How the city looks and feels — and why it got that way.
William Randolph Hearst was born in California in 1863. William Randolph Hearst died in California in 1951. His most famous home, at San Simeon, is in California. His tomb is in California. And it was in California, 125 years ago Sunday, that he laid the foundation stone of his media empire, when his name appeared for the first time in The Daily Examiner of San Francisco as “W. R. Hearst, Proprietor.”
You know what, though? He was really a New Yorker. From 1895 onward, his empire was anchored here, where it remains, headquartered at Hearst Tower. He represented the city in Congress for two terms and campaigned — unsuccessfully — to lead it as mayor. The monuments and landmarks of his tumultuous personal and professional life can be found around the city. Hearst continues to affect New York day in and day out, as anyone who has struggled over the senseless Robert F. Kennedy Bridge dogleg approach can tell you. (Which is to say, just about everyone.) Had the bridge been designed by traffic engineers, and not politicians, its Manhattan terminus would have been at East 100th Street, directly across from the Queens end.
But a trip over the bridge involves the scenic route, a 25-block detour over Wards Island and Randalls Island to East 125th Street. In “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York,” Robert A. Caro said that when Moses took over the bridge project, he quickly learned why such a convoluted route was chosen.
“William Randolph Hearst had owned deteriorating real estate there and he had wanted the city to buy it,” Mr. Caro wrote. “Moses had learned how to get things done and one way not to get things done in New York was to pick a fight with Hearst and his three newspapers. He left the Manhattan terminus at 125th Street.”
Since Mr. Caro’s book was published in 1975, the dogleg story has become an urban legend. What New Yorkers may not appreciate, however, is that one of the Hearst properties in Harlem, on Second Avenue, between 126th and East 127th Streets, was a movie studio, Hearst’s Cosmopolitan, where 35 features were produced in the early 1920s, one-third of them starring his mistress, Marion Davies. These included “Little Old New York” and “When Knighthood Was in Flower.”
Hearst believed his movies would benefit from access to the leading lights of Broadway, said Richard Koszarski in “Hollywood on the Hudson: Film and Television in New York From Griffith to Sarnoff” (2008). They also benefited from the hand of the architect Joseph Urban as production designer. When costume epics needed props, Hearst’s art-stuffed warehouses in the Bronx could be plundered. Cosmopolitan had 4 enormous stages, 32 dressing rooms and a 30-by-70-foot pool. The site is now occupied by the 126th Street Bus Depot.
Harlem is not the only unlikely place where the ghost of Hearst turns up. One might imagine him ensconced on Fifth Avenue, but he chose the Upper West Side, confirming “his self-imposed status as a social outsider,” David Nasaw wrote in “The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst” (2000). He leased floors 10 through 12 in the Clarendon, at Riverside Drive and 86th Street. When the landlord denied his request to lease floors 8 and 9, Hearst bought the whole building.
Columbus Circle carries the most enduring association with Hearst. The Hearst Corporation has its headquarters a block south, at 959 Eighth Avenue, in what may be the most instantly recognizable skyscraper of the early 21st century: a 44-story tower by Norman Foster rising from the shell of the landmark Hearst International Magazine Building, which Urban designed in 1927.
Hearst set up shop in New York in 1895 after purchasing The Journal. That year, he began acquiring properties around the circle with the view of creating Hearst Plaza, “a development project large enough in scale to rival” Herald Square or Times Square, said William J. Higgins and Elise M. Quasebarth in a 2001 report on the Hearst Building.
This ambitious vision collapsed along with Hearst’s financial fortunes in 1937, but there is a significant surviving element: the Maine Monument of 1913, memorializing the explosion aboard the battleship Maine in Havana Harbor in 1898. That was the event — or pretext — under which the United States went to war with Spain over Cuba, an intervention for which The Journal agitated relentlessly. Hearst began raising money for the memorial four days after the blast and welcomed its siting in Central Park “because the presence of such a monument would raise his property values,” Michele H. Bogart wrote in “Public Sculpture and the Civic Ideal in New York City, 1890-1930″ (1989).
Two years after its dedication, Hearst began building the American Circle Building on the site now occupied by the Trump International Hotel and Tower. It was to be 30 stories but never got farther than two. Yet it contained a great secret, which came to light during demolition in 1966. Tucked inside the courtyard, invisible from surrounding streets and sidewalks, was another structure altogether — “a cameo Gothic cathedral,” The New York Times called it. Unable to solve the mystery, The Times passed on speculation that it might have been intended as Hearst’s own office; or as a suite for the editors of The American, one of his papers; or even that it had been fitted up as a private chapel for Davies. Who knows?
Hearst was a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it. Maybe the chapel was something he couldn’t get or something he lost. Anyway, it wouldn’t have explained anything. I don’t think any room can explain a man’s life. No, I guess the chapel is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle, a missing piece.
Well, come on everybody. We’ll miss the train.