The Two Towers

The Silver Towers, back when they still had those globe lights (photo: Pei Cobb Freed & Partners)

The other day I was sitting at the Silver Towers apartment complex watching my daughter ride her new scooter when I realized just how large a presence that Picasso statue is in my personal landscape.  The Silver Towers was (and still is) a world away from SoHo, with it’s unadorned, uniform buildings guarded by doormen set around a large open public space with manicured lawns and “keep off the grass” signs (those signs have since disappeared).  Yet it was just across Houston Street, on my way to the supermarket, on my way home from the school bus stop, and the closest open-air plaza to my house.  It was the first place I ever rode a bike outdoors (after learning how to actually ride in my living room).  It was the first place I ever built a snowman.  It was the first place I ever went trick-or-treating.  It was where many of my friends from P.S.3 lived.  In the winter, the buildings form the fiercest wind tunnel imaginable, but it is also the shortest way to get home from the Village, so I brave it anyway and always swear to myself I’ll never do it again.  During summer, because there is almost no shade there, it gets so hot it makes me want to weep (I’m a wimp when it comes to heat).

Picasso's sand-blasted concrete bust of Sylvette at The Silver Towers

Completed in 1966, the three towers, designed by James Ingo Freed and I.M. Pei, are part of a 5 1/2 acre complex that was part of Robert Moses’ ambitious “urban renewal” program.  The tower that faces LaGuardia Place is a Mitchell-Lama middle-income cooperative building for area residents while the other two, owned by NYU, are faculty and graduate student residences.  The large concrete abstract bust in the center of the plaza sculpted by Carl Nesjar was inspired by Pablo Picasso’s small metal sculpture “A Portrait of Sylvette,”  and built in consultation with Picasso himself.

In the early-1970’s Christo and Jeanne-Claude wanted to wrap the Sylvette sculpture in brown fabric, but this never happened.  In the early-1980’s, the towers were cited as part of I.M. Pei’s accomplishments to date when he was awarded the Pritzker Prize.  In 2008, the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the complex, including the sculpture, a landmark.

I never understood why they were called “silver” when they were really a drab beige color.  I guess The Drab Beige Towers just doesn’t have the same ring to it.  Actually, I think they were named for Julius Silver, a major NYU donor, but I’m not 100% sure.  What I do know is that I used to think the Silver Towers were just about the ugliest buildings around.  Why would anyone build anything, not to mention a whole residential complex, in concrete, I would wonder.  But sitting there the other day, I realized that I actually dug it.  The beige.  The concrete.  All of it.  I love it.  There is a soothing, earthy quality to the blandness that pervades the entire “superblock,” especially in stark contrast to all of the shiny glass and metal used to build the towering towers of today.  Is it nostalgia?  Longing for childhood?  Maybe.  Will I feel this way in forty years about the Time Warner Center?  Oh boy, I hope not.

Yukie and Mimi playing in that little playground on the Houston Street end of the Silver Towers complex (now called Rocketship Park)

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10 Responses to “The Two Towers”

  1. Aristides Pappidas Says:

    A possible reason for the ‘keep off the grass’ signs early on (late sixties) was that in those early days unthinking dog owners saw the beautiful grass area as the perfect place to let their dogs piss and shit. Quite quickly because of this, the occasional person who wanted to sit or lie down and enjoy the sun on those tiny exquisite pieces of the greenest grass ceased visiting them.

  2. nancyeder Says:

    Yuki, I love your blog and in particular this particular segment on the Picasso sculpture, the bust of Sylvette, and the Silver Towers.I have always loved both the buildings and the sculpture especially. When I lived at 3 WSV on the 14th floor I used to gaze down on her ponytail and marvel at the large picture windows of Silver Tower hanging like picture frames up to the sky. Now when I come to Coles gym all the way downtown from Amsterdam and 123rd St. for my twice weekly gym class. I deliberately make my way through that retangle to see “her” close and personal. My memories of living in the Village for 39 years are all filled with love and nostalgia and wonderment of the lucky person I was to have lived in that most desirous of all places . . . Greenwich Village.

    • Yukie Says:

      I always took that sculpture and the Silver Towers for granted. Well, I never really thought about them at all. They were just there. But now that I have a child, I realize ho lucky we are (were) to have them jsut across the street. My daughter loves playing there and she has had her own ritual of “touching Picasso” in summer or winter, rain or shine, every time we pass by. I often have flashbacks to playing with Michael (Nancy’s son) there when we were little kids and then to “hanging out” when we were teenagers. Good times!

  3. Jo Gangemi Says:

    I love it Yukie.
    Again, you write so well and your entries are so informative. It’s great that you often have photos to illustrate.
    Hi Nancy Eder.

  4. nancyeder Says:

    Hi, Jo. Nice to hear from you. I’m living up in Harlem (well, Morningside Heights actually). Enjoying it particularly since I have the great luxury of Michael and Deb, Anya (4) and Eliza (7) living four floors below me. But do miss the convenience of the Village. And you??

  5. John Albin Says:

    I grew up in 505, moved in when the buildings opened in ’67, and spent my childhood running away from NYU doormen. I don’t think there was any real reason for all the “keep off the grass” signs. I think it was just part of NYU’s overall fortress mentality and tendency to enforce the town-gown divide. My mother still lives there and I visit frequently, and am always surprised to see people walking/playing/frolicking unmolested near Sylvette.

  6. Lisette Says:

    I spent many a day at 505 as a teenager, It was a second home to me in the late 60’s early 70’s. I would travel between the 29th,12th and 8th floors. Once I rode in the elevator with Dylan. I had the pleasure to meet with GV comrades in the community center in 505 Jan. 2009 some I hadn’t seen in 40 years.

  7. nancyeder Says:

    There were three of Picasso’s painted metal maquettes of Sylvette in the recent Guggenheim show, “Picasso: Black and White.” It made the whole experience worth the $18.00 exhorbitant admission fee. While Picasso was never in the Village, I was told that the statue was designed to be planted right where it is. It was being erected and sandblasted around the time we moved into 3 WSV, and I witnessed the construction from my 14th floor apartment as it progressed. Black basalt rocks were poured between concrete slabs (visualize an ice cream sandwich). After the whole thing dried, the portrait was hand blasted away from the concrete exterior to reveal her features. For most of 35 years, I think those ‘keep off the grass’ signs helped to keep dog walkers on the sidewalk away from her ponytail.

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