We live only to discover beauty. All else is a form of waiting. – Kahlil Gibran
Like other great cities, New York is a museum unto itself. It is possible to visit and never set foot inside any building – save for your hotel – and come away filled to the aesthetic brim. It’s all eye candy: the people, the architecture, the street art, the signs of wear, seasonal changes, the movement of everything, the intentional and unintentional.
Many private buildings in NYC restrict public access for reasons of privacy and security, so gems like the Woolworth Building are no longer open to common curiosity seekers. But for every inaccessible space, there are ten public jewels like Bethesda Terrace.
Although it appears to be natural, every detail in Olmsted and Vaux’s Central Park plan was purpose-built. Bethesda Terrace, adjacent to the park’s 72nd Street Cross Drive, too, was purposely designed and implemented by Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey to be “a place of social gathering.” Standing on the footbridge above, onlookers are presented with a lovely view of the terrace, fountain and lake. But its subterranean delights are well-concealed; the tiles aren’t visible until you descend the staircase and step inside.
I was triply rewarded for my visit: a bright sunny day cast dramatic shadows, furnishing high contrast between dark and light; the Peace Industry Music Group provided a breathtaking musical accompaniment in a cathedral-quality sound space; and nearly 16,000 magnificent Minton tiles, flanked by frescoes, stretched from one end of the arcade to the other.
The Minton tile ceiling design is made up of 15,876 individual encaustic tiles which are divided between 49 panels. There are two repeated panel designs that differ only in the central motif being either large or small. Each panel is made up of 324 tiles.
This is one of the most important installations of Minton tiles in the United States. Others include the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, DC and the exhibition display collection housed in the Smithsonian. Bethesda Terrace is the only known use of Minton encaustic tiles in a suspended ceiling.
As if I wasn’t already agog at the tiles, I plunked myself down on the floor to stare at, listen to and photograph the beauty of the Peace Industry Music Group. Like a modern Van Trapp family, the group includes seven of nine siblings, plus guest players, led by father John Valiant Boyd.
I returned one rainy morning and had the place mostly to myself. With a book and a thermos of coffee I could have tucked up in a niche and spent the day reading to my heart’s content, a sublime woman-cave in the picturesque heart of the city. Alas, my tile obsession – and corresponding list of must-sees – got the better of me, and off I went in search of the next treasure trove.
All photographs copyright Andrea Cordonier 2016
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