Tag Archives: Central Park

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Bethesda Terrace’s Magical Minton Ceiling

Like other great cities, New York is a museum unto itself. It is possible to visit and never set foot inside any building – save for your hotel – and come away filled to the aesthetic brim. It’s all eye candy: the people, the architecture, the street art, the signs of wear, seasonal changes, the movement of everything, the intentional and unintentional.

The Minton tile ceiling design is made up of 15,876 individual encaustic tiles. These are divided between 49 panels. There are two repeated panel designs that differ only in the central motif being either large or small. Each panel is made up of 324 tiles. The tiles were fixed to cast iron back plates by a simple brass ‘dovetail bolt’. This ingenious fixing used a special slot in the back of each tile that was produced by inserting a wedge-shaped piece of wood that burnt out during firing. The head of the bolt could then be fitted and cemented for extra strength (Figure 2). Once in place, the protruding bolt was threaded through the back plate and secured with a nut (Figure 3). Each back plate was held in place by a grid of structural cast iron work attached to the Arcade stone and brickwork (Figure 4). 

Many private buildings in NYC restrict public access for reasons of privacy and security, so gems like the Woolworth Building are no longer open to common curiosity seekers. But for every inaccessible space, there are ten public jewels like Bethesda Terrace.

Although it appears to be natural, every detail in Olmsted and Vaux’s Central Park plan was purpose-built.  Bethesda Terrace, adjacent to the park’s 72nd Street Cross Drive, too, was purposely designed and implemented by Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey to be “a place of social gathering.”1  Standing on the footbridge above, onlookers are presented with a lovely view of the terrace, fountain and lake. But its subterranean delights are well-concealed; the tiles aren’t visible until you descend the staircase and step inside.

I was triply rewarded for my visit: a bright sunny day cast dramatic shadows, furnishing high contrast between dark and light; the Peace Industry Music Group provided a breathtaking musical accompaniment in a cathedral-quality sound space; and nearly 16,000 magnificent Minton tiles, flanked by frescoes, stretched from one end of the arcade to the other.

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This is one of the most important installations of Minton tiles in the United States. Others include the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, DC and the exhibition display collection housed in the Smithsonian.  Bethesda Terrace is the only known use of Minton encaustic tiles in a suspended ceiling2

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As if I wasn’t already agog at the tiles, I plunked myself down on the floor to stare at, listen to and photograph the beauty of the Peace Industry Music Group. Like a modern Van Trapp family, the group includes seven of nine siblings, plus guest players, led by father John Valiant Boyd.  The singing begins @ 2:30.

I returned one rainy morning and had the place mostly to myself. With a book and a thermos of coffee I could have tucked up in a niche and spent the day reading to my heart’s content, a sublime woman-cave in the picturesque heart of the city. Alas, my tile obsession – and corresponding list of must-sees – got the better of me, and off I went in search of the next treasure trove.

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Resources:
Minton Tile Ceiling, Bethesda Terrace, New York by Danny Callaghan July, 2013 http://www.madeinstaffordshire.com/thepotteriestiletrail/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/TACS-GE71-Minton-Tile-Ceiling-Article-copy.pdf

 


  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bethesda_Terrace 

  2. http://www.victorianamagazine.com/archives/12299 

StudioloGubbio

CurioCabinet: Studiolo Gubbio

In our family, turning six entitled the birthday child to a five-day trip to New York with Mamma.

It was a mutually beneficial ruse: I enjoyed a big-city adventure roughly every eighteen months and they got my undivided attention and an itinerary to match their interests.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art became a staple.  Set on the edge of Central Park on Museum Mile, it is child-centric – without earnestly striving to be so – and offers a gorgeous building containing a near-bottomless reservoir of eclectic man-made miracles.

On that first trip with my eldest son, Dante, we made a beeline for the Arms and Armor Collection, the Egyptian Collection and the European Sculpture Court. What we accidentally discovered was a private study carefully crafted from walnut, beech, rosewood, oak and fruitwoods in the trompe l’oeil style.

Credit: Rogers Fund, 1939     www.metmuseum.org

Federico da Montefeltro (1422-1482), Duke of Urbino in the Marches, a leading military figure in Quattrocento Italy, was also famous for his knowledge and understanding of the arts. In the palace of his capital of Urbino he created a studiolo, a small room for study, decorated with a lavish wall paneling of intarsia, or precious inlaid woods, that was completed about 1476. The redesign of his palace at Gubbio, following plans by Francesco di Giorgio Martini, also began that year. Once again, Tuscan artists outfitted another studiolo with panels of intarsia. This time they emphasized the duke’s personal devices and such attributes of learning as musical and scientific instruments, skillfully executed from designs of great refinement. (www.metmuseum.org)

When I saw the Studiolo Gubbio I recognized perfection.

I was awestruck and heartbroken, knowing that I could never make anything so creative, intricate and powerful.  The Studiolo was not born of a generalist like me, but of three masters of their craft.   With flawless execution, the ingenious craftsmen tricked observers into seeing three-dimensional objects where only two existed.  When I saw these panels I grasped the overwhelming impulse of humans to possess great works of art and craft.  Why would plain walls do when these exist?

The scale of the Studiolo is human, but it has lost its original context like so many other precious and desirable objects cloistered in museums and private galleries. This room was once in a house – albeit a large one – alive with daily activity and usefulness.  There is gain for gallery visitors like myself, but there is a measure of loss, too.  The Studiolo is no longer animated.  Its voices are silent and its lively narrative closed.

While I could never afford something as precious as the Studiolo Gubbio, inspiration flows freely.  We returned home and I set out to create a modest studio for Dante.  I painted the floor, panelled the walls, created a Greek alphabet frieze, and painted a magnetic wall map of the world.  There he strategized battles and moved his ships and explorers to the far corners of his imagination.

The look on his face while he played?  Priceless.

 More images and history of Studiolo Gubbio are available here.