April 03, 2008

New York: Everyman's architecture

I'm off to New York, my favorite place. On Sunday I'm running the MORE Marathon, a Central Park 26-miler just for chicks over 40.

I love this race. It's five and half loops around Central Park's interior, car-free roads, and there's so much to look at. (My post, "Tour de Central Park," has details.) I also like it because I usually look decent in the overall results. Amazing what happens to your percentile performance when you remove the 32-year-old wonderboys from the field and run only against old ladies...

In the past, the pre-race expos, where you pick up your race bib and shoe timing chip, have been at hotel ballrooms in midtown, not far from the Central Park start line.

This year, they're sending us downtown to a place called the Altman Building. When I saw that I got a bit worried. Banished from midtown. Did this mean this race is in trouble? Holding a race expo way down on West 18th Street? What's with that?

Turns out the Altman Building is a historical gem. It was built in 1896 as the carriage house for the B. Altman Department Store, before Mr. Altman built a flagship store in midtown. Refurbished in 1998 as an elegant convention and functions venue, the Altman Building brims with 19th-century architectural detail. (And is, I discovered, the site of an annual New Year's Eve bash you might want to check out if your plans ever bring you to Manhattan on that night. It's a pricey party but looks interesting.)

New York's architecture can keep you busy forever. I've probably been to the city 40 times and always find something new to investigate and enjoy. For a marvelous guide to the treasures you pass on nearly every city street, pick up a copy of the AIA Guide to New York City, first published in 1967 by the Architectural Institute of America and a layman-friendly, block-by-block description of the history and detail of thousands of buildings.

I love New York's buildings --storied, iconic structures like the Empire State, Chrysler and Flatiron; soaring, new towers that are ushering in an age of green, eco-friendly construction; smaller, centuries-old brick, wooden and cast iron buildings that dot the city.

But I love, too, the prosaic, pedestrian things that sit atop and decorate the sides of New York's buildings. There is remarkable beauty in fire escapes and water towers.