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New York City’s Incredible Almost-Buildings

New York City’s Incredible Almost-Buildings

Although New York City is always changing, it’s hard to imagine to imagine it as anything other than what it is. But change is part of New York’s identity. It is manifest in the crowds of people swept up and spilled out of the island metropolis. Even evidence of New York’s history–in the recreated apartments of the Tenement Museum, for example, and the old City Hall subway station–still feel folded up in this vision. New York has endless layers: you can ascend seventy floors in an elevator to get to your office or descend four stories on the escalator to ride the subway.

To imagine another New York–a different New York, rather than one that has previously existed or secretly exists–is a different matter. It rings of an alternate timeline, so anchored is this city’s iconic skyline in its urban identity. Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin have documented just that, though, in their book Never Built New York. By canvassing architectural firms and archives when available, the authors have unearthed designs and plans for a New York that might have been. Not only could these designs have become a reality, but they might have taken the place of other now iconic architecture in the city.

Some projects were closer to inception than others, but many would have radically altered the cityscape. A gigantic dome over Midtown and a floating airport on the Hudson seem some of the more far-fetched ideas, as does an ambitious extension of downtown Manhattan into New York Bay. As the authors point out, however, these ideas may not have seemed so extreme when first proposed. “’It was a time when people really believed in the power of technology,” Lubell says. ‘And they thought, you know, we can do kind of anything. … We’re building spaceships that go to the moon, why can’t we build a dome over Manhattan to get rid of all this pollution, get rid of all the problems of weather?’”

That’s all well and good, but what about Frank Lloyd Wright’s proposal to transform Ellis Island into a bubble city? And his plan might have been preferable to the immediate alternatives: a prison or a resort. Ellis Island wasn’t in use for long after WWII, so it makes sense the city would want to develop it. No landmark is sacred, as proved by the demolished old Penn Station. And Grand Central Station isn’t still standing for lack of trying.

Many city landmarks might have looked very different if, for example, City Hall had been rebuilt as a “neo-Egyptian pile” in the style of Scottish architect George Ashdown Audsley around the turn of the turn of the twentieth century. And the Federal Reserve Bank could have been made of glass and elevated many stories above the ground via steel columns!  Speaking of columns, residential towers were once considered for use as supports of bridges spanning city rivers.

Although some of the designs may sound impossible, some would have undoubtedly complemented the city, like Edward Larrabee Barnes’s 1974 biosphere. Some might have improved the skyline, like a Columbus Circle building for ABC designed in 1963 to take the shape of a flower. There’s also the proposed 2004 Olympic Village, situated on the now booming Queens waterfront…

To help New Yorkers and visitors imagine a Big Apple that might have been, the authors are working with the Queens Museum to reconstruct atop the museum’s existing model of the city. The exhibit will open later in 2017.

Featured image: American Weekly via 

9 Rarely-Visited Architectural Wonders in NYC

9 Rarely-Visited Architectural Wonders in NYC

New York City, though millennia younger than ancient cities like Rome, Athens or Cairo, is one of the most architecturally advanced in the world. From the Empire State Building to the Brooklyn Bridge, the wonders of the Big Apple’s architecture know few boundaries.

But beyond the obvious tourist attractions, even New Yorkers are missing out on some extraordinary buildings and spaces. Many of these “hidden” wonders are not hidden at all–simply overlooked, lightly trafficked, abandoned or unadvertised.

If you know where to look, through, New York has more to offer than the traditional sites reprinted endlessly upon T-shirts and magnets. Here are ten architectural wonders you probably didn’t know existed in New York City, and why you should visit if you can.

1. Old City Hall Subway Stop


Photo by BronxBoys77 via Flickr

The first line of the New York City Subway system, called the Manhattan Main Line, included a magnificent City Hall stop. Opened in 1904, the stop showcases Guastavino tiles, skylights, brass chandeliers and colored glass tilework. The stop, though closed in 1945, is unique in its usage of Romanesque Revival architecture.

