I had such a day today. I discovered almost too late that this weekend was Open House New York, in which places all over the city that are usually closed off to the public are, well, open, with free tours. So I managed to squeeze in three places: the Chrysler Building Lobby, the Grand Lodge of Masons (masons!!), and the 69th Regiment Armory.
The Chrysler Building lobby is already pretty much public, but normally you can't stand around ogling the architecture and snapping pictures like crazy. Plus there was a historian talking about the utterly fascinating story of the building and the fantastically gorgeous lobby. Oh god, the lobby. It's so art deco, it hurts. The historian explained that Walter Chrysler from Detroit personally funded the construction and design, consisting of motifs like eagles and wings, and components like Moroccan marble and plum tree wood panels for the elevators and crazy expensive shit that you can't get anywhere now. The indirect lighting gives the entire lobby (which is Y-shaped) the feel of a swanky lounge. It's amazing. While the Empire State Building, which was finished after the Chrysler, was generally thought of as having the aesthetics of a functional gray flannel suit, the Chrysler was the hip playboy. In terms of prettiness, you cannot beat the giant steel eagle gargoyles.
Then it was off to the Grand Lodge of Masons. This was going to be interesting and exciting, because masons!! It's really weird and fascinating! This particular lodge, completed in 1912, is located on West 23rd Street, just a couple blocks away from where I work. I really had no idea what we were going to see, but I joined a tour, and off we went. We were led through several of the meeting rooms, all of which had different names and themes, such as Egyptian, Colonial, Renaissance, etc. Holy crap, the architecture was boggling. Just so ridiculously, beautifully ornate. Our mason tour guides explained that the two things that masons couldn't discuss during meetings were religion and politics, because religion and politics are divisive, and what they are striving for is unity and brotherhood. There is symbolism up the wazoo. The uncarved stone represents a person; the polished stone represents the idealized human being. Unity between people is like stones being joined by concrete. Thus you have the building of an ideal society. Through ideal society, you have an ideal world (symbolized by a globe); through a perfect world, you have a perfect universe (symbolized by a star-covered sphere). And I was thinking, this is all very well and good, but wow, people. But apparently these are good organizations because they donate millions of dollars to medical institutions and children's hospitals. Like the Shriners, the ones who wear the fezzes -- in fact, one of our tour guides showed us a real fez (I couldn't help a tiny squeal for fannish reasons). When our tour guides were asked what they talked about during meetings or why women weren't allowed to join (there are woman masons in Europe and South America, but not in the United States), they never really gave direct answers. Apparently the first rule about etc. etc. etc. Also, there were many famous masons who were initiated in this particular lodge, including Eddie Cantor (!!!), Harry Houdini, Fiorello LaGuardia, George M. Cohan, Irving Berlin, and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Then my last stop was the 69th Regiment Armory, which is actually just behind where I work. It's part of the National Guard and the only regiment left in New York City. A veteran colonel led my small group through the various rooms and the enormous space where there've been Knicks games and Victoria's Secret runway shows. The 69th has a very rich history, having served in US wars since the American Revolution. There was a lot of wartime memorabilia, from the days of Father Duffy to Iraq. There was a German helmet and a Nazi flag captured during WWII, and there were framed photographs of James Cagney and Pat O'Brien in the film, The Fighting 69th. The 69th was famous for being almost entirely comprised of Irish immigrants, and that's why their official emblem is the only regimental emblem with a green background. The place even has its own bar!
All of this was just incredibly fascinating. Now that I know about OHNY, I can't wait for next year's.