The Vanishing Points — The Transformation of Grand Army Plaza Through Viewing Vintage Postcards

Grand Army Plaza Postcard

Grand Army Plaza Postcard

Back in Pittsburgh, I never thought I would have a thing for postcards. After all, they were products of mass production (to some degree). It was after I moved to Brooklyn that I discovered the pleasure of reading vintage postcards.

Perhaps there is no other place than New York that vintage postcards hold the wonderful collectible values. For a city which has been rebuilding itself so many times,  postcards provide an extravagant visual experience of “then and now” in indefinite scale.  Not only that one can find the great rendering of the vanished buildings such as Penn Station, the Wardorf-Astoria Hotel, the Vanderbilt mansions, but also some less known architecture or statues in other boroughs including Brooklyn and Queens.

My personal experience brings my attention to the so-called the cultural mile of Brooklyn: the Eastern Parkway (the world’s first parkway) stretching from the Grand Army Plaza (GAP) to the Brooklyn Museum, both of which can be found in plenty of vintage postcards.

A lot of early postcards of GAP dated between 1892 and 1902. The relative abundance from this period indicates that Broolynites’ pride and joy in the grandeur of the park entrance and the arch designed by McKim, Mead and White. Devoid of automobile traffic, the plaza is reminiscent of European neoclassicism; yet the large empty space around the arch declared it American: Here, with enormous growth in wealth and confidence of the late Gilded Age, the  order, dignity, and harmony of the old civilization still hold, but on a bigger and more ambitious scale.

I always have a vision that someday the GAP would be changed back to its original design of the last 10 years of the 19th century. There are several points which makes this postcards version much more attractive.

Grand Army Plaza in 1894
Grand Army Plaza in 1894

First and most importantly, there was no “traffic” as we know it in the early days of the Plaza. The American grandness became deadly with the advent of automobile.  Unlike the European plazas which were squeezed into a smaller space, the undeveloped land around GAP made it a victim of traffic. As early as in 1927, a “Death-O-Meter” was installed at the plaza to track the automobile fatalities. Since the 1950s, the GAP has been a sea of cars and traffic lights. The plaza circular traffic pattern makes it a suicidal adventure for anyone wants to enter the plaza which is an island surrounded by endless traffic flow.

Second, there were no dominating buildings around.

The Eastern Parkway was a patch of green at that time. A water tower of the Mount Prospect Reservoir dominated at the southeast corner of Flatbush and Eastern Parkway where the Brooklyn Central Library is. It was on that corner where August Saint-Gauden’s  Henry Maxwell Tablet was originally located. One of the postcards show the tablet with the background of the reservoir water tower. In 1912 the monument was moved to the east side of the plaza. It reportedly took a week and ten horses to move the boulder over 400 yards distance. Due to repeated vandalism in the past, the restored tablet is now at the ground level (staff entrance) of the Brooklyn Museum, where Henry Maxwell sat on board for 6 years. A reproduction tablet is now mounted on its original boulder at St. Johns and Plaza Street.

The relocation of a giant boulder did’t change the overall structure of the plaza, but a few buildings did. The central library, started in 1912, took almost 30 years to finish. Although the entrance recalls the colonnades of the park entrance designed by Sanford White, the rest of the building, with its simplistic geometric form, reflected an Art Deco influence. Richard Meier’s On Prospect Park has a less damaging effect, partially because the colored glass can be absorbed in the sky or works as a smooth textureless backdrop for statues around the plaza.

Grand Army Plaza in spring

Grand Army Plaza in spring

Third, the early postcards show that the group statues of “The Spirit of the Army” and “The Spirit of the Navy” by MacMonnie was not mounted. Geo always comments on a desire for the monument to be in a simpler form. The two statues, although heroic, intense and storytelling, break the elegant lines of the arch designed by John Duncan. With additional two relief sculptures of Lincold and Grant by William O’Donovan and Thomas Eakins (Eakins only did the horse part), the arch was much more a show piece of the historical sculpture than a grand piece of architecture alone.

