As a North Jersey kid who lived on top of a hill that afforded a fine view of the glittering New York skyline, I used to think the skyscrapers were winking at me, urging me to venture into the big city.
Convinced that the biggest one was called the ‘Umpire’ State Building, I relished the family rides into Manhattan, and remembered when the Lincoln Tunnel added a third tube and the George Washington Bridge gave birth to a bottom deck.
I was wide awake even for the night ride home, bedazzled by the lights, sounds, and sights of a city far larger than the bedroom suburb of Passaic. The scenery is still spellbinding — maybe because it’s been there so long that changing the topography seems sacrilegious.
I didn’t realize it as a kid, but Manhattan may have more landmarks per square mile than any other large American city. Unfortunately, many are endangered species, since there’s an army of developers who think preserving historic structures prevents future progress.
The best-known landmarks are obvious: the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, Brooklyn Bridge, and New York Public Library come to mind immediately. To be eligible for landmark status — and protected from the omnipresent wrecking ball — a structure must be at least 30 years old. There are thousands in New York, where 91% of the buildings in Manhattan, and four of every five structures in the five boroughs, were built before 1965.
Picking and choosing is the job of the New York Landmarks Commission, created by Mayor Robert F. Wagner. The 11-member commission, made up of volunteers who meet weekly, includes three architects, a city planner or landscape architect, a historian, a realtor, and residents from each borough.
Author-historian Anthony W. Robins, whose New York roots reach back to a great-great grandfather on the Lower East Side, joined the commission staff in 1979 and lasted 20 years. He’s also written several books, including a 2013 hardcover called Grand Central Terminal: 100 Years of a New York Landmark.
According to Robins, who gives tours and lectures on the subject, the list of local landmarks ranges from a tree in Brooklyn to seven cast-iron sidewalk clocks from the 19th century (one stolen from an Astoria street probably sits in someone’s backyard). “It’s pretty unusual for a landmark to be stolen,” he said.
Few landmarks come in economy size, he said. There’s the Unisphere, the still-standing symbol of the 1964 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow; the 42nd Street library, with plaster lions Patience and Prudence guarding the front steps; the Daily News Building, which played a perfect Daily Planet in Superman, and the oddly-shaped Flatiron Building, erected as the Fuller Building in 1902 on a tiny triangular plot.
Mention the Flatiron and the historian in Robins jumps out. “There’s an old story that young men would stand on the corner of 23rd Street because the wind whipped up by the odd location would lift the skirts of passing ladies,” he said. “Police would shoo them away and say, ‘Skidoo!’ That was allegedly the origin of the phrase ‘23 Skidoo!’ ”
Like the Flatiron, the Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia is a landmark, along with a plethora of Brooklyn brownstones. The frilly French consulate at 934 Fifth Avenue still awaits landmark designation, tough it is within the Upper East Side historic district.
The landmarks list is filled with surprises. Yes to the Brooklyn Bridge, circa 1883, but no to the George Washington since half of it rests on the New Jersey side of the Hudson. Yankee Stadium doesn’t make the cut either because revisions in the ‘70s radically altered the appearance of the original 1923 structure.
The New York Stock Exchange, circa 1903, and the Downtown Athletic Club, completed in 1930, have landmark status, along with the Woolworth and Chrysler buildings, Rockefeller Center, and Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. So does Brooklyn’s little-known Carroll Street Bridge, which links Carroll Gardens to the southern part of Park Slope. The oldest of four American retractile bridges, it rolls horizontally onto land whenever a barge needs to pass along the Gowanus Canal. Numerous Harlem River bridges are also landmarks.
There’s a long list of New York bridges, buildings, parks, and places on the National Register of Historic Places, though not all have official landmark status. The lists will never be identical, according to Robins, because criteria for each differ. Several years ago, the City Council considered a measure that would require landmark designation for any building on the National Register but it was never enacted.
The commission’s mission, meanwhile, is to salvage structures threatened with demolition by developers eager to erect skyscrapers on their prime locations. The battle lines are forming.
Had the Landmarks Commission been created sooner, the original Penn Station might still be standing. Even in its early days, the commission didn’t have the political clout to save the old Metropolitan Opera House or the Singer Tower, a Lower Broadway edifice that went from the world’s tallest building to the tallest building ever demolished.
Robins revealed that developers once sought to convert Grand Central’s iconic waiting room into a three-story bowling alley, then later tried to get approval for a towering office building in place of the historic terminal. When the Landmarks Commission refused, developers filed a suit that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. They lost, thereby saving the structure.