The Old City Hall subway stop can still be glimpsed by riders of the 6 train–or more ideally, seen in depth by Transit Museum members who choose to take a tour.

2. TWA Flight Center

The Trans World Airlines Flight Center opened in 1962 as the original terminal at what is not JFK International Airport. Though most of the center has been demolished, what’s left remains the city’s most astounding example of modernist architecture: the neo-futurist style was built to usher in the jet age with curved white glass, red carpeted floors and a retro-futuristic Mad Men vibe.

Declared a New York City landmark in 1994, the terminal remains empty but is opened to the public one weekend every October. This could change once the one-of-a-kind space is transformed into a hotel, which would preserve and renovate the landmark as a haven for guests and travelers.

3. Park Avenue Armory

Part palace, part industrial shed, not many think to visit New York City’s Seventh Regiment Armory (also called the Park Avenue Armory), located at 643 Park Avenue in Manhattan. Built in 1880, the impressive structure houses a 55,000-square-foot drill hall reminiscent of early 19th-century European train stations.

These days, the Armory is leased by the Park Avenue Armory, a non-profit organization that uses the grand building as an alternative arts space.

4. Loew’s Theaters

New York City’s first atmospheric theater was the 46th street Loew’s Theatre in Brooklyn. The massive, opulent space was designed with an enormous rounded ceiling to resemble a night sky in an Italian garden but has since suffered from some architectural decay.

It’s now used by a furniture company for storage and is not open to the public (though the owner sometimes allows visitors a peek). Even so, the theater is just one of Loew’s 5 “wonder theaters” in Brooklyn. One, now called King’s Theater, underwent a $94 million restoration and is used again as a performance space and retains its Old World charm.

5. Woolworth Building

Designed by architect Cass GIlbert and completed in 1913, the Woolworth Building was the tallest building in the world between 1913 and 1930. Because of its neo-gothic features the building was also referred to as the “Cathedral of Commerce.”

While the outside facade and height are a feat of construction, most New Yorkers have never stepped foot inside its lobby, which has been called one of the most spectacular in New York City. Complete with stained glass, a vaulted ceiling, mosaic and brass details, the Woolworth building is a wonder to behold inside and out.

6. General Theological Seminary

Founded in 1917, the General Theological Seminary is the oldest seminary of the Episcopal Church. It’s located between West 20th and 21st street and Ninth and Tenth Avenues in Chelsea, Manhattan.

Protected by high iron gates around its entire square block of property, the seminary has been called a “hidden oasis,” for the inside is a glorious and yet rarely trafficked site. The campus of red-brick buildings and chapels includes a lovely courtyard modeled after Oxford-style neo-gothic design. It also holds the country’s oldest set of tubular bells.

7. Whispering Gallery

The Whispering Gallery is hidden in plain sight at Grand Central Station, an architectural wonder in its own right. An unmarked archway in front of the famed Oyster Bar and Restaurant possesses a unique acoustic quality: simply stand in front of it and whisper, and your voice will be as if transported to the opposite archway, where others can whisper back.

The seemingly mystical element of the Whispering Gallery has to do with the space’s architectural qualities: specifically its three-dimensional ellipsoidal shape, which reflects the sound from one side to another.

8. French Embassy & Albertine

There are many embassies in New York City, but they are not frequently visited by the public. Of them, the French Embassy may be the most architecturally splendid: its outside is ivy-covered and stately, while it’s inside a marble rotunda, classical statuette offers a slice of European finery right on Fifth Avenue.

New Yorkers and tourists can visit the embassy’s recently opened bookstore Albertine, which sells books in French and English translation. Here, busts of French and French-American figures are on display beneath a painted ceiling of constellations, stars, and planets.

9. Dakota Apartments

For the most historic, architecturally brilliant, and expensive apartment buildings, look no further than the Dakota. A historic landmark built in 1884 by architect Henry J Hardenbergh, the gorgeous building boasts high gables and deep, dormered roofs, balconies and balustrades.

