December 16, 2014
A Staircase with a View
So many of the stairways we traverse in our travels throughout the five boroughs aren’t memorable – fire stairs to avoid waiting for an elevator or subway stairs hurriedly taken as the train is arriving. A few are iconic. The notion of visiting Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or Columbia University conjures a sense of gracious public space. Some of NYC’s great stairs are more hidden, or new, making it helpful to be reminded of their charm.
Central Park, of course, is rife with moments of level change discovery. The two open areas of Bethesda Terrace, located in what many consider the heart of the park, are connected by three stately staircases that always seem to surprise and delight. (The central staircase is pictured above.) Since the 19th century, their carved stone walls and granite steps have been the site of human interaction between friends and strangers, in the most formal and informal of ways, from playful dashes up and down the steps to heated public protests. Traversing these meticulously crafted stairs provides a glimpse into the diverse rhythms of life in New York City.
A similar sense of entry, into a grand public place and into the timbre of the boroughs, is experienced when coming upon the broad staircase at Roosevelt Island’s Four Freedoms Park. Visually surrounded by Manhattan and Queens, the park offers visitors a serene place to reflect on the impact of civic leaders such as the island’s namesake and the late architect Louis I. Kahn, who was commissioned in the 1970’s to design the only recently completed park. Its deceptively simple geometry masks the park’s many perceptual reveals, not the least of which is experienced while ascending the stairs.
In lower Manhattan’s new Fulton Center hub, a central spiraling staircase acts both as a platform for gazing and as the object of gazes. Of course, there are a wide range of other stairs, elevators, and escalators to accommodate the complex’s abundant foot traffic, which streams in via nine subway lines. However, the allure of this particular staircase is unique, perhaps especially to commuters waiting for the elevator that it encircles.
The hilly terrain of the Bronx, northeast Staten Island, and upper Manhattan may be most tangible when using each area’s many step streets, pedestrian-only connections on slopes too steep for traditional roads. As an unexpected benefit, the public yet relatively intimate nature of step streets has made them an intriguing setting for public art. For example, on 187th Street between Overlook Terrace and Washington Avenue, the Department of Transportation recently partnered with Steed Taylor on a piece called “Patriot.” The swirling red and blue lines honor the history of Fort Washington, but also incite interest – in the colors and textures of the stairs themselves, in their relationship to the nearby buildings, and into the neighborhood’s urban fabric.
While staircases range in styles and surroundings, each one provides chances for observation. Whether you are strolling up to the promenade above the Brooklyn Museum’s Rubin Pavilion and Lobby, climbing your office’s stairs for some mid-day physical activity, or simply sipping coffee on your very own stoop, a staircase can become a delightfully effective series of vantage points. Next time that your movements present the opportunity, try taking the stairs. The view will be inspiring, to say the least.
This post originally appeared in Crain’s 5boros. To read the piece as originally published, and a variety of other content about the dynamic neighborhoods of New York City, visit Crain’s 5boros online.