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What immediately strikes me when I sit on this piece of furniture is how uncomfortable it is. I can’t lean back without my feet dangling completely off the ground. It’s as though my body has shrunk, like Alice in Wonderland, and normal furniture no longer suits me. The piece, part of the installation Open House by sculptor and installation artist Liz Glynn at the Doris C. Freedman Plaza, is a reference to the now-demolished William C. Whitney Ballroom, designed by Stanford White, that once stood at 871 5th Avenue (a few blocks north). The original furniture was Louis XIV, upholstered in ornate patterns with gilded frames. Glynn’s is cast in concrete — hard and cool to touch. Without the comfortable sag of soft upholstery, the seat is stiff and I am forced to sit tall, which explains my hovering feet. The patterning of the upholstery is expressed in relief, sharp and textured beneath my hands and legs, and upon closer inspection, the frame of the armchair looks like clay, the fudgy sticky stuff I used to play with as a child. This is the poor man’s version of a Louis XIV fauteuil.
The open-air ballroom is defined on two sides by tall arches that reference the walnut paneling that graced the walls of Whitney’s ballroom but belonged to a chateau near Bordeaux during the time of Louis XIV. The monogram of the French baron who commissioned them can be found in the lunettes. In Whitney’s ballroom, the row of arches lined an entire stretch of wall, framing door and window openings into the adjoining room. In the plaza, they perform as open passages, but their presence hints at a sense of enclosure. In its modern incarnation, we can stand outside this “room” and look in on it, like a full-scale dollhouse.
The history of this house seems plagued by death. It was originally commissioned by Robert L. Stuart, a sugar refining magnate, who died in 1882, before he could move in. It was then owned by Amzi L. Barber, who sold it to William C. Whitney in 1897. Whitney commissioned Stanford White, of the prominent architecture firm McKim, Mead & White, to remodel the house into a modern showplace. Whitney’s wife Edith died during construction, and William died a few years after the house was complete. The architect also died — or rather was murdered — two years later, in 1906, after a sex scandal. He was a serial seducer of teenage girls, including Evelyn Nesbitt, whom he inebriated and sexually assaulted when she was 16 (White was 47 years old at the time). Years later, Harry Thaw, Nesbitt’s jealous husband and heir to a multimillion-dollar mine and railroad fortune, shot White in the head at Madison Square Garden, where they were both attending a theatrical show. Thaw was later acquitted, after the first successful use of the insanity defense.
Following Whitney’s death, the house was bought, with all its furnishings, by James Henry Smith. During his honeymoon abroad, he fell ill and died, and his body was returned to 871 5th Avenue. For the second time in three years, the body of the mansion’s owner lay in one of its parlors. The final owners of the house were Harry Payne Whitney (son of William C. Whitney) and his wife Gertrude Vanderbilt. The younger Whitney died in his bed in 1930. His widow continued to live in the house and, following her death, it was finally demolished in 1942.
I don’t believe in ghosts, but if I did, I would wonder whether the many dead owners of the house might be tempted to haunt Glynn’s reincarnation of their ballroom.
The ballroom as a discrete element in the American home came about during the Gilded Age. It was a luxury to have an entire room devoted to a grand event that would likely occur no more than once a year. The Whitney ballroom would host Barbara Whitney’s coming out party, a World War I auction, and Flora Whitney’s wedding reception. In its current incarnation, we are left to imagine what is meant to happen in this space, as other details of the room have been omitted by Glynn.
Moving through the space, you feel as though you’re part of a performance. The furniture has become backdrop to the chaotic ballet of locals speedily weaving through to get between Central Park and 5th Avenue, and the languorous tourists strolling then pausing, sitting, deciding which path to take next. Standing in the installation, you feel enveloped by the city: a concrete mixer is stopped in front of the plaza, a food cart is parked at the southeast corner of the park, another selling waffles is at the west corner, people selling bike tours of Central Park meander about, and a small truck nearby sells NYC T-shirts.
The furniture, which is almost comically formal, changes the way you present yourself to the world. The armchairs prove to be an attractive backdrop for the obligatory selfie. A little girl shrieks “Sofaaaa!” in delight as she spots the most coveted piece of furniture in the installation. The sofa feels more intimate than a park bench, its gently curved sides inviting conversation, as I witnessed a few groups of friends doing on a Saturday afternoon. At one point a street performer dressed entirely in silver glitter, with platform heels and a mask, co-opts the sofa for him (or her)self. The motionless performer appears to be taking a break (they could be asleep, for all I know) but occasionally motions to a fascinated child and, after the photo-op, watches the parent drop money into an open purse.
New York’s Gilded Age of ballrooms and coming out parties seems distant and antiquated today. But all around this square are signs that New York’s elites are certainly still thriving. Through the arches, I have a view past the Plaza and Bergdorf Goodman, down 5th Avenue to Trump Tower. Public space and public art, both of which facilitate diversity and encourage interaction between people of different demographics, are increasingly vital in cities where seemingly every square inch is coveted by developers. I encourage local residents to venture out and take a moment to pause and sit in Glynn’s furniture and experience an echo of a time long past.
Open House continues at the Doris C. Freedman Plaza (Central Park, 60th Street and 5th Avenue) through September 24.