Friday, December 21, 2007

Holiday Cheer: Celebrating the Spirit of Achievement

Nina Saemondsson (Seimondsson, Saemundsson), Spirit of Achievement, ca. 1930-31. Park Avenue canopy of the Waldorf-Astoria, 301 Park Ave. (between 49th & 50th Sts.), New York.

In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand writes that the hotel where Francisco d'Anconia stayed on his visits to New York was "designed as a European palace. The Wayne-Falkland was the most distinguished hotel left on any continent. Its style of indolent luxury, of velvet drapes, sculptured panels and candlelight, seemed a deliberate contrast to its function: no one could afford its hospitality except men who came to New York on business, to settle transactions involving the world." (Part I, ch. 5)

I've always pictured the Waldorf-Astoria when I read about the Wayne-Falkland, and that seems particularly fitting now that I've discovered the name of the sculpture that adorns the canopy over the Waldorf's Park Avenue entrance. Spirit of Achievement is a stylized woman whose arched back and upward-stretched wings make her seem about to take flight. You've probably failed to notice the ten-foot figure because its silvery metal blends into the metalwork of the canopy and the Waldorf's fa├žade. Like the Waldorf itself, the figure is in the Art Deco style - the same elegant, streamlined style that marks the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings.

The original Waldorf-Astoria, built in the 1890s, transformed the urban hotel from a home for transients into a social meeting place. After operating costs rose sharply and the 34th Street location became more commercial, the hotel closed in 1929 and was demolished early in 1930, making way for the Empire State Building. The new Waldorf, occupying an entire city block a mile or so to the north, was begun and completed within the next three years. At the time its 47-story towers made it the tallest hotel in the world.

The Spirit of Achievement is a fitting reminder that in America, the country that comes as close to Ayn Rand's capitalist society as any nation ever has, we have transformed the December holiday season into a celebration of happiness and prosperity. Stroll through the grand lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria, admire its palatial decor and its lavish holiday decorations, and count your ... achievements.

Smithsonian Institution Research Information System (SIRIS) IAS 8780237. Gayle & Cohen, Art Commission and Municipal Art Society Guide to Manhattan's Outdoor Sculpture (1988), p. 327 (a three-line entry). New York Times articles on the building and opening of the Waldorf-Astoria make no mention of this sculpture. New Yorker articles on the Waldorf-Astoria include passing references to it, which I haven't yet been able to check since they aren't available on line. The Wikipedia entry on the Waldorf-Astoria includes useful links, of which the most fascinating one describes the Waldorf's high-tech aspects, for example: "It has looked into the future and has prepared against the day when there will be television. Although much of the publicity concerning television has been hasty and over-optimistic, all rooms have been wired for television so that when the day of its actuality arrives those who stay at the hotel will be able to see a show or a ball game by looking on a screen in their rooms." Since the 1950s, the Waldorf-Astoria has been the venue for the Spirit of Achievement Awards Luncheon, sponsored by the Women's Division of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University to honor achievements of individual women in fields such as philanthropy, the arts, business, government, and journalism.