aristocratic aspirations of certain readers…

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And this one from Elizabeth Arden, who will become a mainstay in the magazine with these ads featuring women with ghostly stares, usually with their heads wrapped tightly to combat sagging skin. Thanks to Hollywood, it was the age of the close-up, so wrinkles and blemishes be gone!

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Next Time: Lois Long Talks Cars

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Why We Go To Cabarets

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Nov. 28, 1925 cover art by H.O. Hofman.

If you are looking for a watershed moment in the history of The New Yorker, this is one of them. The issue of Nov. 28, 1925, featured an article written by 22-year-old Ellin Mackay titled “Why We Go To Cabarets: A Post-Debutante Explains.”

Mackay was the daughter of a Catholic multi-millionaire, Clarence McKay, who was threatening to disinherit his daughter because of her romance with Jewish songwriter Irving Berlin. Mackay’s essay explained why modern women were abandoning the forced social matchmaking of débutante balls in favor of the more egalitarian (and fun-loving) night club scene:

At last, tired of fruitless struggles to remember half familiar faces, tired of vainly try to avoid unwelcome dances, tired of crowds, we go to a cabaret. We go to cabarets because of the very fastidiousness that Our Elders find so admirable a quality. We have privacy in a cabaret…What does it matter if an unsavory Irish politician is carrying on a dull and noisy flirtation with the little blonde at the table behind us? We don’t have to listen; we are with people whose conversation we find amusing. What does it matter if the flapper and her fattish boy friend are wriggling beside us as we dance? We like our partner and the flapper likes hers, and we don’t bother each other.

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MAKING MUSIC TOGETHER…Irving Berlin and Ellen Mackay Berlin return from their Atlantic City honeymoon. They were married on Jan. 4, 1926, in New York Municipal Court, a union that lasted 62 years. (NY DAILY NEWS)

Mackay’s piece provided a huge boost to The New Yorker’s circulation, which had dipped below a death-rattle low of 3,000 in August 1925 before it rebounded a bit with new and more aggressive advertising and marketing strategies.

The “Debutante” article was featured on the front page of the New York Times, and was also covered on the front pages of other New York newspapers and even in papers across the country. By the end of the year circulation of The New Yorker neared 30,000.

TIME magazine later observed that with the Mackay piece, The New Yorker “suddenly found that it had succeeded in storming the penthouses of High Society.  Its success opened the eyes of Editor Ross to the importance of the Manhattan socialite, to the fact that Broadway gossip sounds dull on Park Avenue.”

In The New Yorker’s 90th anniversary issue (Feb. 23, 2015), Ian Frazier wrote about the “débutante to the rescue in the Harold Ross era…”

Sometime during the magazine’s early months, Alice Duer Miller gave him (Ross) Ellin Mackay’s “Cabarets” essay. Jane Grant recalled that Ross kept it at the bottom of the pile of manuscripts he brought home, procrastinating because he liked Ellin and expected he would have to reject it, as he often did with others. Grant urged him to run the piece. “It will make wonderful publicity,” she said. Alexander Woollcott, the Times drama critic, with whom the Rosses shared a house…also championed Ellin’s piece. Woollcott knew her through Berlin, whose worshipful biography he had written.

Frazier writes, “In 1,076 words, the “Cabarets” essay had hit precisely the sophisticated young night-club-going, speakeasy-patronizing, up-and-coming, unimpressed-by-their-elders readership Ross was aiming for. The grateful editor gave Ellin Mackay a lifetime subscription to the magazine.” You can read Frazier’s entire article about Mackay and Berlin here.

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Mackay and Berlin pose for Cecil Beaton in the June 1930 Vanity Fair. (LIVEJOURNAL/Conde Nast)

Mackay, who would publish several novels, would marry Berlin on Jan. 4, 1926. The marriage would last until her death in 1988 at age 85. Berlin would die the following year at age 101.

Here is Mackay’s full article:

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*  *  *

Even as one grand house after another fell to the wrecking ball along “Millionaires Row,” it was hard to believe that the Vanderbilt Mansion between 57th & 58th Streets would also succumb to the commercial interests transforming Fifth Avenue seemingly overnight.

“The Talk of the Town” noted that the doomed mansion, once the largest private home in New York City, was being descended upon by all manner of curiosity seekers:

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According to writer Adrian Dannatt, the 130-room, full-scale Renaissance-style château was “originally built to accommodate an entire regal court, a small army, huntsmen and ladies in-waiting, but it was given over instead to a family of eight.”

