Finding Ancient Greece and Rome in New York City
Walk around New York and take a close look at the architecture. All over the city, you can find references to the art and architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. It’s in arches and columns, in Latin inscriptions, in sculptures and monuments. It’s in the facades of world-famous buildings, like Grand Central and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Even Rockefeller Center, known for its sleek and silvery art deco towers, pays tribute to Greek mythology: Prometheus holds a flame above the skating rink, while Atlas gazes at Fifth Avenue with the world on his shoulders.
A new book, Classical New York: Discovering Greece and Rome in Gotham, co-edited by Professor Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis (The Graduate Center, CUNY), explores how and why New York became a showcase for the visual language of the ancient world.
The main branch of the New York Public Library, for example, dedicated in 1911, includes monumental arches and six 11-foot sculptures representing history, drama, poetry, religion, romance, and philosophy. This “general evocation” of “imperial Rome” in the library’s façade signified its aspiration to be “a public center of learning and culture for the burgeoning metropolis,” wrote Macaulay-Lewis and her co-author, Fordham University Professor Matthew McGowan, in their introduction.
The idea for the book was inspired in part by Macaulay-Lewis’ observations as she wandered around the city. “I was looking around and I was struck by how many classical-looking buildings there were,” she said in a recent podcast about the book.
Macaulay-Lewis contributed a chapter to the book about Gould Memorial Library. The building was designed by the renowned architect Stanford White for a branch of New York University in the Bronx. The domed building, with six imposing front columns beneath the head of a helmeted female figure, is a “reconceptualization” of the Pantheon, one of ancient Rome’s greatest structures. “Classical architecture, specifically the Pantheon, was deployed to create a cultured atmosphere of erudition, scholarship, and wisdom,” Macaulay-Lewis writes.
In keeping with NYU’s aspirations, the library resembled buildings at Ivy League schools. But NYU left the Bronx in the 1970s. The campus now houses CUNY’s Bronx Community College. Today, wrote Macaulay-Lewis, the library is “New York’s greatest forgotten architectural masterpiece.”