Category Archives: Exploring New York City

Museum Mile – the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

You could quite easily spend an entire rainy week in New York working your way round the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This vast treasure house consists of almost 250 rooms filling something like twenty-one acres of floor-space, roughly two million square feet, and only about a quarter of the permanent collection can be exhibited at one time.

The core of the museum was built by the co-designer of Central Park, Calvert Vaux, in collaboration with Jacob Wrey Mould in 1880 to house a collection that had already outgrown two previous buildings on other sites in ten years: long since buried amid later accretions, the original museum has since been extended on at least eight occasions.

Among the most memorable experiences the Museum can offer are the 1978 Sackler Wing which houses the entire Egyptian Temple of Dendur and the Astor Court which contains a reproduction of a Ming dynasty Chinese garden.

A hint of the wealth of paintings in the Museum’s collection can be found simply by checking the Wikipedia entry’s ‘Selections from the permanent collection of paintings’:

Whenever you become footsore or simply overstimulated by this great world museum, the consummate life-enhancing experience is the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden, where the memorable views of Central Park and midtown Manhattan compete with the exhibits.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City, please click here.

Museum Mile – the Frick Collection

Frick Collection, New York City

Frick Collection, New York City

There’s a stretch of New York’s Fifth Avenue, bordering Central Park, that’s known as Museum Mile. It’s actually slightly longer than a mile and boasts, in its official definition between 82nd to 105th Streets, nine major city museums, with another couple further along.

My personal favourite is actually just outside Museum Mile, at 70th Street.

When I first visited New York City courtesy of Freddy Laker’s Skytrain in 1981, I knew only two people who’d ever been there. One was my friend Bill, who had lugged his motorbike aboard a tramp steamer and ridden across the USA both ways, and he made me promise that while I was in the Big Apple I’d go and sit by the fountain in the Frick Collection.

This I duly did, and every time I’ve returned to the city I make a point, if possible, of sending Bill a postcard from the Frick.

Built in Louis XVI style by Carrer & Hastings (1912-14), this was the town-house of Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919), the unlikeable and notably unpopular chairman of the Carnegie Steel Corporation. After the death of Frick’s widow in 1931 the building was adapted as a museum which opened in 1935.

Of all the city’s many museums and galleries, the Frick is intimate and reassuringly calm. The Fountain Court created by John Russell Pope in the 1930s refurbishment must be among the most congenial places to sit and relax in the whole of New York City.

The core collection reflects Henry Clay Frick’s personal taste. I remember standing in front of a fireplace, looking at the Holbein of Sir Thomas More on one side and the same painter’s portrait of More’s nemesis, Thomas Cromwell, on the other.

There’s nowhere in the world quite like the Frick.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City, please click here.

Central Park

Central Park, New York City

Central Park, New York City

Manhattan would be overwhelming without Central Park, the 843-acre green oblong that relieves the remorseless gridiron of streets and avenues.

With admirable prescience that arose from thirty years of debate, in 1853 the city’s authorities purchased the one remaining largely unused site within the 1811 street-plan for five and half million dollars.

The park was laid out from 1856 onwards to the designs of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.

The principle of their “Greensward Plan” was that a variety of landscapes, ranging from formal gardens to near wilderness, should present themselves to visitors in a series of apparently natural transitions. The project took twenty years to complete, and occupied up to 3,000 workers.

It is salutary to remember, when walking in Central Park, that to all practical purposes the entire landscape is artificial.

At a time when buildings never reached a greater height than five or six storeys it was possible to arrange, by planting around the park’s borders, that the city would in no way encroach on the illusion of a natural landscape within.

In fact, now that great tower blocks peer above the trees in most directions, an excitement that Olmsted and Vaux could not have predicted sharpens the Park’s appeal.

The designers provided a range of occasional buildings around the Park – the cast-iron Ladies’ Pavilion, the Belvedere Castle and the Gothic Revival Dairy. The most formal composition of all, the Bethesda Fountain, is, significantly, set at an angle to the street-gridiron.

The integrity of Olmsted and Vaux’s design has gradually been encroached upon by other, more obtrusive structures, such as the Delacorte Theater, the Wollman Memorial Rink, the Central Park Zoo and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

When Edward S Clark of the Singer Sewing Machine Co developed an apartment block at West 72nd Street in 1884 it was nicknamed the Dakota because it was so far out of town.

As the empty plots disappeared under bricks and mortar – and later concrete and steel – Central Park remained as an astonishing piece of urban green half a mile wide and two-and-a-half miles long, stretching from Fifth Avenue to Central Park West (a continuation in all but name of Eighth Avenue) and from 59th Street (also Central Park South) to 110th Street (otherwise Cathedral Parkway).

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of Central Park to New York life. It’s a breath of fresh air, a meeting-place for concerts and wakes, a setting for romance and sport. Sometimes it’s been – and still can be – unsafe and notorious for crime, but under normal circumstances, in daylight, it’s one of the most salubrious and enjoyable places in the whole of Manhattan.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City, please click here.

