Lower Manhattan’s Classic Skyline Seen Aerially From Battery Park c. 1956
And What Became of It
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.
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
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.
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.”