Its various details gave it a North German renaissance character, while its floor plan echoed French architectural trends. In the beginning, no two of its 65 apartments were alike, and the surrounding area was sparsely populated. Notable residents include Judy Garland, Yoko Ono, and John Lennon, who was murdered there in 1980.

Featured image by Seamus Murray via Flickr

NYC’s Holland Tunnel, Then and Now

NYC’s Holland Tunnel, Then and Now

For many, it’s the gateway to New York City: the Holland Tunnel, an underwater channel through which cars disappear, endure a hellscape of dimly lit traffic, and eventually emerge whole on Canal street into a sea of other vehicles.

Though not ideal for claustrophobics, the Holland Tunnel is widely considered an extraordinary feat of engineering — especially considering its age: 89 years. The 1.7 mile tunnel was begun in 1920 and completed in 1927, and bears the name of first chief engineer, Clifford M. Holland, who unfortunately did not live to see its completion.

For centuries, the only way one could travel across the lower Hudson River was by ferry. Considering the amount of traffic that pass through the tunnel in the 21st century — 34,698,000 vehicles a year in 2007 — it’s obvious why a ferry would not cut it, especially as automobiles gained prominence.

Tunnels proved a feasible solution after several railways were successfully built beneath the river. In 1906 New Jersey and New York commissioned jointly to build a bridge, before shifting to plan for a tunnel in 1913 due to height concerns.

An engineering triumph

Several design proposals for the tunnel were passed on before Clifford Holland’s was accepted. Both Holland and his engineering successor, Milton Freeman, would die before the tunnel’s completion in 1927. Ole Singstad oversaw the completion of the tunnel and also designed its innovative ventilation system.

A mile and a half long tunnel, you see, is more difficult than it seems — and the claustrophobic among us should be especially grateful for ventilation technology most of us didn’t know we needed. The Holland Tunnel in particular is an early example of mechanically ventilated design, and the first ever mechanically ventilated underwater vehicular tunnel.

To keep automobile fumes from polluting the air inside the tunnel, Singstad came up with a practical solution. It works like this: four ventilation buildings, two on each side of the Hudson, house 84 fans that provide a change of air every 90 minutes. Thanks to this solution, air quality in the tunnel is kept well within safety limits. This way in the off-chance you do need to leave your car in a particularly bad bout of traffic, the air is plenty fresh.

At the time of the tunnel’s opening, the press declared that the air in the tunnel was fresher than many open-air streets in the city.

Opening and operation

The tunnel was opened to much aplomb by President Coolidge, who ceremonially triggered the event from his yacht, as giant brass bells rung at either end of the tunnel. It was an immediate success as a portal from New Jersey to New York City.

The tunnel has needed very little updating over the years: a testament to its solid design and construction. There have been notable moments in time and history that mark the tunnel’s evolution as the City of New York grew up and outward.

In 1930, control was transferred to the New York and New Jersey Port Authority, which continues to operate it today. In 1955, a narrow, one-man electric car was designed for police officers to maneuver in case of emergencies.

This emergency protocol makes since, because over the years the Holland Tunnel has weathered some especially nasty events, like fire aboard an electrical truck in 1949, and severe flooding during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. It’s considered one of the most high-risk terrorist targets in the United States by government officials.

There have been close calls in this regard: Following September 11 attacks, the tunnel remained closed for a month. The FBI uncovered a plot they believed the Holland Tunnel was the target of in 2006, though it turned out to be aimed at the New Jersey PATH.

Today, the tunnel remains key to entrance and exiting of the Big Apple. Though tolls have gone up, its function remains the same, and its legacy grows with every year.

The Holland Tunnel was made a National Historic Civil and Mechanical Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil and Mechanical Engineers in 1982 and a National Historic Landmark in 1993 by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Featured image: Noud W. via Flickr