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May 13, 2024


By Barry Udoff

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 ten-pound barbell.

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.

The 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 X-rated playground. 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 own epitaph.

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 sent you.


Photography by Tore Cleasson.

Article © Barry Udoff. All rights reserved.
Published on 2013-08-12
Image(s) © Tore Cleasson. All rights reserved.
11 Reader Comments
05:05:12 AM
This author has the incredible ability to make one feel as if they are actually viewing (all) as if there were there. Excellent. Thank you for your amazing descriptive writings Mr. Udoff!
09:13:51 PM
an absolutely wonderful piece on this gem of a park! although gentrification of the neighborhood has already begun and it's getting harder to find a bench to contemplate from without tripping over nannies with strollers and 20-somethings yapping on their phones, if you catch it in off hours or even on a chilly day, it's one of the most Zen places in the city!
05:03:46 AM
It has been a long time since I visited NYC. This piece of writing makes me want to book a flight and head for the apple with this as a guide.
Patrick Walsh
02:26:39 PM
Great article! You left out he courthouse on the NE corner 25th Street and Madison Avenue and the now gone mansion on SE corner of 26th Street (or 27th) and Madison where Winston Churchill's mother Jenny was born and where she grew up. The park was also surrounded by nearby Horse Stables so that the elite of the city could ride their horses in the park and up Fifth Avenue where there are several other Stanford White designed buildings still standing. Another White building if nearby on the NW corner of 16th and Fifth. Enjoyed your article immensely!
judie udoff
10:40:19 PM
Love it. Nothing more fun than to visit and explore places' a tourist would never know where or how to find these lovely spots. Even living in the city, locals can enjoy special areas they never took the time to find before.
Ann Pitts
09:34:29 PM
This article makes me long for NYC and its rich architectural history. Thanks for the pithy background on all these sites, Barry.
Steve Weakley
09:51:21 PM
fascinating an brilliantly written. The author obviously has a Tom Wolfe like eye for the often unnoticed and revealing artifacts of urban culture.
Steve Weakley
09:52:51 PM
fascinating an brilliantly written. The author obviously has a Tom Wolfe like eye for the often unnoticed and revealing artifacts of urban culture.
Rip Rescue Dog for Her Majesty
10:05:37 PM
Felt like I was reading a lost chapter of E.B.White's "This is New York."
William Backer III
06:28:51 PM
This is clearly a New Yorker still smitten with his city and showing the rest of us the riches we overlook every day. Wonderful read.
Carl Contrera
05:59:31 PM
As a student at the School of Visual Arts and later, working directly across the street from the school, I spent countless hours in that lovely park. Thanks to your vivid writing I wish I could spend many more.
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