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A photo of the 58th Street side of the house, taken shortly before the house was sold for $7.1 million, demolished and replaced by the Bergdorf Goodman store. (newyorksocialdiary.com)

This grand pile was designed by George B. Post in 1882, with interior design by John LaFarge and Augustus Saint-Gaudens among others. Post, along with Richard Morris Hunt, substantially expanded the house in 1893. Demolished in 1926, Bergdorf Goodman Department Store now occupies the site.

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Opened in 1928, the Bergdorf Goodman store occupies the Vanderbilt site today. (Wikipedia)

According to Benjamin Waldman, writing for untappedcities.com, a few remnants from the mansion weren’t reduced to dust, including a pair of monumental gates relocated to Central Park and two of six bas-relief sculptures by Karl Bitter that were relocated to the lobby of the Sherry-Netherland Hotel. Apparently the other four disappeared without a trace.

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REMNANT…Caryatid-flanked fireplace designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, topped with a LaFarge mosaic, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Metropolitan Museum)

A fireplace designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, topped with a John LaFarge mosaic, was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is displayed in the courtyard of the museum’s American Wing.

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EPIC…In 1923 Cecil. B. DeMille built the largest set in movie history near Guadalupe, California, for his silent epic, The Ten Commandments. (Santa Barbara Historical Museum)

“Profiles” looked at the life and work of movie director Cecil B. De Mille. R. E. Sherwood wrote that De Mille was the “archetype of the motion picture director—a composite photograph of all the Olympian gods who have descended from Mount Hollywood to dominate the earth.”

Harry Este Dounce (“Touchstone”) reviewed John Dos Passos’ new novel, Manhattan Transfer, and noted that Dos Passos’ version of Manhattan was “not the hypothetical typical New Yorker reader’s, but as far as this department knows, it is very much like the real, complete thing—which is to say, like a hell of chaotic futility.”

In “Sports of the Week,” football continued to dominate the column, with a report on Harvard and Yale battling to a 0-0 tie.

With this issue, “Motion Pictures” was moved from the “Critique” section and given its own page under the Johan Bull-illustrated heading “The Current Cinema.” Theodore Shane wrote that he found Laurence Stalling’s The Big Parade “utterly satisfying,” but he was less impressed with the much-hyped Stella Dallas, which he viewed as a contrived weeper designed to draw lovers of such fare to the box office.

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BOO HOO…Belle Bennett and Lois Moran in Stella Dallas, 1925 (Yam Mag)

Near the back of the magazine the editors printed an exhaustive list of prices on the bootleg liquor market. The prices are quite astonishing, given that $50 in 1925 would be the equivalent of roughly $675 today, based on inflation. Of course that number could vary depending on all sorts of other economic and historic factors, but nevertheless fascinating reading if you are into that sort of thing:

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At the conclusion of “The Talk of the Town,” the editors offered this qualifying note regarding their liquor market list:

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Next Time: Courtin’ and Sparkin’…

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They Call It Burlesque

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August 22, 1925 cover by A.E. Wilson

The critic Gilbert W. Gabriel was more than a bit appalled by the spectacle at the old Olympic Theatre, where a tired and “degenerated” cast of burlesque performers took turns shaking their ancient haunches in the direction of the former Julliard student.

Gilbert’s article in the August 22, 1925 New Yorker, “They Call It Burlesque,” described the performance at the Olympic on East Fourteenth Street as “on its last legs.” The once “honest animalistic, gorgeously orgiastic burlesque show of ten or twenty years ago” had “degenerated in decency,” he wrote.

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Illustration in The New Yorker of the Olympic Burlesque by Reginald Marsh.

As the performers wiggled up and down the runways, Gilbert noted:

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The audience was an equally sad lot:

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There is some relief expressed when two comedians appeared, but they offer an unimaginative routine:

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And then back to the dancers:

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And still more…

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Happier news over in “The Talk of the Town,” where jazz was getting some respect: “Jazz, successor to the outcast ragtime, each day is becoming acceptable. It is the young brother of the musical family, irresponsible and at time highly irritating, but, nevertheless, acknowledged.”

It was reported that even famed violinist Jascha Heifetz “dabbled” in jazz as an amusement, and writers of jazz were “no longer those products of East Side dives,” but rather included the likes of Buddy de Sylva, lyrist to Al Jolson, and George Gershwin, “high priest of jazz,” who was besieged by symphony conductors for his “Symphony in Blue” (better known today as Rhapsody In Blue).

“Talk” continued its lament of the changing face of Fifth Avenue:

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And the Waldorf Astoria was being remodeled in order to add shops on the ground floor along with “125 bathrooms,” giving the famed hotel “a bath for almost every room.” In just four years the old Waldorf would be torn down and replaced by the Empire State Building.

