Building Nature

by Don Friedman on February 27, 2018

Yesterday’s post about the possibility of creating a park in the New Jersey Meadowlands didn’t touch on an interesting aspect of the proposed park: little of it would be built by people. Instead the park would be made by removing built structures and letting nature have its way.

It’s easy to forget that most urban and suburban parks are artificial landscapes. They are constructed as thoroughly and painstakingly as the buildings around them, even if they are presented as pieces of nature preserved in the city. For example, the big park of my childhood, Flushing Meadows, was a swamp before it was drained and cleaned for the 1939-1940 World’s Fair.

The picture above shows Bethesda Terrace in Central Park in 1862, as the park was reaching the state of “mostly completed.” The masonry portion of the complex stair looks much as it does today, but the high ridge behind it was mostly removed. This could seem almost like the natural landscape was being fitted into the park, but that’s not true. The south end of the park’s area was a swampy mess and the north end was too hilly.

Here’s a better example:

The path on the right that has a stone wall on either side of it? That’s the 86th Street transverse road. Those walls are still visible today, but only on the side facing the road because the earth was built up on either side of the road to effectively bury it below grade. All of the foreground land was raised after this picture was taken.

Finally, a photo that really shows the work involved in making nature:

That tangle of pipes is part of the system used by a reservoir – it’s not clear from the 156-year-old label if that’s the lake-like reservoir still in the park or the rectangular reservoir filled in the 1930s and turned into the Great Lawn. The water features in the park, including the two reservoirs, the lake, the pond, and the Harlem Meer, are all artificial to some degree, and there is a lot of buried pipe keeping them functioning.

Someone’s Got To Build It

February 15, 2018

I was fairly surprised to see this article saying that the number of construction workers in the city decreased in 2016. Construction in the city has been at high levels for years, which means construction workers have steady gigs, which traditionally has meant an increase in the number of people in the field. The article […]

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A Clever Oldy-Timey Detail

February 14, 2018

That mess is the edge of a stoop. It’s shored, so obviously it’s got problems, but ignoring that issue for a second, the first question we should be asking is “How did this thing ever stand up?” It’s brownstone, which is to say weak stone with a tendency to come apart from weathering. Each step […]

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Not a Skyscraper

February 11, 2018

The 277-foot-high Brooklyn tower of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1877, with the temporary walkway slung over its top.

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January 8, 2018

That’s the ceiling – which appears to be the structural roof – at the north entry to the Whitehall Street station on the R/W. Specifically, this is the stair leading down from the entry mezzanine to the platform. The excavated volume of space is a sloped rectangular prism, with the roof following the slope. The […]

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Doing The Wrong Thing Right

December 14, 2017

I’ve talked before about my ambivalence concerning the way in which the Dickey house on Greenwich Street is being preserved as part of the development of a new tower next door. Façadism does not have a good reputation in the preservation world. Since no one has asked my opinion, the work continues regardless of what […]

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Rivets in U.S. Structures

December 8, 2017

(Picture: Three workers installing rivets in the construction of the Empire State Building in 1931, from the Lewis Hine collection at the NYPL.) Rivets in the metal structures now seems archaic and from other times. However, rivets were extensively used for metal structure in the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th. […]

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“The Bridge”

December 5, 2017

Some great construction photographs of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge: here. I’ve worked on a few pedestrian bridges in the last thirty years and one dam, but that’s it: otherwise my projects have all been buildings. But bridges occupy a chunk of my brain and always will because of their nature as expressed engineering. There are a […]

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Everything In A City Is Manmade – Even The Water

November 30, 2017

Continuing with yesterday’s theme… New York is located on two medium-sized islands (Manhattan and Staten Island), a portion of a large island (Brooklyn and Queens are the west end of Long Island), a piece of mainland (the Bronx) and a whole bunch of small islands in the surrounding waterways. Those waterways include small streams (e.g., […]

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Just Like Us

November 28, 2017

A theme I tend to return to again and again is that people in the past acted the same way we do. They used the tools they had, worried about cost, sometimes had great ideas, sometime made dumb mistakes. They looked for ways to do things cheaper and easier, like we do, and that sometimes […]

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