Modernist Escapes in Midtown Manhattan

Midtown Manhattan can seem overwhelming at times. The density created by the tall buildings, the crowds flocking to Rockefeller Center and Radio City, the flagship stores along Fifth Avenue, and the general mayhem that ensues on a day with parades or other special events makes Midtown the area to avoid among many natives. For residents and visitors alike, knowledge of quick escape routes and calming spaces nearby can make the difference between an exciting adventure in the city or a long and exhausting day in New York. I prefer to have a nice day.

Paley Park
I'm not crazy about crowds, but that's what you get when you want to see a parade on Fifth Avenue. Fortunately, I've developed an emergency kit of serene places in Midtown where I can escape for a little while. I've always managed to find Paley Park just when I needed it, a small space built in 1967 on the site of the former Stork Club at 3 E. 53rd Street. William S. Paley, the founder of CBS, donated the park and named it after his father. The waterfall at the back of the space works to soften the noise of the street. Those chairs are actually comfortable.

The other day I discovered the calming interiors of two nearby spaces - Olympic Place, an arcade in the Olympic Tower just off Fifth, connecting St. Patrick's on E. 51st St. with E. 52nd, and Park Avenue Plaza, between E. 52nd and E. 53rd. and between Madison and Park. Olympic Place, though a modernist walkway, explicitly asserts a connection to classical Greece as it serves as the home to the Onassis Cultural Center. The center features galleries with free admission and open to the public Monday through Saturday 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.

Park Avenue Plaza, featured below, is an open and airy space, with its own water features, a fine bookseller (Chartwell Booksellers, specializing in Winston Churchill material), a chocolate boutique, and more. While I was there several people were sitting quietly at tables and eating their lunches while a man played piano. The space has something of the same aura as Olympic Place, though they're configured differently, but the similarity has something to do with the buildings sharing the same architecture firm, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, within a few years of one another (1977, 1981).

lobby of Park Avenue Plaza

For resting outside, I recommend the Lever House at 390 Park Avenue between E. 53rd and E. 54th Streets. Now here's some Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to get excited about. The 1952 building is famous for introducing the world to the glass curtain wall, and while some may hate them for their evil spawn, I think this building has aged well. These days, there's some big Kitty love going on in the pedestrian public space. Below, you're looking at “Wind-Up Hello Kitty” (2008) by Tom Sachs.

Lever House

From here, you could follow the footsteps of Greta Garbo by heading over to her place on the East River. Then you would be totally alone, dahlinks.

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple, March 17, 2009. Clicking on most any image on this website opens a larger version.

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