Salamanders on 7th Avenue

The elaborate facade of Alwyn Court—the most ornate in the city—is encrusted with terra-cotta ornaments such as flowers, urns, crests, and salamanders wearing crowns and breathing fire.

Alwyn Court elaborate facade

Over the centuries salamanders have acquired a special place in folklore as mystical creatures who are resurrected from ashes and get re-born from the fire. While not exactly accurate, the belief led to the salamander becoming an emblem of the French King Francis I. The 16th-century French king, whose motto was Nutrisco et extinguo (“I nourish [the good] and extinguish [the bad]”), left a mixed political legacy and had been treated harshly in the annals of history for military loses and undignified imprisonment.

But it was through art, not the battlefield, that Francis I left his mark on history. A generous patron of the arts, he brought the art of the Renaissance to France. It was Francis I who invited Leonardo Da Vinci to spend his later years in France bringing the Mona Lisa along. Francis I was responsible for re-constructing old medieval fortresses into Renaissance masterpieces and building Renaissance-inspired châteaux. This gave rise to the style known as French Renaissance, which is characterized by Italian Renaissance symmetry combined with a multitude of whimsical, elaborate decorations. In fact, the French Renaissance style is often called Francis I style.

The Alwyn Court was built in 1909 as a luxury apartment building advertised as “city homes for those with country houses”. The tripartite composition (four-story base, five-story shaft, and three-story crown), flat roof, symmetry, and monochromatic color scheme are all recognizable features of Renaissance architecture. But it’s the whimsical façade of the Alwyn Court that makes it unique. A multitude of terra-cotta decorations cover every inch of the façade.

The details that stand out most are those salamanders with crowns above their heads—an obvious giveaway of the style that bears the name of Francis I, the 16th century French king who had better taste for the arts than for battle.

The entrance to Petrossian Restaurant located in Alwyn Court
Alwyn Court by Simon Fieldhouse (http://simonfieldhouse.com)

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