America's cities are a feast for the imagination
From Atlanta to Manhattan, Stephen Bayley is caught up in the romance of America's cities
Preferring, at a younger age, French girls and Italian art, I was a late starter with the United States. But I soon compensated for lost time. With an imagination over-stimulated by Scorsese, plus Wolfe, Vidal and Vonnegut, and a new-found appetite for whiskey sours, my first visits to Manhattan were, I now see, among the most influential experiences I have ever had.
Nowhere makes me so nostalgic as New York. Lunch at The Oyster Bar of Grand Central Terminal: just seeing the Westchester sign has a dramatic contact to suburban yearnings that powered so many great novels. Nearby, for years my first stop was always The Four Seasons Brasserie for eggs Benedict. In terms of design and gastronomy, there's no better cure for jetlag.
Only last year I discovered the landmark King Cole Bar in the St Regis with its brown wood, hushed carpet and fabulously kitsch Maxfield Parrish murals: Old New York at its grandest. One more whiskey sour and you will swear you have met the ghost of John Jacob Astor. And I love that sight of the yellow cabs heaving in the aerial perspective up and down the bumps of Park Avenue. When the Chevy Caprice and the Ford Crown Vic are finally replaced by the prim Prius and the faceless Nissan, I will be bereft.
But New York is an isolated city state and American explorers need to see more of the outlying republic. Boston, for example. Clam chowder and lobster at Legal Seafoods on Long Wharf. (It's a chain, but a small and good one). Then the Harvard Bookstore, where reading still seems to matter. Or Chicago for its incomparable architecture: the horizontal and eccentric Frank Lloyd Wright in Oak Park or the vertical and elegantly rational Mies van der Rohe beside Lake Michigan. Modernism needs no more advocacy that a visit to 860-880 Lake Shore Drive. I once stayed in one of these apartments, having driven there in a 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air. There was an Alexander Calder mobile in the bathroom and I was nearly ecstatic.
Lesser-known cities contain surprising delights. Wilmington, Delaware, has wonderful robber-baron headquarters as if by Edward Hopper. Or Atlanta's 1967 Hyatt Regency, John Portman's first essay in high-concept hanging-garden hotel design hilariously satirised by William Boyd in Stars and Bars.
But if I had to capture the overwhelming sensation of American cities it would be this memory: it is Pittsburgh International Airport one wet Saturday more than 30 years ago and I am a long way from home. Flights are being delayed, but there's a promising Oregon pinot noir on the wine list and, hell, if it's delayed much more, I can visit The Carnegie Museum of Art. For me, steel plus city equals romance.
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