Episode 3 – What is worse than Nero? What is better than his baths?: Roman Bath Design, Train Stations, Museums and modern-day Baths

Bath architecture was reappropriated in many interesting ways in New York City. Many thanks to Dr.
Allyson McDavid, New School / Parsons School of Design for joining us to discuss Roman Baths and their long-lasting impact on design and architecture.
Architects like Charles McKim use the architecture of the Roman imperial baths (or thermae), specifically the Baths of Caracalla to create the old Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal.
Map of the Domus Aurea (Nero’s Golden House) and the Baths of Trajan
The on the left map is pretty neat as it includes the stagnum (or artificial lake) that was composed as part of the landscapes and gardens associated with the Domus Aurea. The Baths of Trajan (on the right) were erected on top of part of the Oppian wing of the house. It also shows that the property associated with the residence stretched to the Palatine hill. It was not a naturalist landscape by any stretch, but a highly designed one.
Quid Nerone peius? Quid thermis melius Neronianis?  
Martial’s quick-witted line in his Epigram 7.34, translates to “What is worse than Nero but what is better than his bath’s?” Both the Latin and English translations can be found online.
Ashlars – A quick definition

1:hewn or squared stonealso masonry of such stone

2a thin squared and dressed stone for facing a wall of rubble or brick

“Ashlar.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 24 Sept. 2018.
A dressed stone does not mean its wearing clothes, but rather it has been carefully cut down and well-prepared for building.
Bath of Caracalla
Ethan Doyle White, CC BY-SA 4.0
These baths, due to their truly colossal size, inspired many later architects, including Charles McKim, who marched workmen through the baths so he could understand how the architecture of the baths circulated people.
École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts
Located in Paris, this arts and architectural school trained some of the most important European and American architects. The Tate has a good summary about the school.
New York City’s Baths and Bath-inspired Architecture
Asser Levy Recreation Center,
By Beyond My Ken – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
Asser Levy Baths, East 23rd and FDR Drive – now a recreational center with a great gym! New York City was home to public baths, which were built at the end of the 19th century. This one actually looked unmistakably like a Roman bath
The Old Pennsylavania Station

Here are some images of the most beautiful building that was demolished in New York City, the old Penn Station.  The tragic destruction of Penn Station meant that other buildings, like Grand Central Terminal, were saved through the creation of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Thankfully, the old Farley post office which is just next to Penn Station, is being transformed into a new train station which might make all of our experiences in Penn Station more palatable.
Metropolitian Museum of Art, Simonfieldhouse, CC BY-SA 3.0

Another appropriation of ancient baths – also go and walk around in the grand hall of the main entrance – and once can feel the cavernous proportions of the bath in the Met


Ballon, Hilary, and Norman McGrath. New York’s Pennsylvania Stations. New York: Norton, 2002.
DeLaine, Janet. “The Romanitas of the Railway Station.” In The Uses and Abuses of Antiquity, edited by Michael D Biddiss and Maria Wyke, 145–66. Bern; New York: P. Lang, 1999.
Diehl, Lorraine B. The Late, Great Pennsylvania Station. New York: American Heritage, 1985.
Parissien, Steven. Pennsylvania Station: McKim, Mead and White. London: Phaidon, 1996.

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