Whenever I'm in New York City (as I will be again for a couple of days in June) I breathe in the historical resonance. I stay with friends who live near the South Street Seaport, where I walk the brick-paved streets and imagine New York City's mercantile past. I picture fleets of ships lining the waterfront and I imagine full warehouses and a bustling 19th-century world. When I go to the West Village I think about its Bohemian residents of the first thirty years of the twentieth century. I peek into the old small bars and snippets of Edna St. Vincent Millay's poems float into my head. Parts of the Village still maintain pre-Civil war streetscapes, so I pretend that the townhouses are still single-family residences. Oh, but then when I walk around the Museum area on the upper East Side I really get carried away imagining that these glorious confections that line the streets are still single-family (and some of them are!). When I walk around the theater district I imagine the era when NYC was the unquestioned center of all things theatrical, with scores of plays running at all times. If I squint, I think I see Ethel Merman's and William Gaxton's names on a marquee, starring in the latest Cole Porter musical. It fills my heart to bursting.
So I've taken to the notion that it would be a lot of fun to find an architectural historian to walk the streets with me, to point things out that I wouldn't notice on my own, to enrich these fantasy walks. Of course I'd have to do this one neighborhood at a time. What I have in mind is somebody who could talk about both the buildings and the social and historical contexts of the buildings. I'm looking for somebody who can make the past come to life, using the buildings the past has left behind to frame and recall it. I guess I'm thinking of what you might call a historical walking tour with an emphasis on architecture. I'm sure there are qualified tourguides, people who know and love the city. About 25 years ago my mother and I took such a tour of Boston's Beacon Hill and Back Bay, which was technically a one-day class offered by the Harvard Center for Lifelong Learning. So I know this is possible.
When I mention this to friends who live in New York City, they usually say they either know or could find such a tourguide.
But here's the thing: When I mention this to friends in New York City, or friends in Boston, or friends in Minneapolis, or friends in Seattle, they all say, "Be sure to let me know when you do this! I'd love to come!" I'm pretty certain that even my friends in Australia reading this are thinking, "Boy, if only I could get there, I'd join you in a flash!" I may be on to something here.
I imagine a morning's walk, a 90 minute break for lunch pre-arranged at a restaurant in a building of architectural interest, then an afternoon's walk in a different neighborhood. That's probably ambitious enough.
Does that sound like fun?
Maybe in August.