Walking through Manhattan on Sunday, October 28th, Anisa and I felt like we were dodging Mark Helprin’s ominous white cloud, chronicled in his novel Winter’s Tale. Only it went by the name of “Sandy.” However, class cancellations for the upcoming week lifted our spirits, and we floated around the 42nd Street area pretending to be journalists from Helprin’s fictional newspaper, The Sun.
Our first destination was the New York Times Building, since the fictional Sun is comparable to the New York Times. Like any dutiful journalist, we grabbed a cup of coffee on the way, and proceeded to spy on anyone entering and exiting the private, high-security building.
Though it was a Sunday, it seemed surprisingly quiet.
It is important to note that Helprin’s newspaper is located in Printing House Square, or Park Row in the Financial District of Manhattan. While weather and the cessation of public transportation halted our plans to visit this location, we learned that the New York Times building was located at 41 Park Row from 1889-1903.
From bottom to top, it reflected industrial priorities. To allow the presses to remain in place, the new building was constructed around the core of the old building, which was demolished in phases as its replacement was rising. The uppermost floor was reserved not for the publisher’s office but for the composing room, since printers would benefit from more light.
The current building at 620 Eighth Avenue stands 1,046 feet tall (including a mast), and was completed in 2007.
We were struck by the comparisons that could be made between the modern-day New York Times building and the headquarters of The Sun as chronicled by Helprin in his novel. Helprin stresses the “immateriality” and ethereality of the environment of the Sun, which is reminiscent of how the architect of the Times’ Eighth Avenue building, Renzo Piano describes his work: “This building is about defying gravity…In some ways, it is like information. Information is immaterial.” The exterior “curtain wall” is made of ceramic glass rods mounted on glass, creating a transparent, floating effect.
Similarly, Helprin describes the building of The Sun as “light on its feet and spacious,” with an atrium covered with “conservatory shell of glass” (424).
However, The Sun’s headquarters are also “substantial” and “stone-faced,” and contain a basement filled with the heavy machinery of printing presses and power plants (467, 424). For as much glass is contained within the building, there are equal amounts of the more “solid” elements of dark wood and mahogany.
This could speak to the heavy materiality of journalistic production in that time. AS Piano says, there is a certain immateriality to information, but the very act of reporting is a weighty task—not only in the physical sense of newspaper printing, but also in the substantiality of the facts the reporting conveys.
Reporting carries a certain substantiality, and journalists know it. This is evidenced by the reactions of the Times staff to Piano’s comments regarding immateriality: “The statement raised eyebrows around the Times, whose reporters and editors do not regard their work as immaterial.”
We think that this is what Helprin strives to convey to his readers. Though the nature of news itself evokes a higher sensibility of the noble “truth”—illustrated in Helprin’s words as a certain “brightness” in the building that makes the halls “sparkle like diamonds” (424). However, there is no denying that The Sun, like The Times, is deeply connected to and indebted to the City, and, thus, its reporting is inherently weighed down or solidified.
Turning to the Oyster Bar…
Helprin indicates the staff of The Sun gathered for meals at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central. Lucky for us, that exists in the same location today. When Virginia arrives in New York, Grand Central is one of the first places she visits. Unlike Virginia, who “had neither a plan nor the slightest idea of how to make her way,” we had our iPhones for guidance (249).
However, we decided to recreate her experience, and acted “exhausted and limp, leaning against a tile arch in Grand Central Station” (249). Right across from the arch is the swanky Oyster Bar, at which “Virginia pressed against a window and took all this in, but only with her eyes” (250).
That’s pretty much what we did, because the restaurant was closed.
Regardless of our setbacks, our extended time in Grand Central allowed us to take in the old fashioned magnificence of the building, and left us feeling slightly awed and overwhelmed like Virginia must have. The music from a violinist echoed through the food court area, reminiscent of the band that “struck itself up in a corner under one of the many echoing arches and began to play palm waltzes” (257).
Amidst their decadent dinner of steak, peas, potatoes and beer, the staff of The Sun happily took in each others’ eccentricities: “They ate like jackals, and though they tried to discuss business, they were having too much fun” (257). Owner Harry Penn stated, “We’re not a college…we’re a newspaper. I want the best people, people who live their trade, experts, fanatics, geniuses. I don’t care if they’re a little peculiar” (255-256). Maybe we looked a little peculiar posing unabashedly all over Grand Central, or snooping around the NYT building. But it was fun.
Partially to make up for the fact that we never actually consumed food at the Oyster Bar, we decided to have a little bit more fun and write a restaurant review as Courtenay Favat, the restaurant critic of The Sun:
Grand Central’s Oyster Bar Delivers More than Just the Catch of the Day
By COURTENAY FAVAT
Food, Wine, Fashion, and Home Editor
The Oyster Bar is, in New York City restaurant tradition, little more than an infant. It’s given New Yorkers and commuters a place to slurp oysters for only a little over a decade (it opened in 1913), yet fellow critics say the Grand Central hotspot is on its way to becoming an institution. After feasting underneath the grand arches of the main dining room yesterday, I have to say I agree.
The dining room is magnificent, punctuated with vaulted, tile-covered ceilings in the vein of the rest of the Terminal. Designer Raphael Gustavino certainly knew his craft rather well.
The raw bar is on its way to becoming one of the most crowded lunch spots in the city. Businessmen and female secretaries sit side-by-side with the signature iced-filled silver platters in front of them, platters dotted with oysters on the half-shell in every variety.
Manager Viktor Yesensky was hand-selected because of his previous experience running the extolled oyster bar at the Hotel Knickerbocker, and it is evident that having that gig under his belt has served him well.
Yesensky has felt comfortable enough working within the seafood industry to expand his repertoire quite extensively—with, might I say, admirable results.
The main dining room is a must-do for the well-heeled traveler with time to spare between travel engagements. The editorial staff of this very publication has frequented this genteel locale, but in between copyediting articles on canning and pickling hints and crochet advice, I had been too preoccupied to join them.
Finally, however, I had freed up enough space in my exhaustive work schedule to accompany my colleagues to lunch. And, my, was I surprised by what Yesensky had done with the offerings!
It is clear Yesensky has tired of the traditional raw oysters, as well as oyster stews and roasts. He has looked instead to perfect other, less traditional oyster bar offerings. Our party ordered the lobster-stuffed grilled haddock filets in addition to the traditional oyster pan roast, and I have to stay, I was more taken with the former. Several scrumptious side dishes were also savored, including roasted potatoes and green peas. To round out the meal, Yesensky’s Dutch beer—imported straight from Holland!—provided a refreshing accompaniment to the main course.
Even if readers have been to the Grand Central Oyster Bar to sample the well-known and well-covered raw and lunch bar, I highly recommend a trip to the less crowded—and more refined—dining room where a host of other non-seafood delicacies await. I sit excitedly to witness Yesensky’s future exploits within the New York City restaurant scene. Bravo!