Monday, October 10, 2011

Grandeur and Giggles: An OHNY Volunteer Story

Autumn in New York is a cool cocktail, equal parts social and cultural, then garnished with the liveliest events of the season. For architecture fans, the key event each autumn is Open House New York, that weekend of tours and lectures when built New York – in its innovative, historic, quirky and even off-limit forms - becomes accessible to all.

With only days to go, thousands of New Yorkers have already been engaged in pre-OHNY weekend strategy. Reservations for favorite tours have been made. Must-see locations have been highlighted in the weekend guide then matched with friend’s schedules, coordinated against transportation and planned with room for lunch. It’s a quintessential New York event therefore strategy is part of the experience - and much of the fun. Imagine what it must be like behind-the-scenes at OHNY just before the event. As a volunteer for the Eighth Annual Open House Weekend I enjoyed a peek into the dedicated effort that goes into making each weekend so memorable.

Hundreds of volunteers gathered at Eldridge Synagogue one evening last fall. In that awe-inspiring setting we compared our location assignments, shared notes on what we knew about each location and learned what to expect during our four-hour shifts. The veterans stressed the importance of wearing comfortable shoes and being informed. The newbies, like me, worried about what to wear and how to manage overwhelming crowds. Tasked with turning random New Yorkers into skillful weekend hosts was a team of about 40 year-round volunteers. In less than two hours they managed to communicate the mission of OHNY and inspire all present to draw on their personal best to make the event a success.

I left that meeting with an OHNY button that would serve as my wearable passport to events all weekend and with a sheet of paper that listed my assigned location as The Centurion, a modern condominium building in Mid-town Manhattan. I have to admit that I had hoped to serve my volunteer hours at one of New York’s quirky, historic locations but I decided to approach the assignment with gusto. Over the next several weeks I memorized countless details about the 19-story building, it’s “fa├žade of fine chamesson limestone quarried from the Burgundy region of France,” about Pei Partnership Architects, and designer Li Chung Pei, son of I.M. Pei. Over prepared and overdressed, I arrived at The Centurion at the assigned hour.

I hurried into the building breathless and rushed then instantly settled. The natural light filtering indoors from a minimalist water garden; the hush of trickling water upon limestone and the soft-cream surroundings of the lobby inspired me to be quiet and somewhat reverent. I stood taller, whispered questions and became hyper-aware of my echoing footsteps. As I welcomed each guest I noticed they reacted to the space in the same way. Surrounded by sleek furnishings, glass and stone, their movements became hesitant, they smoothed creases, real or imagined, from their clothes. The perfection of The Centurion seemed to make each of us regret anything flawed in our surroundings. The sight of an abandoned newspaper or coffee cup in that setting seemed unbearable. I just had to tidy up!

But then the fun began in earnest.

Each tour consisted of twenty guests following members of the building management team through 5 luxury apartments. In the first apartment, visitors observed and murmured quietly as they absorbed the details of each room, discovering teak floors, 17-foot ceilings, 8-foot doors and enormous tinted, sound-insulated windows at every turn. By the time we moved to the second and third apartments, visitors were beginning to comment on the impracticality of having glass as a kitchen counter surface and veering off to linger and coo over Bosch washer and dryers. But by the fourth apartment, any hint of formality dropped.

It was the sight of a commode sitting woefully in the corner of a multi-million dollar penthouse that did it. Why? Because it was flanked by two, 17-foot windows that placed it in full view of everyone working in the towering office buildings nearby. That one stop changed the mood on each tour from subdued to truly Open House, with New Yorkers telling it “like it is” and asking tour guides to photograph them in groups in the strange little bathroom.

But the last stop was always the best.

The by-now-relaxed visitors chatted with guides, volunteers and The Centurion's interior designer, daydreamed aloud about one day living clutter-free and laughed when at some point someone invariably shouted, “$5 million? No problem, I’ll take it!”

From a first meeting set in a grand, historic location to lively conversations with fellow architecture fans to giggles in unexpected places, volunteering for Open House Weekend was full of surprises. It’s an experience this volunteer would highly recommend.

Visit for details about the Ninth Annual Open House New York Weekend, October 15th – 16th, 2012

1 comment:

  1. What a lovely. I never quite understood what OHNY is! Now I know. I am still laughing about the toilet exposed to the world - sounds like some strange stage set. Bizarre.


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