Section of the Berlin Wall

Section of the Berlin Wall

I have vague memories of watching the fall of the Berlin Wall on TV as a kid and not really knowing what was happening; it all seemed pretty distant. Unsurprisingly, that distance feels much shorter when you stand in front of the Wall.

What, you didn’t know there’s a preserved section of the Berlin Wall in New York? Neither did I, until recently. Actually, there are apparently four sections in Manhattan — the other three in Battery Park, at the United Nations, and in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not (I guess this is one thing there you can believe).

The Berlin Wall
“Artists: Thierry Noir, Kiddy Citny. These five original sections of the Berlin Wall marked the border between East Berlin and West Berlin from 1961-1989.”

The section I visited stands in the lobby of 520 Madison Avenue (entrance on 53rd Street). Building employees and security guards must be used to seeing tourists, judging by how patiently they dodged my photographs.

Pedestrian Plaza w/ waterfalls

This section may get fewer visitors than it used to, however. Some travel guides will tell you that it stands in a small plaza just outside 520 Madison. A couple years ago it was removed from that spot for restoration and then relocated indoors. The plaza’s waterfalls may be more atmospheric, but they’re not good for historical preservation.

It may be only a fragment of the original Wall, but this section — about 12′ tall and five panels, or about 20′ wide — is still imposing. The sounds and sights of the corporate, midtown office building are an incongruous background for it, but you still get the smallest hint of what it must have been like to stare up at the Wall when it sat along the border.

520 Madison Avenue
520 Madison Avenue: a section of the Berlin Wall is housed in its lobby.

I crossed the street to get a photo of 520 Madison, and stumbled across a New York landmark  I’d never heard of: the Fisk-Harkness House at 12 East 53rd Street.

Fisk-Harness House, 12 East 53rd Street
“Originally built as a brownstone-faced row house in 1871, the Fisk-Harkness House was substantially altered in 1906 to the designs of architect Raleigh C. Gildersleeve. Best known for the Tudor-inspired buildings he designed for the campus of Princeton University, Guildersleeve transformed the row house into a grand neo-Tudor Gothic-style townhouse. The asymmetrical limestone façade features an arched entry with a crocketed hood molding, last-medieval-style leaded-glass windows, buttresses, and fanciful gargoyles. Harvey E. Fisk, the owner who commissioned the renovation, was a prominent investment banker. Later occupants of the Fisk-Harkness House included Standard Oil heir William L. Harkness, Symons Galleries, and Lim College.”

According to the plaque, the house was built in 1871 and is a “rare survivor of the period when the area around Fifth Avenue in midtown was home to Manhattan’s wealthiest citizens, who built mansions or transformed existing row houses into their private residences.” Indeed, 12 East 53rd looks nothing like its chrome and glass neighbors.

Fisk-Harkness House
Two views of the Fisk-Harkness House at 12 East 53rd Street.

Proof that you can’t cross the street here without running into an interesting bit of history.

Ellen


Location: 520 Madison Avenue; entrance on 53rd Street (Fisk-Harkness House: 12 East 53rd Street, between 5th Ave and Madison Ave)
Nearest Subway: E/M at Fifth Avenue/53rd Street
Estimated Timespan: 10-15 minutes
Cost: Free!

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