Another late addition to the sculpture group around the GAP is the MacMonnie’s General Henry Warner Slocum. The statue was located at Bedford Ave and Eastern Parkway when it was dedicated by Teddy Roosevelt. One postcard shows it facing westward, an integral part of the ornamented parkway that leads to the park.  It was moved to its current small slope in the late 1920’s. In my opinion, it was a successful move that united the works by MacMonnies together (Quagriga, The Spirit of the Army, the Spirit of the Navy, Park Commissioner James Stranahan) and linked General Slocum in the context of civil war (His funny nickname was slow come for his Gettysburg performance). On any sunny day, the statue resolves into or emerges from the glass backdrop of On Prospect Park depending on the cloud conditions. The general rides his horse in his commanding pose, toward the direction of the Green-wood cemetery where he is buried.

Maxwell Memorial Tablet by August Saint-Gaudens
Maxwell Memorial Tablet by August Saint-Gaudens

I have not seen a postcard with Henry Kirke Brown’s Lincoln statue in GAP. The 8-foot tall statue was regarded as too imposing during the transformation period of the 1890’s and relocated to the concert grove. Similarly, postcards with the gas lit fountain designed by Calvert Vaux are also rare since the fountain was regarded as too rusty and was replaced by an electric fountain in 1897. Interestingly, not many postcards can be found with this spectacular fountain which drew more than 100,000 people on its opening night with its shifting colors and every-changing spouts. Possibly this is because the fountain was shortlived (only 18 years later the  BMT and IRT subway lines construction necessitated the removal of the fountain.), possibly because the beauty of its color at night could hardly be fully captured in the early postcards.  The current Bailey Fountain was built in 1932. The restrained curve and elongated body forms of the pair of nudes figures are quintessentially art deco style.

The last myth of the GAP was the missing statue of John. F. Kennedy on the north part of the plaza. I have seen a postcard with the statue which was erected in 1965. It was only recently removed (Oct 2003) that even the New York Department of Park and Recreation still lists the statue in its website. In fact it is in the Picnic House of the Prospect Park now.

Calvert Vaux Plaza Fountain in 1873

Calvert Vaux Plaza Fountain in 1873

Here is a short version of the complicated story. Neil Estern, a Brooklynite sculptor, hated the pedestal JFK was put on from the very beginning. By the time the granite pedestal was done in 2003, Mr. Estern’s old JFK was no good.  Based on a Smithsonian Institution survey, graffiti stained so deep that scrubbing them off had worn away the inscriptions which has the famous saying: “Ask not what your country can do for you as what you can do for your country.”  The bust itself looked like it had been whacked by a bat. Instead of having a new one cast, Estern saw some places sculpture could improve. Now his work is complete and all the city has to do to put JFK on the plinth is to find a $70,000. Will that happen in 2009?

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If you are interested in collecting the vintage postcards, stop by at Brooklyn Flea in Dumbo every weekend. Lon Black, a knowledgable dealer has a variety collections of vintage postcards covering almost every aspect of New York City.

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Wang Hui lived from 1632 - 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that "his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

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4 Comments

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  3. Richard Kessler said:

    In the 1865 plan of Grand Army Plaza, Vaux aimed the axis of the ellipse at the Manhattan mansion of William Backhouse Astor. This alignment can be confirmed by standing inside Prospect Park on the Brooklyn Mirador, a concrete platform on the median of the roadway leading into the Park from Grand Army Plaza, and looking through Defenders Arch. The tower of the Empire State Building is framed perfectly within the Arch’s openning and precisely bisects the Arch.
    The Arch was dedicated at the south end of the Plaza’s axis in 1892. The 1931 Empire State Building replaced the original Waldorf Astoria, which had replaced the Astor mansion by 1897.

  4. Pingback: WHO ARE THOSE GUYS? Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn | | Forgotten New YorkForgotten New York

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