What’s Been Lost

by Don Friedman on November 20, 2017

The green glass-walled building straight ahead is 2 Broadway. It’s as close to a generic circa-1960 office high-rise as you can get. There’s nothing about it that’s inherently bad…except….it was built on the site formerly occupied by the Produce Exchange. Here’s the Exchange, designed in the 1880s by George Post:

In short, we lost a great building and got a generic office tower. There’s an issue that people involved with historic preservation are reluctant to discuss because it’s seen as weakening our field, but that is the comparison of new and old. At the foot of Broadway we lost a great building and got back nothing much, and that’s why the great building is mourned. That doesn’t have to be the case.

There’s a site with an interesting history at the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street. In the mid-1800s, two members of the Astor family had mansions facing the Fifth Avenue blockfront. In 1893, William Astor tore down his house and built the 13-story Waldorf Hotel. The accounts of the house suggest that it was not particularly interesting in terms of its architecture. In 1897, William’s cousin John J. Astor IV tore down his mother’s house and built the 16-story Astoria Hotel, with the intent from the beginning that the two hotels would be physically and operationally integrated. The combined Waldorf-Astoria Hotel was a success and a part of the upper-class New York social circle.

The Waldorf-Astoria was eventually doomed by the uptown movement of high society and by various functionally-obsolete aspects to its original design. It was closed and the new Waldorf-Astoria opened on Park Avenue and 50th Street in 1931. The old site at Fifth and 34th was sold to a developer who built a spec office building.

The Empire State Building is famous and beautiful, but it was built as generic office space to make money for its developers, the same as 2 Broadway.

At the 34th Street site, we lost two mansions of famous people and no one I’ve ever spoken to cares. They were replaced by the Waldorf-Astoria, which was much more interesting. We lost the old Waldorf-Astoria, and again no one I’ve spoken to cares. It was replaced by the Empire State, which is beloved. In short, New York real estate isn’t a museum, and the loss of an old building may be acceptable if it’s replaced by something of equal or better quality. The problem is that it so rarely works that way. Most of the time, what we get is what happened at the Broadway site: a beautiful and historic building is demolished for nothing worth talking about. Sometimes beautiful and historic buildings are demolished for vacant lots, or for junk that everyone involved should be embarrassed for having been present. Maybe we shouldn’t care what came before or comes after a building we’re looking at, but it’s hard not.

Form Follows Function

November 19, 2017

The 1896 window sill in the picture above may be the most perfectly designed piece of architecture in the city. It’s there to provide a base for the wooden window frame, to protect the relatively porous brick from water infiltration from above, and to shed water. It had to be built into the solid brick […]

Read the full article →

An Old Project and a Missing Neighborhood

November 13, 2017

That’s the north ventilation tower of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, located on Battery Place in Manhattan. It’s basically an empty box, steel-framed and with a stone-face curtain wall. (It may or may not be the portal to a secret government agency.) You can’t see from this angle, but the tunnel approach is directly behind the building, […]

Read the full article →

Pretty Pictures

November 11, 2017

There’s some very nice photography in these aerial pictures of Los Angeles and New York. The photo above is from 1945 and is the same view from the same location as my shot a little while back. Note the isolation of the Empire State Building 72 years ago: it wasn’t just tall, it was set […]

Read the full article →

A Campus

November 9, 2017

Another vaguely radioactive-looking nighttime photo from circa 1910.* That’s the Metropolitan Life tower as seen from across Madison Square Park. The low building abutting the tower** was the first phase of Met Life’s move uptown from the financial district, built in 1893. The low building was almost a cube when constructed, 100 feet wide on […]

Read the full article →

Missing One Thing

November 7, 2017

That’s a picture of demolition in progress at a 140-year-old house – a mansion, really – in Brooklyn. The bulk of the building will be demolished and/or altered into an apartment house that will look quite different. There is a need for more apartments in the city as construction of new units, particularly at the […]

Read the full article →

Creepy Buildings Analyzed

November 6, 2017

Maybe this should have been posted for Halloween. Curbed published a map of New York City’s “creepy abandoned hospitals and asylums.” I find it mildly interesting that it’s the twenty-first century and our definition of creepy seems stuck in the gothic revival of the 150 years ago, so I thought I’d review the sites mentioned […]

Read the full article →

Thousands of Years of Western Architecture

November 5, 2017

The management is redoing the hallways in our apartment house. They’ve decided to hide the cable TV co-axial cables within a plastic crown molding. The installation is, as seen above, in progress. The original wood crown moldings were based on classical forms and were a way to hide the cracks that often develop in plaster-covered […]

Read the full article →

A Survivor Prefigured

November 4, 2017

The picture above was the first one I took for yesterday’s blog post. It shows 15 Stone Street (the small mid-1800s building in the center) in context. The construction site just to left of 15 Stone is the new 11-13 Stone, which replaced two old buildings similar to 15; the green horizontally-striped building left of […]

Read the full article →

Up High

November 2, 2017

I was playing tour guide last weekend and, as I usually try to do, I took my charges to the top of the RCA Building, AKA The Top of the Rock. It’s my favorite tall building and part of the reason I’m a big Raymond Hood fan; the experience of its observation deck is, in […]

Read the full article →