Robins really knows his stuff. During a tour I took with him at Grand Central, he said the Grand Staircase coming down from Vanderbilt Avenue is straight out of the Paris Opera; the 42nd Street viaduct that carries traffic around the building is modeled after the Alexander III Bridge, also in Paris; and that the powder-blue zodiac ceiling was originally sketched on paper by the French artist. He added that the huge sculpture over the Tiffany clock outside depicts Mercury, who represents transportation, Hercules, emblematic of the brawn it took to build the station, and Minerva, symbolic of the brainpower needed to complete the task.
Robins even showed off the structure’s amazing acoustics, placing one woman in a corner crafted of marble and another in an opposite corner, with their backs toward the center of the archway. Despite a distance of about 25 feet, plus the constant din, they were able to communicate just by speaking at normal levels.
Grand Central is a combination of British engineering and French style, with the first version featuring a train shed copied from London’s St. Patrick’s Station, then the world’s largest of its type. During a lecture at the Sorbonne in Paris, Robins received considerable feedback for mentioning the American architects influenced by L’Ecole de Beaux Arts (School of Fine Arts). A professor in the audience told Robins that more than 600 U.S. architects had studied there.
“The impact of French architecture on the United States in the early 20th century was remarkable,” he said. “When American architects went off to study in Paris, to drink in the traditions of the Renaissance era, what they really wanted to do was learn how to build the cities of empire. Penn Station, Grand Central, Columbia University, and the New York Public Library were the monuments of the new American empire.”
The architectural boom was also triggered by a desire to be not only the best but the biggest. As Robins explained, “The whole saga of building the world’s tallest building was a New York saga.”
When the Singer Building went up, it was 100 feet taller than the previous tallest building, the Cologne Cathedral in Germany. The only thing taller was the Eiffel Tower but that was a structure not a building. Then Met life went up and then Woolworth.
“There was a famous battle between the Chrysler Building and the Bank of Manhattan on Wall Street. The original Chrysler was designed to be 808 feet tall so Wall Street said we’re going to be taller. They gradually upped each other’s height, Chrysler to 925 feet and Wall Street to 927 when they added a flagpole.
“Then Chrysler put that enormous steel spire on top. It was brought to the building secretly in five pieces, welded together, and raised to the top of the building as dawn broke, making that building 1,046 feet tall. Chrysler held the title for 12 months before the Empire State opened. At 86 stories, it was only four feet taller than Chrysler. But they added a dirigible mooring mast — this was before the Hindenburg disaster — with nothing but a spiral staircase and elevator between the 86th and 102nd floors. It was strictly because of the height.”
Although the court’s 6-3 ruling saved Grand Central, it didn’t stop developers from flexing their legal muscles.
A pending plan to rezone Midtown East would promote skyscraper construction and threaten historic structures from the Yale Club (1915) to the Roosevelt Hotel (1925). They are among some three-dozen buildings hoping to win the landmark status that will save them from the wrecking ball.
The battle pits the New York Landmarks Conservancy, Historic Districts Council, and Municipal Art Society against developers, construction unions, and advocates of affordable public housing.
No matter what the outcome, the constant conflict between progress and preservation seems inevitable.
From his perspective, Robins was bereft at the demolition of the original Penn Station, portrayed in a 2014 PBS documentary The Rise and Fall of Penn Station. “You watch it and wonder ‘What were they thinking?’ It was one of the finest civic monuments New York ever had. All of a sudden, it was gone forever.”
The fast-speaking father of two has his own theory about landmarks. “Preservation is a funny word,” he suggested. “Nothing is preserved as it was because everything changes. We need to manage change. Things happen. People put on new doors or even new facades.”
If the character of a building stays the same even after cosmetic changes, it could be considered a landmark. That’s especially true among the Art Deco buildings Robins treasures.
“I love Art Deco,” said Robins, who was born and bred in Manhattan after his father moved there from his native Brooklyn. “There’s something about the sense of optimism that comes with those buildings even though they were built in the middle of the Depression. People from my parents’ generation didn’t want to look at them — it reminded them of bad times — but my generation thought they were cool.”
For Anthony Robins, Grand Central Terminal tops the list. “It’s one of the original grand turn-of-the-century Beaux Arts structures that really marks Manhattan,” he insisted.
The original Grand Central opened in 1871, reopened in a larger frame 29 years later, and assumed its present configuration in 1913. Before the latest change, Park Avenue did not exist between 42nd and 52nd Streets; it was an enormous open railyard. Putting the train yard, train shed, and tracks underground created 16 blocks of prime New York real estate that was developed, sold, and leased. That change, at least, seemed to please all parties.
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