2012-05-11 / Community

Ryan Center, Floyd Bennett Field: Thrill And Romance Of A Bygone Era

By Susan Hartenstein Special to The Wave


Left, artist Philip Thys created watercolors based on photographs of several diverse scenes of the units of GNRA. Prints of the paintings form a mural in the ‘multi-use’ room that is a venue for events such as concerts and exhibits. Right, the stained glass skylight in the ceiling of the Ryan Center. Except for two replaced panes of glass, this is the original skylight. Left, artist Philip Thys created watercolors based on photographs of several diverse scenes of the units of GNRA. Prints of the paintings form a mural in the ‘multi-use’ room that is a venue for events such as concerts and exhibits. Right, the stained glass skylight in the ceiling of the Ryan Center. Except for two replaced panes of glass, this is the original skylight. There is much here to enjoy and experience – for those who love art, architecture, local history and aviation, and the confluence of them all.

Floyd Bennett Field was New York City’s first municipal airport. It was to be the gateway into New York City. When it opened in 1931 it was the most modern airport around and “the center of the aviation universe,” according to Park Ranger Lincoln Hallowell. The restoration of the airport’s control tower and air terminal, now the Ryan Visitor Center, the information center for all of Gateway National Recreation Area, was begun four years ago and was “intended to restore the Golden Era of Aviation here; to bring the building back to the mid ’30s,” says Hallowell. Approx-imately 50 percent of the project has been completed – on the main floor and lobby. That restoration has included a painstaking adherence to original colors and designs in the decorative/ artistic elements of the building.

Display cases, blurbs, newsreels and memorabilia tell the history of the former airport that became a naval air station in 1941.

But the spirit, adventure, romance of the era and of the place are in the look and feel of it.

As an ‘ode’ to the history of transportation, lining the rotunda on the tops of the walls and just below the ceiling are paintings of individual modes of transportation – a ship, a coach, a bus, an airplane, a Zeppelin and a train. The original paintings, done on canvas, are displayed in a separate room. (The name of the artist is not known.) In their place in the rotunda are now recreations of the originals. In immaculate attention to historical accuracy, the originals were cleaned by professional conservators and the original layers of paint were exposed and analyzed to reproduce the exact colors.

Because of the high placement of the images, the colors of the paintings, while they coordinate with the surrounding colors, are brighter and stand out to make the boats, etc. “pop,” as Hallowell says.

The design elements of the first floor, lobby and mezzanine were clearly influenced by the art deco of the era and by Egyptian art, which itself was an influence on art deco. This building was created not long after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb and so Egyptian art, as Hallowell says, was “very hip.” One can see this even in the stylized wings that overlook the central lobby. The walls are painted in rectangular and square patterns to coordinate with the square tiles on the floors and in colors and textures that imitate the sand stones of ancient tombs.

Four large murals with the theme “The History of Flight” had been painted for the building and hung off the mezzanine. They hung, however, for just one day. In a plot line reminiscent of the murals Diego Rivera created for Rockefeller Center, General Brehan Somervell ordered them taken down and burned for being “socialist propaganda.” It seems that, among other objections, to the General, the visage of Orville Wright looked like Lenin.

Photographs of three of the four panels were taken before they were destroyed, but because the photos were black and white, color recreations were not possible. Unfortunately, their original vitality is lost to us forever.

A walk up to the mezzanine of the Ryan Center provides a closer view of some of the most interesting artistic features of the building. It also allows the viewer to take in the full impact of the coordinated and complementary aspects of design and architecture, like an overhead shot of an art deco office building lobby in a ’30s Hollywood movie. From here one sees the original 1931 stained glass skylight, only two panes of which have ever had to be replaced; the plaster painted 3-dimensional relief work done at the tops of the columns in the lobby; the recreated art deco lamps on the mezzanine, the originals of which were covered with hieroglyphic type cut-outs; the ornate gold-painted ceiling moldings; the lace-like stencil-work on the ceiling.

A very special mural covers the wall of the former airport restaurant, now the multi-use room for exhibits, concerts, etc. Photographs, five of which were taken by Hallowell, of a variety of characteristic scenes taken in the units of GNRA, including wildlife, buildings, human visitors and even the Riis Park clock, were translated into watercolors by NPS artist Philip Thys. Those were photographed and turned into large prints put together to grace the wall – an appropriate tribute to this restored piece of history and architecture that we have the privilege of being able to visit in our own backyard. To learn more, visit www.nps.gov/gate/

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