What’s your address? Most of us would just answer that with a number and a street name, but some New Yorkers have the added cachet of an elegant building name. Well, maybe a bit of cachet. Maybe not so much elegance.
The truth is that a lot of building names aren’t exactly magical. Oh sure, there are the classics that conjure visions of 20th century glamour–the Dakota, the San Remo, the El Dorado, the Beresford, London Terrace, River House–but many building names don’t conjure anything other than, “Oh yeah, it’s right on the awning…I can picture it. It begins with an A. Or a W. I think.”
The Dakota, one of the New York City building name classics.
Forgettable, indeed. When I think about the worst building names in New York, most are bad simply for the sin of dullness. There’s a focused-group-to-death sound about them, as if some marketing team took syllables from other well-regarded buildings, threw them together and came up with something like “Dakesford Terrace House.” Actually, that’s a lot more colorful than many of the new names, which all too often seem like variations on meaningless prefixes and suffixes like “the Altion.”
Nevertheless, here is my choice for the worst building name in New York, along with some honorable mentions. Note: This is NOT, I REPEAT NOT (in caps and boldface, no less) about being a bad building, a poorly run building, ugly building, or uninhabitable building. It is merely a case of something I’ll call “Awning Dysfunction.”
The Oliver Cromwell – If you’re not up on your English history, the name Oliver Cromwell may not mean much to you. In short, Cromwell (1599-1658) was a devout Puritan who became one of the leaders of the English Revolution. Despite a complete lack of military training or background, he rose to become the commander of the revolutionaries’ New Model Army that played a major role in defeating King Charles I’s Royalist forces. He was on the council that signed off on the order to execute King Charles I, and led campaigns against Catholic-Royalist uprisings in Ireland and Scotland. He eventually was asked to become leader of the new government. Calling himself “Lord Protector,” Cromwell spent most of his brief five year reign trying to stabilize the country’s government and economy after the chaos of the revolution; he also attempted moral reforms in the model of his own austere (i.e., drab and dull) godly lifestyle. His son Richard took over the role of Lord Protector after Oliver’s death, but he lacked leadership skills and was forced to resign after about a year. Soon Charles II, son of I, returned to England and retook the country, which was grateful to have anyone in charge at this point. King Charles II restored the monarchy, as well as theaters, parties, long sexy curly hair for men, serious cleavage for women, and plenty of bright colored satin, lace, and brocade for all. Whew. That was close. I don’t know if we ever would have made it to Swinging London in the 1960s without fun time monarchs like Charles II.
(Oops, sorry, wanderd off a bit there. Anyway.)
Cromwell is a very complicated figure in British history. He didn’t start the revolution with an eye on taking over the country–he just turned out to be one of the more competent people involved in fighting it. He didn’t plan to execute Charles I–in many ways, Charles I backed the revolutionaries into a corner where they had little other choice. His biggest claim to infamy is the campaign in Ireland, a bloody mess where many civilians died. It’s unclear what role he played in leading those killings or what kind of orders he may have given, so you could argue that that wasn’t his fault. However, if you argued that he was the leader, so whatever happened on his watch was his fault, well, I personally wouldn’t fight you back.
That head over the entrance is supposed to be Cromwell. Since his body was exhumed three years after his death, hanged, then his head put on display outside Westminster Hall for 24 years, this feels like an awkward tribute. Maybe the Spanish hat helps?
(I should note, that if you would like more background on the English Revolution, there are many books on the subject: Christopher Hill’s books The Century of Revolution 1603-1714 and The World Turned Upside Down are solid, and John Adamson’s The Noble Revolt: The Overthrow of Charles I is a fairly recent effort that looks good, which I just put on my reading list. For you audio learning fans, I highly, highly recommend Mike Duncan’s enormously entertaining and informative Revolutions podcast, found at www.revolutionspodcast.com and iTunes. For anyone in a hurry, well, there’s Wikipedia.)
Whew!! Now back to buildings. So after all that, I hope you’re thinking what I was thinking the first time I saw “The Oliver Cromwell” on a green awning outside an Upper West Side building: “Why on earth is a New York City building named after Oliver Cromwell?” The answer is that there isn’t a good answer.
The building was designed by eminent architect Emery Roth. Completed in 1927, the Oliver Cromwell is described a “Spanish Revival style” high rise, which would make Oliver Cromwell want to poke needles in his eyes, considering his hatred of the Spanish Catholics, who were the mortal enemies of Protestant England. Roth was apparently responsible for choosing the name for the building, and included what was supposed to be an image of Cromwell over the entry way. Unfortunately, the image features Cromwell dressed like a 17th century Spanish naval commander, ready to lead the armada against England. This is indeed a puzzlement. It makes you wonder if Roth knew who Cromwell was. Then again, considering that some of Roth’s other Upper West Side buildings featured Spanish names like the El Dorado and the San Remo, maybe it was all part of an elaborate joke.
So all in all, I’m afraid I must pick the Oliver Cromwell as my worst building name in New York, simply for the sheer lack of sense. Now it’s certainly a nice enough looking building in a fantastic location (CPW and 72nd St!!), in fine condition with friendly doormen, so don’t let the name stop you from thinking about buying there. Well, unless you’re Irish. Then you might want to think about it.
The Visionaire – I’m pretty sure my grandmother had a refrigerator called “the Visionaire.” Great refrigerator, solid, lasted like thirty years. Oh wait, maybe it was called the Frigidaire, or something like that. Whichever, there’s no way to get around it–Visionaire sounds like a mid-20th-century line of kitchen appliances rather than an environmentally friendly Battery Park City building.
The Visionaire–does it come in avocado?
The Wilbraham – It’s actually a lovely, late 19th century Flatiron building, but I can’t say I’m terribly fond of this name. It sounds like one of those mashups that occur when you can’t decide whether to name the baby after Grandpa Wilbur or Grandpa Abraham
The Stack – I picked this one mostly because it’s marketing team once sent around an email that referred to the building as “The Sack.”