Gothic New York: Riverside Church

Riverside Church, New York City

Riverside Church, New York City

On Riverside Drive overlooking the River Hudson is a great twentieth-century Gothic church of surprising proportions, the Baptist Riverside Church, largely financed by John D Rockefeller Jnr, and opened in 1929 to the designs of Allen, Pelten & Collens.

Especially when seen from the river, the huge tower, 392 feet high, dominates the church, which is itself a hundred feet high and 215 feet long.

The tower is in fact a 22-storey office building for the church administration, surmounted by a 72-bell carillon which – until 9/11 – visitors could inspect on their way to view the panorama from the top of the tower, from where the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan dot the horizon.

Riverside Church is proud of its stained glass and sculpture.  It has two Epsteins, the bronze ‘Madonna and Child’ (1927) and the gilded mould of the cast ‘Christ in Majesty’ at Llandaff Cathedral, Wales.

From the outset of its ministry, started by Rev Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878–1969), Riverside Church has been a springboard for all kinds of social intervention, and has provided a pulpit for a dazzling array of speakers, from Martin Luther King to Nelson Mandela, Jesse Jackson to Desmond Tutu, and Fidel Castro to Bill Clinton.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City, please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.


Gothic New York: Trinity Church

Trinity Church, New York City (1981)

Trinity Church, New York City (1981)

Perhaps the most famous image of Wall Street is the vista westwards along the canyon of tall twentieth-century buildings to the apparently modest-sized Trinity Church, designed by Richard Upjohn and completed in 1846.

This was itself once the tallest building on Manhattan, 281 feet high.

The original foundation dates from a royal charter of 1697, and the present building is the third on the site.

The great wealth of the trustees arose from Queen Anne’s 1705 grant of the land west of Broadway between Fulton and Christopher Streets, the rentals of which have supported widespread endowments, educational institutions and subsidiary chapels.

Upjohn’s church was a significant influence on the architecture of nineteenth-century New York, firstly because it effectively established the Gothic Revival here (though its suspended plaster vault would have offended contemporary English purists such as Pugin), and because it helped to popularise the use of the local brownstone, a material which became synonymous with New York housing in the half-century that followed.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City, please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.


Made good

Citicorp Center, 601 Lexington Avenue, New York City

Citicorp Center, 601 Lexington Avenue, New York City

When they designed Citicorp Center, now renamed 601 Lexington Avenue, in Manhattan in 1977, the architect Hugh Stubbins and the structural engineer William LeMessurier were faced with the uncompromising elders of St Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, who were entirely happy to have their tired nineteenth-century Gothic building replaced but refused point-blank to give up its corner site.

Consequently, William LeMessurier supported the tower on four stilts planted firmly in the centre of each side so that it overhangs the corners of its footprint.  This odd-looking construction is stabilised by a series of stacked braces that transfer the load of the 59-storey structure to the nine-storey supporting columns.

The Citicorp Center was fitted with a 400-ton tuned mass damper to stabilise the effect of high winds.  Other tall towers of the period, while rolling safely with the wind, had made their inhabitants nauseous.

The wedge-shaped top was intended to carry solar panels which were never installed because the slope faces north.

The building is remarkable, not only for its engineering attributes, but for the fortuitous discovery and surreptitious repair of its structural weaknesses.

Within a year of the opening, LeMessurier received a phone-call from a trainee architectural engineer questioning the ability of the centre columns to support the building in extremely high winds.

Niggled, LeMessurier revised his calculations, and realised that in following the regulations by calculating wind-resistance square to the building he’d ignored the potential effects of quartering winds, hitting the tower cornerwise where there was no support to ground-level.

Casual discussions of the specification for a new project alerted LeMessurier for the first time to the fact that his office had sanctioned the use of bolted braces instead of welded ones in the Citicorp tower.  This made the building vulnerable to a once-in-55-year wind, but if the tuned mass damper was disabled by a power failure, the vulnerability increased to once in every sixteen years.

This came to light in June, just at the start of the hurricane season.

The building’s owners, Citibank, a team of construction-industry specialists and the City of New York – all of them anxious to avoid a public panic – arranged for the two-hundred-odd braces to be quietly patched with heavy steel plates, one by one, during evenings and weekends, without disturbing the building’s users.

The press were fed an innocuous explanation which remained unprobed because, as the work began, the entire New York newspaper industry was shut down by a strike.

And the city’s Office of Emergency Management created an emergency plan to evacuate the building and 156 blocks of the surrounding neighbourhood if high winds were forecast.

Part way through the process Hurricane Ella headed directly for New York City, only to turn eastwards and follow the coast northwards towards Canada.

This remarkable episode remained outside the public domain for twenty years until an article in the New Yorker [] was published in May 1995.

Le Messurier, whose entire career had been on the line eighteen years earlier, was hailed for his integrity in owning up to the problem and providing a solution.  601 Lexington Avenue is now rated as resistant to a once-in-700-year hurricane even without the damper.

A more critical view of Le Messurier’s ethics can be found at

Other accounts of the whole episode are at and

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture ‘The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City’, please click here.


