Lost New York

By Nathan Silver

A Mariner Book, Houghton Mifflin Company, Second Edition, 2000, 274 pp., $25.

By Carter B. Horsley

This new paperback edition of Nathan Silver's classic 1968 survey of significant New York City architecture that has been destroyed over the decades has been expanded and updated and is an important addition to any library as a disturbing indictment of how insensitive New Yorkers have been to their built environment.

Mr. Silver is an architect who is based now in London and has been the architecture critic of the New Statesman.

In his preface to the first edition, Mr. Silver remarked that his book "began as an exhibit at the Columbia University School of Architecture." "By 1963," he continued, "it seemed urgent to make some sort of plea for architectural preservation in New York City. It had been announced that Pennsylvania Station would be razed, a final solution appeared likely for the 39th Street Metropolitan Opera, and the commercial buildings of Worth Street were being pounded into landfill for a parking lot. I suggested that the collective picture of some vanished first-rate architecture would make a sobering reminder of how much finer a city New York could have been with its all-time best buildings still intact.When the exhibit opened in January 1964, it was still a work in progress.If architecture is somewhat the art of beautiful buildings but fundamentally the art of human use (as I believe), then conservation of good use is a matter of concern for everyone, and conservation is not `obstructionists' but wise."

In his preface to the new edition, Mr. Silver, sounded a somewhat optimistic note, observing that "It's wonderful to have reached a golden age when one is no longer fearful about obstructing destructive planners and developers." "Rather than depend on a mere book to point the crabby finger," he continued, "perhaps New York should celebrate its now wider perception of conservation by taking up a public collection to build a Temple of Metropolitan Unworthies, on the model of the Temple of British Worthies at Stowe a place to brood over the villains of lost New York. There don't need to be many busts, and we ought to show optimism by leaving only a few empty niches. Most perpetrators of destruction, after all, are unknowing or simply ignorant. I would personally nominate only three Unworthies to remember with disdain: A. J. Greenough, the President of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company in the early 1960s, who wantonly engineering the destruction of Pennsylvania Station to improve his company's balance sheet; Anthony Bliss, the President of the Metropolitan Opera Company in the late 1960s, who helped finance the company's move to Lincoln Center with a contract that ensured smithereens for the old building; and Robert Moses, Commissioner Plenipotentiary and Rubblemaker General, for his recurrent terminations of any place he autonomously decided upon."

Some less generous observers might be tempted to cite quite a few more "Unworthies" among developers and might also add some who are "civic activists" who blocked some good projects, a subject that Mr. Silver does not discuss.

Mr. Silver's exhibit undoubtedly was important in helping to galvanize the city into belatedly creating a Landmarks Preservation Commission, which was created in 1965, after, as Mr. Silver notes, "over seventy other American cities" had enacted preservation legislation, and his book has not only greatly reinforced the need for historic preservation but also led to a host of similar studies across the nation.

In his introduction, Mr. Silver skillfully and quickly traces the city's history, making many fine points: "One of the more immediately sensed aspects of New York is its economic richness and fatness the dignity of capitalism, often expressed in architecture.There are streets that one knows from the slope of the sidewalks, though one can't remember what buildings are there. Architecture depends on development through time in order to be clearly related to society and culture. The greatest buildings are practically radioactive with history. Regardless of how old or new they are, they tell a true story of life, since they wee devised to serve and symbolize human use. An encounter with magnificent architecture irradiates even someone alienated and disaffected.The past is important because a sense of continuity is necessary to people the knowledge that some things have a longer than mortal existence. While cities must adapt if they are to remain responsive to the needs and wishes of their inhabitants, they need not change in a heedless and suicidal fashion. In the case of Sutton Place, Lower Fifth Avenue, Washington Square, Gramercy Park and a large part of Greenwich Village, opportunistic redevelopment to exploit fashions has all but obliterated whatever substantial virtues were once present in these neighborhoods. Often the very buildings which helped set the initial character are replaced. Private transfer of property is almost always governed by limited objectives, which may be contrary to general objectives such as the public welfare. At present in New York almost the entire urban environment can be disposed of as private owners wish. In contrast, medieval guilds protected towns against unreasonable and unnecessary change, often by controlling title to the land. The existence and disposition of every building was a matter of public concern, and sound use was therefore imperative.Except for borough halls and county courthouses and the like, the outlying city districts lack almost everything worthy of civic pride or community attachment.since buildings are currently being appraised for taxation on the basis of how prestigious they are, rather than on the basis of their actual value, it is obviously public policy to reward undistinguished building, a lesson not lost to speculative builders. If perpetual change is the destiny of New York, it might not have to be at the cost of such devastation and bloodletting. Believing it to be the price of progress, New Yorkers are remarkably cheerful about destruction. They have faith that their city is in the process of adapting itself better to their needs, even the reverse may be true. Perpetual change is just as difficult to live with as perpetual unchange. If postwar planning had been concerned with urban conservation, it might have been possible to direct the explosive expansion of management facilities up to Central Park North or perhaps Fordham Road in the Bronx, instead of letting it destroy part of Park Avenue. Indeed, the expansion might have moved any place in the city, north or south, which was weak in form but well situated and well connected with transportation. New York has miles and miles of nebulous suburbs to spare. The time and effort of building should be directed towards making them identifiable subcenters, instead of eradicating the existing city. New York can fulfill its destiny through changing its weakest elements."

