New York

The Dignity Of The Law

by Don Friedman on April 25, 2018


Urban Omnibus has an article and picture gallery up that has pictures of all 77 active police precinct houses in New York. The photographer/author, Kris Graves, presents the buildings in classic exterior poses: dead-on for mid-block buildings and at an angle for corner buildings, giving a good sense of the buildings from the street.

Looking at all those facades, a few thoughts come to mind. First, the buildings are dominated by early 1900s and 1960s construction. That makes sense: the city of Greater New York, with the city absorbing the four outer boroughs in their entirety, was created in 1898, and a wave of police and fire house construction followed as the outlying towns got urban services. Brooklyn had been a major city in its own right, but its police had already been combined with New York’s as part of the Metropolitan Police force. See below for the architectural effects of that unification. There are few surviving buildings from before 1900 because those buildings were, for the most part, functionally obsolete a long time ago and have been replaced. The wave of 1960s buildings is partly those replacements, and partly the effect of changing patterns of development in the city. There are a handful of very old buildings left, and there are a handful of new buildings.

The old buildings are in several styles, but by far the most common is the brick Renaissance palazzo, with a few examples being the 40th Precinct, the 32nd, the 94th, the 100th, and the 123rd. Those are all outer-boroughs buildings; their Manhattan counterparts are similar but with all-stone facades, including the 1st Precinct, the 9th, and the 10th. (The 9th was heavily rebuilt circa 2003, and I played a small and tangential role in that project.) Those buildings all bear a familial resemblance to the original 1860s headquarters of the Metropolitan Police, as seen above.

The old buildings were constructed in an era when even industrial buildings had fancy exteriors, but their design suggests something else. These were outposts of the city government, important civic buildings in their neighborhoods. They had to be architecturally dignified as a symbol of the dignity and power of the city government. We may today think that this is a naive sentiment, that the design of a facade cannot lend dignity to a government agency unless that agency acts in a way that is already dignified, but the bland glass curtain walls and brick bunkers of the 1960s and 70s suggest otherwise. We lost the sense of a municipal architecture, found out that not having it is worse, and the newest buildings have been an effort to regain it.

Variety At A Street Corner

April 23, 2018

That’s the corner of Chambers Street and Broadway, viewed from the west, down Chambers. (Click to enlarge.) There are a bunch of buildings here, each with a different story. We used a version of this photo for advertising our firm from 2012 to 2016. At the far left is an industrial loft from 1854. The […]

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Maps As History

April 20, 2018

That’s a plate from the 1899 Sanborn fire map of New York. (Click to enlarge.) There’s so much going on here that it’s hard to know where to start. The lower right corner is Tenth Avenue and 22nd Street; the left edge is the Hudson River; Manhattan grid north is up. In broad terms pink […]

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Three Maps

April 19, 2018

Thanks to advances in database and mapping technology, we seem to be entering into a golden age of visualizing spatial data. Three new maps available in New York are examples of this trend. They’re not the first or necessarily the best of their kind, but they are displaying an enormous amount of data in a […]

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A Nicely Restored Artifact

April 18, 2018

Thanks to Guy Jones, here’s a film of New York created by a Swedish film company in 1911, restored and speed-corrected to remind us that people in the past didn’t move comically fast: Fixing the speed and cleaning up the images helps a great deal: the people seem very real, very much like us. Personally, I […]

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Things Change

April 14, 2018

I used a small piece of the picture above for yesterday’s post about the history of the 29 Broadway site. Here’s the whole thing and here’s a link to a very high-resolution version. That’s 1900. Bowling Green looks much the same today, which is not surprising since the park itself is some 300 years old […]

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Somewhere Between Vital and Useless

April 5, 2018

Pippa Biddle has a long and factually-correct article up at The Atlantic on the topic of fire escapes. Its title, “Fire Escapes Are Evocative, But Mostly Useless,” describes its conclusions well: it’s impossible to discuss fire escapes without discussing their aesthetics, even though they were meant purely* for safety. I don’t disagree with anything Biddle […]

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Filling In The Gaps

March 26, 2018

That’s a new building under construction on lower Sixth Avenue, in Tribeca. If you look closely, you’ll see that it consists of two wings, one running off the edge of the picture to the right, and the other from the mid-left to about where the taxi is. The wings will be barely connected, if at […]

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In The Background

March 25, 2018

That’s an old picture of Union Square I came across while doing some research. There are several reasonably famous buildings on the left, along Union Square West. Looking closely, I realized that you can also see the Jackson Building – less famous and long gone – on 17th Street. You never know what you’ll find […]

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Sometimes An Ugly Duckling Becomes An Ugly Duck

March 22, 2018

For a long time, most of New York’s waterfront was industrial. Some still is: that’s Long Island City in the picture above, a stone’s throw from the East River but somehow ungentrified. In the background on the right is the Queensboro Bridge. It’s a cantilever truss with three unequal spans: over the east channel of […]

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