the roof top garden craze -- 11/24/14

Today's selection -- from COOL: How Air Conditioning Changed Everything by Salvatore Basile. People generally dress according to convention -- what society will accept -- rather than comfort. Rarely has this been more true than among the stylish in New York in the late 1800s, and lavishly dressed theatergoers had the worst of it. One solution became a craze -- open air roof gardens. Theaters were built with retractable roofs so patrons could stroll on elaborately decorated roofs and listen to the music emerging from the theater below:

"[In the 1880s, visitors to New York] might see stylishly dressed Manhattanites out and about. A closer look would reveal those sophisticates to be red-faced, panting, and drenched in sweat. It was considered impolite to notice. ...

"Men who braved the theater [in summer] steeled themselves for a night of piercing headaches, with clothing completely soaked from their woolen underwear all the way out to their coats. Women, crushed into their corsets, tended to faint from the heat. Or perhaps they would slip out to the ladies' lounge in order to vomit in privacy. ...

The roof garden of the Casino Theatre

"[Recognizing this problem], conductor Rudolf Aronson decided to make his own bid for summertime business with the brand-new Metropolitan Concert-Hall; ... it boasted an auditorium ceiling that could slide back on hot nights to expose the evening sky. The roof was designed as a promenade for audience members, who were invited to stroll about the perimeter of the opening, enjoying the view while sounds of the ongoing performance drifted up to them. This was such unusual sport for New Yorkers that visiting the Metropolitan Concert-Hall quickly became a hot-weather craze. ...

"Before long, a number of cities throughout the United States were boasting their own roof gardens atop theaters, hotels, and restaurants. New York had the largest and lushest network of these places, nine of which crowned the city's major theaters, featuring the biggest names in vaudeville and visited every evening by big-spending 'roof garden rounders.' Some of them were as elaborate as the buildings that supported them. The roof garden above Madison Square Garden was a super-luxury operation, large enough to accommodate 4,000 patrons. The Paradise Roof Garden wasn't as spacious, but it outdid its competitors in schlock quotient, featuring among its attractions a 'village setting' complete with a windmill, a pond, a waterfall, two cows, and a milkmaid. Within a few years, the Hotel Astor would outdo them all by outfitting 20,000 square feet of its immense roof garden as ... a dirigible station. With an absolutely straight face, the manager told the New York Times that a garage and repair shop had been installed 'so that should an airship party sail up to the hotel they would find ample accommodations for landing.' "


Salvatore Basile


Cool: How Air Conditioning Changed Everything


Fordham University Press


Copyright 2014 Fordham University Press


6-9, 44-45
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