In the decades after Bensonhurst lost its status as a gated suburb of New York City, the neighborhood underwent a rapid urbanization. Many of the venerable old homes were cleared away for housing developments. The newer homes were built for mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants who, in order to take advantage of expanded subway lines, were moving out of older, more crowded areas such as Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In this article I will focus on apartment buildings, specifically on one built during the late 1920’s or 30’s in the dominant style of the period, Art Deco.
The term ‘Art Deco’ did not come into popular usage until the 1960’s, after a resurgence of interest in the designs of the 20’s and 30’s. The term itself refers to the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exhibition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts), a World’s Fair held in Paris, which showcased the modern styles popular at the time. It was organized by La Société des artistes décorateurs (the society of the decorator artists), an informal group formed in Paris after the Universal Exposition of 1900. Art deco is modern; the designs were geometric, streamlined and often used bold, bright colors; especially green and orange.
Art Deco had many influences. Among the most prominent are the artistic movements of the time: Cubism and Expressionism, Russian Constructivism, and Italian Futurism. There was a great influence from ancient world cultures: American Indian, especially Aztec; and the Middle East and Africa, particularly Egypt. Geometry was a major component. The pyramids of both the Aztecs and Egyptians served as models for many of the new designers; they can be found in everything from household consumer products such as radios, to colossal efforts like skyscrapers.
Art Deco is known as the last “total style”, meaning its influence can be found be found in all types of products from the time; from cars and locomotives, to fountain pen sets. The most impressive works in terms of scale, whose examples are still easily found today, were in the buildings constructed at the time. The Chrysler Building is, according to many, the most beautiful example of this.
The great thing about Art Deco is that you can find it everywhere. There are examples of it in “retro” styled costume jewelery, as well as in courthouses, apartment and office buildings across the country; from Arizona and Los Angeles, to Detroit and the Bronx.
Art Deco was a very appropriate style for the Twentieth Century as it’s both modern and eclectic. When I think about it, it is also a very appropriate style for Bensonhurst. Just think about it’s influences: Russian, Italian, Mexican, Middle Eastern; this is a style that pays homage to many of the same groups that call the neighborhood home today.