With its pastel pinks, ornamental lions, and formal colonnade, this small, downward-sloping, rectangular urban plaza 125 feet east of Fifth Avenue on the north side of East 39th Street is easily dated to post-modernism’s architectural heyday in the 1980s. On its western side is the colonnade, its seven partly tapered columns supporting a stone beam and glass cover that extend to the building. Like some entrance corridors at public spaces, this one gives the impression of being a private entrance solely for building occupants, but in fact it is part of the public space proper. At recent site visits, tiny planters in the interstices between the colonnade columns appear to have replaced a required bubbler fountain. No record of City approval for its removal has been found.
High northern and eastern walls create a strong, even heavy-handed, sense of enclosure, but inventive decoration at lower wall levels keeps the eye engaged. Green lattice screens, triangular tops, and lion’s faces emitting water into small pools embellish the walls. The lions are a reminder of their full-bodied counterparts decorating the steps in front of the New York Public Library two blocks north across Fifth Avenue. Four planters along the eastern side furnish trees, shrubs, and groundcover, with ledge seating on their front edges. Users typically move the chairs to the middle of the space, although the three semiprivate cubbyholes between planters are also pleasant spots. At recent site visits, some of the required chairs were absent; a sign improperly stated that the space is closed between 7:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m., and the plaque that should specify the name and telephone number of a “maintenance designee” who could be contacted to remedy such oversights was missing. As with the bubbler fountain, no record of City approval for these deficiencies has been found.
Spaces like this one, ever so slightly off the beaten track, are known to neighborhood regulars but unknown to the tens of thousands of pedestrians walking up and down nearby avenue thoroughfares. Here, the average Fifth Avenue pedestrian has no idea that this space exists, even though it is only steps away. Perhaps public sidewalks along the avenues could be annotated with horizontal plaques notifying individuals of the existence of such side street public spaces. The idea is not so outlandish. After all, private property owners frequently mark the border of their lot and the public sidewalk with a tiny horizontal plaque stating that this is private property. The public space marker could read, for example, “Urban plaza, 40 yards east.” The profile for Trump Plaza suggests an alternative way to notify avenue passersby.