In his chapter entitled "The Urban Scenue and Public Places," Mr. Silver notes that "making city avenues one-way discourages the casual stroller because of the intrusion of faster and noisier vehicular traffic," adding that "the same act moves bus routes to alternate avenues, often 1600 feet apart, thus halving the opportunity of access to busesmultiple opportunities are exactly what city streets need to remain vital."

For many of the city's early losses such as the Broadway Tabernacle at 340 to 344 Broadway, which was erected in 1836 and would become the city's main meeting hall until it was demolished in 1857, and Niblo's Garden at Broadway and Prince Street that was built in 1827 and served as the city's first major exhibition hall, and the German Winter Garden at 45 Bowery that was built in 1855 with one of the earliest casti-iron-rib domes, Silver has relied on historical prints.

Old Madison Square Garden on Madison Square ParkThe book contains photographs of the first Madison Square Garden, shown at the left, designed by Stanford White of McKim, Mead & White. The spectacular building, which occupied the block bounded by Madison and Fourth Avenues and 26th and 27th Streets, formerly had been occupied by the Great Roman Hippodrome, a performing arena adapted from railroad sheds which P. T. Barnum leased from Commodore Vanderbilt. Subsequently, Barnum's Hippodrome became Gilmore's Gardens and eventually Madison Square Garden when William H. Vanderbilt repossessed the site in 1879. The National Horse Show Association bought the property in 1883 with the aid of J. P. Morgan and planned an elegant new home for it's annual horse show. White's design won an architectural competition for the site and called for a theater, a restaurant, a concert hall, a roof garden and a tower that would be the second highest structure in the city as well as arcades. Constructed of "yellow brick and Pompeiian white terra cotta, with an interior painted pink with cream-colored iron arched trusses," Mr. Silver noted that it opened in 1890 but succumbed to foreclosure in 1925 by the New York Life Insurance Company, which erected a skyscraper with a gilded top designed by Cass Gilbert.

Mr. Silver recounts that the New York Tammany Society was founded in 1789 "growing out of the earlier Sons of Liberty" and was named after Tamanend, Indian chief of the Delawares." "The Society had four Wigwams in its history. Its famous second home was on Park Row and Frankfort Street, which was taken over by The Sun when Tammany moved to a new building in 1868. This one went up on the north side of 14th Street, between Third Avenue and Irving Place, next to the original Academy of Music.Tony Pastor's Theater, a small variety house, operated within Tammany Hall from about 1877. A color lithograph of the main hall shows an `Interior View of Tammany Hall Decorated for the National Convention, July 4th 1888.' This splendid room was demolished, along with the rest of the block, to make way for Consolidated Edison's office building. A new Tammany Hall was built on 17th Street and Fourth Avenue in 1929, but it is now a trade union hall."

Tammany Hall

Interior of Tammany Hall

Restaurants usually occupy rented quarters, but Mr. Silver shows us the great Dining Room at the demolished Penn Station, the Claremont Inn that stood on Riverside Drive just north of Grant's Tomb until it burned in 1951, and the ninth Delmonico's, which was designed by James Brown Lord and stood on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 44th Street from 1897 to 1923, around the corner from Canfield's Gambling House at 5 East 44th Street whose site would be redeveloped for an office building in the 1920s.

Park Avenue Hotel on 33rd Street

Park Avenue Hotel on 33rd Street was demolished in 1927

In the 1870's, John Kellum designed the cast-iron façade of the Park Avenue Hotel on 33rd Street originally as a home for working women established by A. T. Stewart, the merchant. It opened in 1878 but Mr. Silver noted that "it became a luxury hotel when strict house rules made the first scheme a failure," adding that it was demolished in 1927.

Many hotel building have been lost such as the Astor House on Broadway between Vesey and Barclay that was designed by Isaiah Rogers and opened in 1836 and was demolished in 1913, the Fifth Avenue Hotel on 23rd to 24th Streets that was designed by William Washburn and had the first hotel elevator and opened in 1858 and was demolished in 1908. "There are those who believe that the finest of all New York hotels was the Ritz-Carlton, designed by Warren & Wetmore, architects of the new Grand Central Terminal. The Ritz-Carlton, on Madison Avenue and 46th Street, reached its fashionable heyday at about the time of the First World War. Its ballrooms and lobbies, and some say its service and general ambiance, where between than those furnished later elsewhere at the Ritz Tower. The Ritz-Carlton, shown below, was razed in 1951 to provide a site for an office building," Mr. Silver wrote.

Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Madison Avenue

The Ritz Carlton Hotel on Madison Avenue and 46th Street was razed in 1951

One of the city's, and the nation's, most egregious architectural plagues has been the demolition of movie palaces and theatrical houses. Mr. Silver provides some good New York documentation about the 4,000-seat Academy of Music on East 14th Street and the Grand Opera House on 23rd Street and Eighth Avenue, and the Loew's 72nd Street theater, designed by Thomas Strand, architect, and John Eberson, decorator, among others.

"Of all the institutions associated with civic advance," Mr. Silver wrote, "theaters have probably been the most highly esteemed. From the mid-18th Century, when theaters were instruments for the advancement of society and fashion, to the mid-20th Century, when they are supposed to be vessels of culture, new theaters have been credited as being the fairest architectural examples of the splendor and spirit of the community. Even privately-owned theaters, operated for profit, have been hailed as municipal improvements when built, when in fact as has frequently occurred in New York they may have supplanted better buildings. Change has often been more characteristic than improvement, though fire was frequently to blame. The rapid rate of new theater building in New York has far outstripped advancements in theater technology. It would seem that new theaters, like a woman's annual spring fashions, are primarily meant to support ideas of freshness, reaffirmation and vitality. This being so, it is no wonder that the old gowns are pushed to the back of the closet."

"A few wholly modern New York theaters have already vanished. The Center Theater in Rockefeller Center, built as recently as 1932 by the architects, Reinhard & Hofmeister, Corbett, Harrison & MacMurray, and Hood & Fouilhoux, had an auditoriumquite as good if somewhat less stunning than their nearby Radio City Music Hall. And some of the interior design, such as Edward Steichen's photo mural in the Men's Smoking Room, far surpassed any of the callow artwork which survives at Rockefeller Center."

City Hall Post Office

The Post Office building in City Hall Park was demolished in 1939. Tower at left background is the Singer Building, once the world's largest, which was also demolished. The Woolworth Building in the center still stands.

Mr. Silver's book includes photographs of the reservoir at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, a site now occupied by the New York Public Library, and prints of the Castle Garden civic hall that now is the Castle Clinton National Monument in Battery Park, the Fifth Avenue campus of Columbia University, and the Post Office building designed by A. B. Mullet in 1875 and demolished in 1939 at the foot of City Hall Park across from the Woolworth Building, and numerous Fifth Avenue mansions as well as row houses including the Rhinelander Gardens at 110-124 West 11th Street designed in 1854 by James Renwick and demolished in the 1950s for a public school, and apartment houses such as the Navarro Flats on Central Park South at Seventh Avenue designed by Hubert, Pirsson & Co., in 1882 and the Knickerbocker designed by Ernest Flagg at Fifth Avenue and 28th Street.

The New York Herald Building

The New York Herald Building anchored the top of Herald Square just to the west of the Sixth Avenue "Elevated" line

Among commercial buildings that have been lost are the Singer Tower at 149 Broadway, designed as the world's tallest building in 1908 by Ernest Flagg and demolished in 1966, Cotton Exchange, designed by George B. Post and completed in 1885 at William and Beaver Streets, which Mr. Silver likened to the chateau at Chambord, and the Western Union Building of 1875, also designed by Post, at Broadway and Dey Street, and the German Savings Bank on the southeast corner of 14th Street and Fourth Avenue designed by Henry Fernbach in 1872, the A. T. Stewart Store on Broadway between 9th and 10th Streets that was designed in 1859 by John W. Kellum and destroyed by fire in 1956, and McKim, Mead & White's Venetian-style New York Herald Building, shown above, at Broadway and 35th Street of 1893.

The Normandie

The Normandie toppled at Pier 88

The last part of Mr. Silver's books deals with special New York City events, and disasters, such as parades and the 1942 fire that toppled the Normandie at its Pier 88 berth, documented in a fine aerial photograph, shown above, and lost nightclubs such as Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe, the Latin Quarter, the International Casino and the Central Park Casino as well as El Morocco, the Stork Club, the Copacabana and Studio 54 and the jazz clubs of 52nd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.

This fine book unfortunately could have been much larger as New York's architectural losses have been great, but it remains a superb overview of the city's lost grandeur. Interestingly, Mr. Silver does not specifically lament the loss of the city's great romantic downtown skyline of tall spires that enthralled the world from the end of World War II through the 1950s and which was ruined by Chase Manhattan Plaza and later the World Trade Center.

With 336 black-and-white illustrations, "Lost New York" is an important treasure trove of the city's history.

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