Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Naked Ladies of Fifth Avenue

Proper Victorian women covered themselves. Even in the oppressive New York heat of summer, high collars, long sleeves, skirts that swept the pavement and gloves were expected. In Central Park the Ladies’ Cottage was erected to prevent masculine eyes from glimpsing feminine ankles while the women slipped into their ice skates.

Yet despite this over-extravagant modesty on the street, late 19th Century sculpture and paintings were replete with nudes or semi-naked women. In the parlors of the most refined society matrons could be found a nude marble goddess or a classical-themed painting of Sabine women falling out of their garments.

It was during this time of paradoxical social views that Henry Corn commissioned architect Louis Korn to design a loft building on lower Fifth Avenue.

Corn was a speculator and developer who leapt at the chance to grab the wide brownstone mansions along Fifth Avenue as the wealthy migrated northward. Two of them, at 91 and 93 Fifth Avenue, would become the site of his 8-story loft.

The commission was an important, early one for Louis Korn. He was graduated from Columbia University’s School of Architecture only three years earlier, in 1891. His completed Beaux Arts building immediately stood out along the new Fifth Avenue commercial buildings. Faced in limestone and white brick with terra cotta trim, Korn embellished it with swags and lion’s heads, pilasters and garlands. But on the sixth floor Korn made his mark.

There six busty, nude caryatids hoist the pedestals of the Corinthian columns of the two top stories. To this day the visual impact of the beautiful and classic caryatids is dramatic among the lower Fifth Avenue buildings.

Publishers moved into Corn’s new building including the Oxford University Press and Longsmans, Green & Co. In 1905 Clarendon Press joined them. Other tenants included clothing sellers and upholsterers.

In October of 1915, Henry Corn’s speculative nature went too far and bankrupted him. The New York Times reported that “…his confidence in himself is now said to have been his undoing.” 91-93 Fifth Avenue went into receivership.

Corn’s elegant loft building, however, never passed through a period of neglect or lack of maintenance. With the exception of replacement windows and the loss of some of the original ground floor details, it is in a remarkable state of preservation.

And the naked ladies above Fifth Avenue continue to hold up the great Corinthian pillars; a pleasant surprise for anyone who happens to look up.

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