Dominic Ambrose Blogblot

of words: narrative, film and non-fiction

Vin Fiz Centennial: the grape soda that flew

100 years ago today Cal Rodgers took off in his Wright Brothers plane from Brooklyn on his way to Los Angeles, in an attempt to win the $50,000 prize offered by William Randolph Hearst for the first air journey from coast to coast in less than 30 days. Rodgers’ flight was sponsored by the Armour Meat Company and his plane was named after the new soft drink they were peddling – the Vin Fiz.

The 1912 advertising image

At the oddest literary reading I ever attended (or was  that the Paris metro reading?) excerpts from E. P. Stein’s Flight of the Vin Fiz  and Eileen F. Lebow’s Cal Rodgers and the Vin Fizwere presented in the little exhibition room at Hangar B of Floyd Bennett Field, near where the Vin Fiz took off. That helped me to see the Vin Fiz as a real aircraft, and not as I imagined it: some kind of grape soda. Alas, there was no Vin Fiz served at the event, since the soft drink never really

an overgrown runway at Floyd Bennett Field

took off (see testimonials below). The other Vin Fiz did take off, but it didn’t quite make it to Los Angeles in 30 days… more like 49, having crashed and sputtered several times along the way.

Afterwards, the attendees were allowed to wander around in the hangar to puzzle over the airplane carcasses in various stages of recomposition there. It is a workshop for the reconstruction of historical aircraft, and there were some marvelous examples there. Afterwards, my friend and I wandered around the disused airport that has sat idle along Flatbush Avenue for decades. It was a beautiful day and we watched as enormous airbuses and boeings lumbered low in the sky as they approached JFK airport just a bit to the east. We also took some time

One of the many planes being restored

to watch the model airplane enthusiasts fly their own tiny aircraft on one weedy runway. It was an interesting day to reflect on the caprices of fate: the beverage that gains immortality as an aircraft, the prize that was never won, the world war two bombers and troop transports that retire to lives as tinker toys and the airfield that still lives, but only vicariously. I have to appreciate history’s ironic sense of humor. It leaves me with one burning question. What did Vin Fiz taste like?

With the wonders of the internet I was able to find out not only where it can be found today (in New Hampshire and Ohio!) and also an idea of its taste, judging from the following testimonials from 1911:

“Tastes like a cross between river water (sludge) and horse slop.”

“You have to sneak up on it to get it down.”

“It has a laxative effect.”

Doesn’t that make you just want to go out and get some? Well, you just missed it. An attempt was made to revive the brand in recent years… but it fizzled out. 


September 17, 2011 Posted by | happenings, literature | , , , | Leave a comment

Brooklyn Museum’s new entrance pavilion: Democracy Now?

My first memory of the Brooklyn Museum was that brutally truncated entrance. When I was 12 or so, my older sister had a boyfriend with a car. We would ride around Brooklyn in his Mustang and one day we drove up to the Brooklyn Museum. The Beaux Arts building was certainly awe-inspiring, but what were those forbidding stone walls that rose up out of the concrete sidewalk? Those high Ionic columns that started way up above your head and the statues that perched on blocks of granite as high as a house? Even with my limited experience, I knew something was wrong.

The Museum after its shearing in 1934

The Brooklyn Museum website explains that the original monumental steps of the McKim, Meade & White building had been removed in 1934. They were deteriorating badly after several decades of deferred maintenance, and the city decided at that time that a more “democratic” entrance would be appropriate. This democratic aesthetic dictated a disproportionately small entry door because it was felt that large, pompous entries were intimidating. (Fortunately, it was not a style that caught on much in the U.S., but one can still find public buildings handicapped with these tiny entrances in the former Soviet Union.)

The Museum in 1906 with its original entrance

It was clear to many that the supposedly democratic entrance never looked quite right. In 2004 a new entrance pavilion was opened. Now the imbalances were rectified, the oddity erased – but by something just as odd. I was curious to see this modern glass and metal entrance after reading all the strong reactions (many of them quite negative) on internet blogs.

The 2004 entrance was designed by James Stewart Polshek. He made no attempt to recreate the original stairway or fake a classical entrance that might seem to blend in. Instead he took a bold approach, crafting a modern sweep of open glass that seems like a growth of cityscape that has attached itself to the building. It is smooth but broken up concentrically, like a digital hiccup or interference on a TV screen. The semicircle of greenish glass supported by metal masts rise up at an angle from the ground, in direct contrast to the rectangular classicism of the historic facade – but in doing so, they evoke the memory of the bulk and the striations of those original monumental steps.

The Museum from across Washington Avenue and Eastern Parkway

From across the road the modern structure has the ghostly silhouette of a grand staircase, in some way reprising the dimensions of the original McKim, Meade & White design.

The entrance reaches out to the street

The passarelle above the doors looks out on Eastern Parkway

Inside the glass, one can see that the stone cladding of the lowest level of the structure has been removed, exposing the red brick of the foundation. It is as though the new entrance had not been tacked onto the building but had somehow grown into it, eating away at the base to establish itself there.  What once seemed to me like forbidding blocks of stone rising perpendicular out of the sidewalk (the so-called “democratic” entrance!) have now had their vulnerability exposed, as though the museum were sympathetically laying its whole history bare for all to see.

Looking in at the brickwork foundation

Those large allegorical sculptures of Manhattan and Brooklyn, which had been added in 1964 when they were removed there from the Manhattan Bridge, now seemed to have come down to earth from their heights, riding just above the arcs of green glass, like two sisters sitting comfortably at some wavy Atlantic shore. And now mere mortal New Yorkers can keep them company, as a large segment of the pavilion roof is dressed with sloping steps that serve as seating for people-watching on a sunny afternoon.

Approaching the allegorical girls by stairway

Certainly there are some people who object to this new pavilion, calling it jarring and overdone, but many others with an opposite reaction, including the New York Times architecture critic, Herbert Muschamp who called it “one of the most attractive public spaces to be found anywhere in town.” To me it has just the right feel of confident innovation and reflection. The Brooklyn Museum has turned a misguided, clumsy doctrinaire attempt at democracy into an inviting, modern approach to the same goal that truly opens the museum to the city.

Read about the history here.

August 17, 2011 Posted by | architecture | , , , | Leave a comment