Old New York In Photos #86 – The End Of The Classic Lower Manhattan Skyline c. 1956

Lower Manhattan’s Classic Skyline Seen Aerially From Battery Park c. 1956

And What Became of It

Classic lower Manhattan skyline before the late 1950s transformation. Battery Park is in the foreground. (c.1956)

Every time I’m in Brooklyn I gaze across the East River at the lower Manhattan skyline. I feel I’m looking at a city I don’t recognize.

It’s not because I’m old. But it might be because the buildings that have been going up since the late 1950s are so similar. They’re all of the same mold- glass sheathed pinnacles with no flourishes, adornments or personality.

For the first half of the twentieth century, when you came upon New York whether by ship, train or car and got your first glimpse of the skyline you knew you were coming into New York City.

For a native New Yorker coming upon New York today, you may as well be entering the architectural equivalent of the Mall of America, any-city USA. Examples sprout up everywhere of New York’s architectural monstrosities, ugly and tall for the sake of being tall.

Classic lower Manhattan skyline form Brooklyn waterfront in the 1930s. photo: Acme

Commercial Cable Building

The skyline of lower Manhattan had remained pretty much static from 1931 through 1957 until the expansion of the New York Stock Exchange. This marked the first of many redevelopments of the skyline in the financial district.

The Beginning of the End

For the Stock Exchange’s expansion, two buildings were razed in the winter and spring of 1954-55. Demolished were the twenty story Commercial Cable Building (built 1897) at 20 Broad Street and the adjoining fifteen story Blair Building (built 1903) at 24 Broad Street. The Cable Building went down with a fight from the building itself. It took over six months to demolish.

Among the biggest obstacles that the Drachman Demolition Company faced were the walls of the building, which were two and a half feet thick. When the architects George Edward Harding and William T. Gooch were planning the Cable Building, steel columns were just coming into use. The architects were unsure of how much steel they would need to hold up the building. The builders used round Phoenix columns which contain four to eight steel sections joined by half inch filler plates. By the 1950s these over-strengthened types of columns had been obsolete for fifty years. The ironworkers taking down the columns had to resort to blowtorches to laboriously sever each joint. The wreckers also encountered Rosendale cement, a cement mixture that hadn’t been used in twenty-five years. In terms of difficulty to demolish one worker said he’d “rather go through granite.”

The narrow streets surrounding the building itself made removal of the debris and scrap materials extremely difficult. The new building that went up, completed in March 1957, was the twenty-seven story General Utilities and Realty Corporation Building.

The Coup de Grâce

Whitehall Street, The Produce Exchange 1930 photo Percy Loomis Sperr

You knew the assault on classic Manhattan buildings was on full throttle and the battle lost when the seven story Produce Exchange Building across from Bowling Green came down in 1957. The Produce Exchange was replaced by an undistinguished Emory Roth designed thirty story skyscraper built by Uris Brothers. So, why does bland replace unique?

The 1882 – 1884 George B. Post architectural masterpiece was sacrificed for the most common reason – the huge parcel of land bordering Broadway / Whitehall, Beaver, Stone, Marketfield and New Streets, could generate a lot more money per square foot with a new building.

There is virtually nothing that has been built over the last six decades to rival any of the Beaux Arts, Art Noveau, and Art Deco gems that made lower Manhattan look so distinct.

Frank Gehry’s tin can

15 William Street inspired by Ikea?






Recently there have been a few architects to break away from boxy glass monoliths, but the results are lamentable.

There are people who like the tin can futuristic building at 8 Spruce Street designed by Frank Gehry. This “work of art” by an acclaimed architect now obscures western views of the the iconic Woolworth Building,. Maybe there are tourists who prefer to gaze upon this giant warped soda can of a building over the Woolworth Building.

These are the same people who go on vacation and patronize only chain stores and restaurants rather than local shops. Snapchatting with their fellow lowbrows, “Oh, this place is great. I ate at Subway and went shopping at The Gap, Staples and H&M.”  They’re the sort of people that will also admire 15 William Street and 1 World Trade Center as great works of architecture.

The inhumanity of modern architecture reflects its worst qualities. It’s as if The Fountainhead’s Ellsworth Toohey has hypnotized the public and the banal is celebrated while beauty is discarded.

Today’s architecture might be summed up best by the New York Times which famously editorialized about the loss of Penn Station in 1963, “we get the architecture we deserve.”

5 thoughts on “Old New York In Photos #86 – The End Of The Classic Lower Manhattan Skyline c. 1956

  1. Ann

    I agree 100%. I was so lucky. Born in 1938, enjoyed NYC all through the 1940s and 1950s, thanks to my grandparents who lived at the Park Lane, 48th & Park. And I knew ut was nagical, beautuful, and exciting; though I also knew many residents gad a very different experience.

  2. Tim

    Dear Charles, “identikit glass” is aptly put. Just think of all that was lost with the Roxy Theater, Hippodrome, Astor and Clarridge Hotels, Savoy, Drake, Biltmore, original Commodore, Pennsylvania Station and original Singer Tower. Lower Manhattan from circa 1910-1960 was truly iconic until the 1950’s, 1960’s Dominó Row as I call it along Sixth Avenue with unimaginative sterility in form. Nowadays, New York has the “lego Buildings” along billionaires row. Despite my liking the Empire State Building, imagine how grand the original Waldorf-Astoria would be if maintained and not razed after only some thirty-five years or so. I agree that the Chase Manhattan Bank opening in 1960, ‘61 was no aesthetic beauty to lower Manhattan. “Identikit glass”. Lol, so sad but true! I love my favorite city and have been to quite a few.

  3. SWW

    I am a kindred spirit, yearning for the beautiful lost building & cityscapes, lamenting the damage modernism and is successors have wrought on the world and wondering “how did our species let this happen after millennia of steady progression.” I appreciate the site.

    1. B.P. Post author

      Thanks. The site was created for YOU and the handful of souls who can fully appreciate it. “Kindred spirit.” Love it.
      Everyone else – please enjoy the ride.

  4. Charles Wunderman

    Everything became so horribly bland and sterile during the 1950s & 60s. It was, as you so correctly stated, the Mall of America being imposed everywhere. Boring, lifeless, sterile, plastic suburbia reproduced en masse everywhere. A metaphor for our entire flat-pack society. In earlier times, the New York skyline was absolutely unique. Today it could be anywhere.

    The Lower Manhattan skyline as it existed before it was spoiled by the boxy Chase Manhattan Building in 1960 wasn’t merely about office space. It was a set-piece of romantic soaring towers that lifted the spirits and the imagination. The glass boxes flatten and stifle them.

    The neo-gothic Woolworth Building’s promoters advertised it in 1913 as “a cathedral of commerce”, The later Art Deco towers strengthened that uplifting metaphor. Certainly no such reference could possibly be applied to any of the identikit glass & metal slabs. Sad. So sad.


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