That Queer Building

I remember it well.  I would have, and probably did, call it odd.  Tacky, maybe.  I would have told you it was a bit of kitsch down there on Columbus Circle.  I was in architecture school, it was the early 1980s, and I'm not sure any one of my professors ever mentioned 2 Columbus Circle, which was called the Gallery of Modern Art back then.  Yet I was taught about it, I was simply taught what was tacky and what was kitschy, they didn't need to tell me that 2 Columbus Circle was a perfect example, all I had to do was look at its decorative corners, its pointed arches, its swanky concave curves, and I knew.

But I never called it queer.  I mean, queer, that was a word carefully imprinted on me.  My mother told me when I was quite young that I was not to use that word.  She hinted that it was derogatory, and that of course only fed my interest in the word.  Queer, over time I began to gather, didn't just mean odd, it meant homosexual.  And, then, over the years, it began to mean more.  Not just homosexual, but something broader, not derogatory, but defiant.  An alternative way of looking at things, crossing gender lines perhaps, challenging the way things are.  I was reading, reading always and began to be aware of the concept of queer spaces, places where gay people could gather, pieces of the public domain that queer people had claimed.  A close friend of mine told me one day, I'm not gay, I think of myself as queer.

And, then, not so long ago, I came upon a reference to something Herbert Muschamp, onetime architecture critic for The New York Times, had written about 2 Columbus Circle, he'd written it back when a few brave souls were trying to save this much maligned building, grant it Landmark status and keep it from being mangled in a proposed renovation.  Those few brave souls, they lost, the building was renovated, but Muschamp wrote a kind of elegy for it.  He called it a queer building and he thought a building that queer really ought to be saved, even if it wasn't great architecture.

Because it was queer, and because it was a kind of physical manifestation of the growth of queer culture in New York during the fifties and sixties.  And because he loved the building.  He saw in its brazen historicism and its interiors done up like a nightclub, its galleries full of sighing Pre-Raphaelites, a tangible expression of the challenge queer represented.  "Aubrey Beardsley engravings," he wrote,

"Victorian bric-a-brac, Art Nouveau and Art Deco ornaments, Fortuny fabrics, faded Hollywood
stars: these artifacts were signs in a code, adopted before openness about homosexuality
was possible. The love that dared not speak its name had learned to scream through

I don't like tacky objects.  I abhor clutter of any kind and I would be very happy in a monk's cell.  Truth be told, I've been happy in a monk's cell, though I was never a monk.  I like sleek Italian furniture and I would live in a sleek apartment with glass walls if I had enough money.  I love abstract painting.  But I know what Muschamp means.  Those abstract expressionists were a macho bunch, weren't they, they drank excessively and they womanized.  And Lever House and the Seagram building, they were cool and elegant, no doubt, but they were also embodiments of the corporate culture, they were male and they were straight and they were all about power.

And I guess, if there is an opposite to those Mad Men, well, 2 Columbus Circle might serve reasonably well as an example.  Sort of the queen of Columbus Circle, a mundane tower done up in Venetian drag.  Queer, I suppose you might say.  Not only an affront, but a proud one.

Of course, I shouldn't speak of the building in the present tense.  It's gone, only it's frame survives.  And these days, what with the hate crimes in the newspaper, and the good people of Maine not behaving so well, and now the American Christians assisting the Ugandans, things aren't looking so great for the home team.  So, tacky though she may have been, I find I'm missing the old queen.  Just a little.

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ArichNY said...

In the late 60's I used to travel to NYC for my summer job while I was in college. Work used to bring us to the now gone Coliseum located clockwise around the circle from 2 Columbus Circle. The Time Warner Center stands there now. The building is imprinted on my brain! Thanks for posting this! I visited your old blog a short while back. I came out at 56. Now divorced and living in St. Petersburg, Florida. Like you, I'm out to stay!

Paul said...

Anyone who ventures down to Columbus Circle today, with an eye for the building I've written about, is sure to be disappointed by the bland, neosnazzy modernism of the renovated facades. No queen, this one, just another in the crowd. Thanks for reading, ArichNY, and keep in touch.

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