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Skyscraping and River-Spanning Landmarks of Midtown Manhattan Go #BeyondTheVillageAndBack

Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo are not known for having the large structures that can be found in Midtown (and thanks to last week’s rejection of a plan in the state budget to remove the limit on size of residential development in the city, our communities hopefully won’t be getting any supertall buildings in the foreseeable future.) Yet, as a trip through our Beyond The Village and Back maps show, some of Manhattan’s most prominent buildings and mightiest bridges owe their existence and a measure of their fame to the more humbly-scale neighborhoods we call home.

The Chrysler Building

Built in 1928–30, the Chrysler Building is a true icon of the New York City skyline, an exuberant example of the Art Deco style, of the Roaring ’20s, and of the city’s self-confidence in its future before the Great Depression. As stated in the New York City landmark designation report from 1978, the building “embodies the romantic essence of the New York City skyscraper.”

Chrysler Building

The iconic landmark was built by Walter P. Chrysler (1875-1940), with construction starting just three years after the creation of his eponymous automobile corporation. Chrysler’s goal was to build a new headquarters in New York that would define the company, the New York skyline, and the very notion of what a skyscraper can look like. He was aware that the building would become a symbol and the image of the Chrysler Corporation, and he worked closely with the architect William Van Alen (1882-1954) on the design.

In the Chrysler Building, Van Alen was able to apply the tenets of modernism slowly gaining ground in the United States to the design at a scale he and few others had ever been able to before. Prior to the First World War, traditional styles were typically applied to tall building design. Following the war, architects began to embrace industrial materials in their designs, and the Art Deco style — a bridge of sorts between modernism and some prior architectural styles — worked quite well within that approach. The Chrysler Building illustrates this boldly — at 77 stories high, its most iconic and recognizable features are its steel-clad arches at the top with triangular windows.

So what’s the connection between the soaring skyscraper at 405 Lexington Avenue and our neighborhoods? The land the Chrysler Building sits on is owned by Cooper Union, which was donated to the institution to endow it with funding to support its mission. In fact, the income generated by the land — and its use by the Chrysler Building — substantially subsidizes the education of Cooper Union students.

Cooper Union

Inventor and industrialist Peter Cooper founded the school in 1859, bestowing the majority of his wealth, mostly real estate, to the creation and ongoing existence of Cooper Union. In 1902, Andrew Carnegie and the Cooper and Hewitt families donated land on the northeast corner of 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue to the school to ensure it could continue to provide the free education Peter Cooper had promised for students. With the city’s business center migrating north to Midtown, this proved to be an excellent investment for the school. The site is tax-exempt due to Cooper Union’s nonprofit status, but Chrysler and the building’s subsequent owners have continued to pay Cooper Union the equivalent of the site’s property tax to help fund the school’s educational mission. That income helped keep the school’s tuition free until just a few years ago and, even after Cooper Union began charging some students tuition, has helped keep those costs free or very low for many of its students.

Learn more about the Chrysler Building’s history, its role in New York City’s great skyscraper race, and its unique shape in relation to the city’s street grid in our #BeyondTheVillageAndBack map here.

The American Radiator Building

Sitting in Bryant Park, tourists and even a few native New Yorkers often marvel at the clear sight they have of the Empire State Building, a rare perspective for midtown Manhattan. Perhaps even rarer is that, within the same field of view, the iconic tower has some competition in the standout building department from a mere 23-story landmark, resplendent in black and gold, one that has a unique connection to Greenwich Village in the last century.

American Radiator Building, by Jean-Christophe Benoist
American Radiator Building, by Jean-Christophe Benoist

Completed in 1924, the building at 40 West 40th Street is best known as the American Radiator Building (today it’s home to the Bryant Park Hotel). Its architect, Raymond Hood, designed the structure when he was a relatively obscure architect and before he became “perhaps the 20th century’s greatest molder of the skyscraper form,” according to architecture critic Paul Goldberger writing in The New York Times. Hood passed away just 10 years later, but in that time crafted many other historic architectural works in our city, including the Daily News Building and the Art Deco masterpiece McGraw-Hill Building at opposite ends of 42nd Street, and guided the design of Rockefeller Center.

