A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from July 02, 2016
Cathedral of Asphalt (Asphalt Green)

The former Municipal Asphalt Plant (now a sports facility called Asphalt Green) opened in 1941 at East 90st Street and York Avenue in Manhattan. New York Parks Commissioner Robert Moses (1888-1981) wrote in the New York (NY) Times magazine on November 21, 1943:

“I AM afraid we are in for plenty of horrible modernistic stuff in statuary and architecture. What could be worse, for example, than the new Asphalt Plant, constructed by the former Borough President of Manhattan at Ninety-first Street and the East River Drive? I wrote the present Borough President criticizing the Cathedral of Asphalt and the near-by Corrugated Shoe Box on the East River Drive and suggesting that a restraining hand be put on freakish experiments which are unnecessarily ugly and obtrusive.”

The nickname “Cathedral of Asphalt” is still recalled whenever the building is discussed.


NYC Parks
Asphalt Green
The City first mixed asphalt for its roads on this site in 1914. The modernist landmark that serves as this park’s namesake and centerpiece stands as the sole survivor of the former Municipal Asphalt Plant.

Ely Jacques Kahn and Robert A. Jacobs designed the plant and constructed it during World War II (1939-1945). Jacobs drew inspiration from the old airports outside Paris that he once passed while biking to work for French design innovator LeCorbusier in the mid 1930s. Reinforced concrete covers the parabola-shaped building’s 90-foot arches.

Debate over the “Cathedral of Asphalt” ensued when former Parks Commissioner Robert Moses (1888-1981) called the plant “the most hideous waterfront structure ever inflicted on a city by a combination of architectural conceit and official bad taste.” The Museum of Modern Art hailed the plant as a masterpiece of functional design. The plant’s prime location at 90th Street between York Avenue and F.D.R. Drive, allowed materials to reach the site by ship rather than by truck. Barges dredged up the sand and gravel from the East River for mixing into pavement at the asphalt plant until operations ceased in 1968. The City now mixes the substance at a plant in Queens.

Wikipedia: Municipal Asphalt Plant
The Municipal Asphalt Plant is located in Manhattan’s Upper East Side in New York City. The building was built in 1941.

It currently serves as home to Asphalt Green, a pool and fitness center that opened in 1984.

It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
(...)
Reception
The Municipal Asphalt Plant has been described as post-modernist. Robert Moses, the Parks Commissioner, called it the “Cathedral of Asphalt” and “the most hideous waterfront structure ever inflicted on a city by a combination of architectural conceit and official bad taste.”

21 November 1943, New York (NY) Times, “Mr. Moses Surveys the City Statues: Part II of the Park Commissioner’s report on our monuments, good and bad, hallowed and unhallowed” by Robert Moses, magazine, pg. 19, cols. 3-4:
I AM afraid we are in for plenty of horrible modernistic stuff in statuary and architecture. What could be worse, for example, than the new Asphalt Plant, constructed by the former Borough President of Manhattan at Ninety-first Street and the East River Drive? I wrote the present Borough President criticizing the Cathedral of Asphalt and the near-by Corrugated Shoe Box on the East River Drive and suggesting that a restraining hand be put on freakish experiments which are unnecessarily ugly and obtrusive.

19 December 1943, New York (NY) Times, “Reply to Mr. Moses,” magazine, pg. 30, cols. 2-3:
TO THE EDITOR:
For no clear reason, Mr. Moses included Photograph A as the last illustration of his recent article on the city’s statues. After asking the rhetorical question “What could be worse, for example, than the new asphalt plant?” he adds that when he wrote about it to the Borough President, the latter in his reply “enclosed photographs of a model of the completed structure.”

Then Mr. Moses, quoting from his own letter, closed the one paragraph in which characteristically he had covered the entire subject of modern architecture with the following words: “My final word on the subject of the cathedral [the asphalt plant] was that the most villainous of modern architects certainly knew how to make pretty models, attractive prospectuses and lovely renderings, but unfortunately their talents ended just at this point.” Curiously it is Mr. Moses’ own letters, from which he quotes so copiously throughout the article, that always seem to him to be the “final word.”
(...)
I have no desire to question Mr. Moses’ taste (or lack of it) in not liking the “cathedral of asphalt.” I am principally responsible for accepting the architects’ designs and do believe it to be a very fine one. The Municipal Arts Commission, which approved it, evidently disagrees with him, too.
(...)
WALTER D. BINGER,
Commissioner of Public Works.
New York.

25 April 1944, New York (NY) Times, pg. 25, col. 3:
ASPHALT PLANT PRODUCES MIXTURE OF OPINIONS
City Plant Called Ugly by Moses Hailed as a Beauty by Museum
Though ‘Horrible Modernistic Stuff’ to Him, It Is Rated Among 47 Buildings in U.S. That Best Show Progress in Design

(...)
In an article in THE NEW YORK TIMES Magazine last Nov. 21 Mr. Moses criticized the ‘Cathedral of Asphalt” as a “freakish experiment.”

New York (NY) Times
ARTS AND SPORTS CENTER OPENING IN LANDMARK
By JAMES BROOKE
Published: October 24, 1984
The plant had been abandoned. Twelve years ago, Dr. George E. Murphy fought city officials to prevent its destruction. Today, city officials will help celebrate its preservation.

In 1972, developers and city officials agreed that the city’s abandoned Municipal Asphalt Plant at York Avenue and 90th Street would make a nice site for three apartment towers overlooking the East River. Dr. Murphy, a local resident, and his wife, Annette, thought it would make a nice arts and athletics center.
(...)
Robert Moses, then the City Parks Commissioner, criticized the building as ‘’the most hideous waterfront structure ever inflicted on a city by a combination of architectural conceit and official bad taste.’’ He called it the ‘’Cathedral of Asphalt.’’

In rebuttal, a jury at the Museum of Modern Art hailed ‘’the bold semi-ellipse’’ and selected it as one of the 10 best-designed structures built in America between 1932 and 1944.

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityBuildings/Housing/Parks • Saturday, July 02, 2016 • Permalink