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The old Waldorf Astoria was getting an upgrade, but it would fall to a wrecking ball in only four years. (nycago.org)

“Talk” also noted the planting of Ginkgo trees in the city:

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Although prized today for their beauty and hardiness, not all New Yorkers are in love with the strong odor of its fruit. In the June 30, 2008 issue of The New Yorker, Lauren Collins examined the activities of the “Anti-Ginkgo Tolerance Group” in her article “Smelly Trees.”

“Talk” also offered a brief glimpse into the latest adventures of Pola Negri, noting in its “This Week” section that the actress had paid “$57,000 customs dues in seized jewels…”

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Pola liked nice things (Edward Steichen for Vanity Fair, 1925)

In other items, artist Helen Hokinson provided illustrations for an article on the horse races at Saratoga…

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…John Tunis examined the life of tennis star Elizabeth “Bunny” Ryan in “Profiles” … and E.B. White and Alice Duer Miller offered their thoughts on why they liked New York:

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“Moving Pictures” featured a lengthy review of Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush. Theodore Shane (“T.S.”) wrote that the film’s opening night at the Strand attracted such celebrities as Will Rogers and Constance Bennett.

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Cheer Up Charlie…Chaplin in The Gold Rush (1925) (United Artists)

Shane observed that this “dramatic comedy” was a “serviceable picture,” but perhaps Chaplin was getting “too metaphysical about his pathos” and could have used some old-fashioned pie-in-the-face slapstick.

As an example, in a scene in a typical Klondike town, Shane wrote that “one might be given to expect wonders of Gold Rush burlesque with the old Chaplin at the receiving end of the Klondike equivalent of a custard. But one is doomed to disappointment, for Chaplin has seen fit to turn on his onion juices in a Pierrot’s endeavor to draw your tears…We cannot help but recall with a tinge of sadness, the old days when custard was young.”

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(Wikipedia)

Shane went on to give short but favorable reviews to Rex Reach’s Winds of Chance (at the Piccadilly Theatre), the film’s chief props consisting of “string ties, wooden saloons, ½ dozen cold-blooded murders and the tenderfoot who conquers everything…Shane also noted that the “spiritual features” of Tom Mix in The Lucky Horseshoe (at the Rialto) lent themselves delightfully to “a lovely and sensitive drama of moyen age and modern machinations in the Fairbanks style.”

In “Books,” Harry Este Dounce (“Touchstone”) suggested readers take a look at Carl Van Vechten’s Firecrackers as a good introduction to the writer’s unique style, while J.D. Bereford’s The Monkey Puzzle was deemed only “partly good” but worth reading.

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Lois “Lipstick” Long and Herman J. Mankiewicz (PBS/Wikipedia)

In her regular nightlife review (“When Nights Are Young”), Lois Long (“Lipstick”) playfully sparred with her New Yorker colleague, theater critic Herman J. Mankiewicz:

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Long was referencing this Mankiewicz review in a previous issue (Aug. 8):

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And it all started when Long offered this observation in her July 25 “When Nights Bold” column:

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I hope you are fully sated. As a palate cleanser, I offer yet another droll observation of the world of old money by Gardner Rea:

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Next time: The waning summer season…

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Knickerbocker Junction

In the last post we briefly looked at changes that were coming to Fifth Avenue as it made a transition from a place of high society residences to high society commercial interests.

The May 2, 1925 “Talk of the Town” noted that “New York is no longer the beginning and ending of all things social,” as Fifth Avenue town houses were rapidly disappearing as more of the wealthy elite were building country estates in Tuxedo, Newport or Long Island.

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May 2, 1925 cover by Margaret Schloeman (New Yorker Digital Archive)
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One Sutton Place (city realty.com)

For those remaining in the city, the trend was toward smaller dwellings that didn’t require large staffs, including apartments in locations such as the new Sutton Place.

There were some hold-outs, including Charles Schwab. Although he kept a suite at the Ritz and his wife lived in a “palatial” residence in Loretta, Penn., he nevertheless employed “a full staff of servants” at the “great gray pile with the quaint statue of a steel puddler on the lawn.” This 75-room “pile,” constructed 1902-1906, occupied an entire block between West End Avenue and the Riverside Drive, Seventy-third and Seventy-fourth streets.

Aerial View of Charles M. Schwab Mansion
Charles Schwab’s “great gray pile…”
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…replaced by the Schwab House apartments in 1948. (Top image, nyc-architectute.com / Bottom, street easy.com)

Schwab made his fortune in steel, and was the first president of the U.S. Steel Corporation (He was not related to Charles R. Schwab, founder of the Charles Schwab Corporation, but was the grandfather of Charles R. Schwab the discount broker). After Schwab died in 1939, New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia turned down a proposal to make the mansion the official mayoral residence, considering it too grandiose. It was torn down in 1948 and replaced by the Schwab House, an 18-story apartment building.