Hood’s design “broke with tradition and utilized new forms,” wrote the Landmarks Preservation Commission in its 1974 designation report. He “initiated a new trend in skyscraper design … with its bold cubic massing of forms — often associated with the Art Deco style — and its freedom from the Beaux-Arts classical details that had previously encumbered in New York City skyscrapers.” The fine details on the lower floors are matched by the numerous gold accents — actually bronze powder on cast stone — as the black-clad building rises to its peak. Thanks to these colors, the building truly came alive at night, when architectural illumination from the 21st floor on up turned the structure into a glowing ember or an iridescent chunk of lit coal — quite fitting for the home of a large radiator company.

Mori Restaurant,Bleecker Street, Sketch by Raymond Hood
Mori Restaurant, Bleecker Street, Sketch by Raymond Hood

While Hood became one of the nation’s most prominent architects following the American Radiator Building commission and other projects, just a few years earlier he was floating around the city in complete obscurity, trying to survive on very small jobs as an architect. His lucky break came by way of the restaurant at 144-146 Bleecker Street. Placido Mori, the owner of the eponymous Italian restaurant on the site, befriended the 40-year-old still-novice architect, pegging him as a “genius” because “he eats so much.” Mori gave Hood the job of designing a new facade for the restaurant’s row houses, and let him live in a small apartment on site. Hood made numerous connections at the eatery, and eventually got a small job designing radiator covers for the American Radiator Company, soon to be his employer as architect.

Learn more about the iconic skyscraper, plus Mori’s connection with Berenice Abbott and a once popular local cinematic institution at our map here.

Queensboro Bridge

The Queensboro Bridge, built in 1909, was the first bridge linking Queens to Manhattan. Directly connecting Midtown Manhattan to booming Long Island City and used by millions of commuters each year, this architectural and engineering marvel is certainly near and dear to the hearts of many New Yorkers. There may be other quicker or more convenient ways to get across the East River, but many choose to drive, bike, walk, or run across the bridge because of the magnificent views it affords of the East River, Roosevelt Island, and Manhattan, and the beautiful iron latticework with which it surrounds commuters.

Queensboro Bridge

Designed by engineer Gustav Lindenthal and architect Henry Hornbostel, it is the longest of the East River Bridges, with an overall length of 7,449 ft. The construction of the Queensboro Bridge began in 1901, just after Queens became part of New York City; the bridge opened to traffic on March 30, 1909, and pedestrians on June 18. It was designated an official New York City landmark in 1974 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. Yet even with these accolades, the bridge has become equally famous for its many appearances in popular culture.

And that’s where the Greenwich Village connection comes in. Perhaps no one has burnished the legendary status of the bridge more than the folk/rock/pop duo Simon & Garfunkel — two native sons of Queens who, like the bridge, made the journey across the East River to Manhattan, earning a name for themselves in the clubs of Greenwich Village during the folk revival of the early 1960s. They were part of a new breed of singers and songwriters who flocked to the Village, bringing with them a fresh approach to the craft of songwriting. Simon & Garfunkel began to play the folk scene in the early 1960s while both were still in college. Initially they billed themselves as Tom and Jerry, but after meeting Tom Wilson from Columbia Records following a gig at Gerde’s Folk City (then at 11 West 4th Street), their fate changed and they began to use their real names when promoting their gigs.

Soon enough, the duo inked a contract with Columbia and released their first album, Wednesday Morning, 3 AM. Their third album, 1966’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme, featured “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy),” a paean to the path that connects their native Queens with Manhattan over the East River that Simon wrote while walking over the span early one morning. 

Of course, that’s not the only famous Greenwich Village connection for the Queensboro Bridge. Read more about its history and how it intersects with Village writers E.B. White and F. Scott Fitzgerald as well as the Greenwich Village–set show Taxi on our Beyond the Village and Back map here.

These are just some of the many incredible New York City landmarks and institutions that can be found on our Beyond the Village and Back maps, which can be explored further here and here.

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