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The Astor Ballroom could hold 1,200 people. (thegildedageera.blogspot)

“Talk” also reported that one of old society’s grand gathering places, the Astor mansion at 840 Fifth Avenue, was being made available for various charity events that charged ten dollars for a peek at the Astor ballroom, although it was reported most of the visitors were more interested in the dining room than “in the scene of so many brilliant cotillions, of Ward McAllister’s arrogance toward dowagers and of Mrs. William Astor’s imperial rule of a society arbitrarily exclusive.”

The death of famed portrait painter John Singer Sargent was noted in both the “Talk” and “Art” sections, while a feature titled “The New Conquistadors” poked fun at the Babbitt-like promoters of the Florida real-estate boom:

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)

“Profiles” noted the passing of Sam Drebin, referred to as the “Fighting Jew.” Written by screenwriter William Slavens McNutt, the piece noted the pat irony of Drebin’s death—that a man who braved untold hazards and fought with more than a dozen armies should die “in the stuffy quiet of a doctor’s office when an assistant gave him medicine from the wrong bottle.”

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A Charles Baskerville drawing of Johnny Hudgins (New Yorker Digital Archive)

For all the sophistication of the early New Yorker magazine, attitudes toward various racial groups, especially blacks, was sadly in concert with the times. The section “When Nights Are Bold” mentions a minstrel performance at the Club Alabam by Johnny Hudgins, noting that the entertainer is “as funny as ever, but the rest of the outfit automatically catalogues itself under ‘fast moving brown skin.’ If you are interested in gold teeth, you’ll find some dressy sets there.”

Hudgins was both a vaudeville performer and part of the Harlem Renaissance. He developed blackface pantomime routines with a jazz trumpet soloist who played vocal-sounding “wah-wah” effects with a plunger mute while Hudgins mouthed the words and performed a comic dance. Fans called him “The Wah-Wah Man.” The French hailed him as the “colored Charlie Chaplin” when he performed in the Parisian Revue Negre that also featured Josephine Baker. Hudgins died in 1990 at age 94.

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Johnny Hudgins and Florence Mills Rehearsing on the Pavilion Theatre Roof in 1926 (elvirabarney.wordpress.com)

African-Americans, however, were not the only ethnic group to singled out for stereotypical depictions, as this title art from the recurring poetry feature “Lyrics from the Pekinese” suggests:

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)

From the very first issues The New Yorker kept an eye on the city’s dramatically changing skyline as old landmarks fell and skyscrapers soared. R. W. Sexton was the magazine’s early architecture critic (to be followed by notables included Lewis Mumford and Paul Goldberger).

In the section “The Sky-Line,” Sexton wrote about the planned demolition of Madison Square Garden (it was the second facility to bear the name; today’s MSG is the fourth) and how critics, including foreign visitors, often taunted New Yorkers about their “rabid commercialism.”

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Stanford White’s Madison Square Garden. (http://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com)
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(Left, Museum of the City of New York; right, Wikipedia)

Sexton wrote that the criticism is deserved to an extent, but noted that a structure can only be fine from an architectural standpoint if its value is both artistic and practical.

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Shelton Hotel at 49th and Lexington, which opened in 1924. (New York Times)

Such an attitude would see the erasure of many landmarks, and in some cases whole neighborhoods when Robert Moses entered the picture.

It was also the attitude that led to the destruction in 1963 of one of the world’s architectural wonders—Penn Station—an act that finally prompted New Yorkers to push for preservation laws.

Sexton suggested that “the finest building in New York” was the Shelton Hotel, a building “designed for modern New York, and looks neither to Italy nor to France for it inspiration and example.”

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Hood’s Radiator Building (Copyright friendsofsdarch)

He said the same applied to Raymond Hood’s American Radiator building (opened in 1924). When the Gothic style is employed, Shelton suggested that Bush building on 42nd Street is the finest adaption of the style to a skyscraper.

Shelton concludes that the “set-back laws” for buildings (which prevented tall buildings from blocking all of the light from the street) actually helped to further develop a unique architectural style for the city.

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Bush Building (Real Estate Weekly)

Still standing at 130-132 West 42nd Street, the Bush building, designed by architect Harvey Wiley Corbett and constructed from 1916-18, was notable for its role in the evolution of Times Square and of New York skyscrapers after the 1916 Zoning Resolution.

Advertising was picking up a bit, as we see on the final page of the issue.

It will be a while until we see beer and liquor ads. However, the spate of sparkling water ads in the early, prohibition-era issues suggests that readers were not being encouraged to drink more water, but rather to use it as a mixer for bathtub gin or whatever they could get their hands on in those so called dry years.

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)