Island of Tears

Ellis Island ferry-boat, New York City (1981)

Ellis Island ferry-boat, New York City (1981)

When I first visited New York City in 1981 my host, my school contemporary Malcolm, insisted there were two places I must visit – the Cloisters and Ellis Island.

Ellis Island was the major immigration reception station for the United States, handling 90% of arrivals from the Old World, from whom 40% of the present-day population are descended, between 1892 and 1954. 

Here the “tired…huddled masses” first set foot in the New World, and the stringent examinations they underwent determined whether they would be allowed to remain.

The “island of tears”, out in the bleak expanse of New York Harbour, has a powerful emotional pull on American consciousness.

When I first visited Ellis Island the facilities were much as they’d been left after the station finally closed on November 29th 1954.  The minimal security team had had little success in preventing pilfering on the otherwise deserted island.  Water in the central-heating system froze during the winter, and the buildings deteriorated inexorably as the vegetation took over the grounds.  The ferry Ellis Island was left at its moorings, where ultimately it sank.

Since then, Ellis Island has been transformed into an immaculate museum by the National Parks Authority, commemorating the contribution that immigrants have made to American life.  Inevitably, it has lost the patina of decay which badly needed arresting.  I’m glad I saw it in its unrestored state:  it was a powerfully evocative place back then.

The modern visitor can still see the baggage-handling facilities, the scene of much overcrowding and of notorious “losses” of immigrants’ possessions, the staircase which formed part of the “six-second medical”, in which signs of undue exertion were regarded as diagnostic evidence, and the great Registry Room, in which inspectors had to decide, by interview using interpreters in any of up to thirty languages apart from English, whether an immigrant was “clearly and beyond a doubt” eligible to land.

The history of European colonisation is a complex and controversial aspect of international history.  Malcolm was right in urging me to fit in one of the building blocks of my understanding of the USA by visiting Ellis Island while I was in New York.

Admission to Ellis Island is free, but it is – obviously – only accessible by boat.  The public ferry from the southern tip of Manhattan is bookable at  Details of the facilities on the island are at the voluminous website

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture ‘The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City’, please click here.


Grand Central

Grand Central Terminal & Pan-Am Building, New York City (1981)

Grand Central Terminal & Pan-Am Building, New York City (1981)

The very heart of Manhattan’s 42nd Street is Grand Central Terminal, New York’s principal monument to the age of the railroad, which celebrated its centenary in 2014:

Many New Yorkers have never forgiven the destruction of the other great terminus, Penn Station, McKim, Mead, and White’s triumphant pink granite temple to transportation, built in 1910 and flattened in 1963:

Grand Central was the destination of steam-hauled trains from the north, ploughing down a cutting that was covered over when electrification became practical from 1889 onwards.

Begun in 1903, the terminal was structurally completed ten years later but not fully operational until 1927.  Its concourse is 275 feet by 120 feet and 125 feet high, lit by arched windows 75 feet high.  The Guastavino roof is decorated with a painted zodiac (which is for some reason reversed) by Paul Helleu.

It has sixty-seven tracks on the two levels, a turning loop and connections to the subway, including the 42nd Street Shuttle, which takes a minute to shunt between Grand Central and Times Square.

This was the starting point for some of the great trains of the early twentieth century, the Knickerbocker to St Louis, the Ohio State Limited to Cincinnati and the Twentieth Century Limited to Chicago to which, among its many luxuries, is attributed the original red-carpet entrance.

A major conservation campaign, led by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, saved Grand Central from demolition in the 1970s, and in 1994-8 a $197-million renovation was undertaken by LaSalle Partners and Williams Jackson Ewing, the restorers of the superb Union Station in Washington DC.

Now it looks as good as it did in 1913 – if not better.

The quintessential Grand Central experience, other than catching a train, is to eat at the Oyster Bar [], where journalists used to take advantage of the acoustics to pick up scoops.  If that’s outside the budget, there’s plenty to eat in the food court:,

To see images of parts of Grand Central Terminal that ordinary travellers don’t see, go to

To enjoy the best flashmob invasion of the Grand Central concourse go to

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture ‘The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City’, please click here.


Pan-Am’s London sibling

Portland House, Victoria, London

Portland House, Victoria, London

It’s a commonplace that, when walking round a city, we miss so much by not looking up.  We’re conditioned to survey the eye-level streetscape, while just above shop-fascia level there’s a wealth of history and architecture telling us stories.

Some time ago I read around the Pan-Am Building in New York City, and discovered that the design of 1963 Manhattan skyscraper was based on the 1959 Pirelli Tower in Milan, and was related to at least three UK buildings.

Months later I happened to walk out of London’s Victoria Station and found myself staring at the instantly recognisable London sibling of the Pan-Am Building – Portland House, by Howard Fairbairn & Partners (1960-3), built on the site of Watney’s Stag Brewery.

Its height of 334 feet is far lower than the 808 feet of the New York building, yet it towers over the messy streetscape around Victoria.  It was conceived as part of a comprehensive post-war redevelopment that was itself compromised from the outset.

Its tapered footprint is an attempt to reduce its overbearing impact at ground level and give it a degree of elegance.

The website points out that it probably wouldn’t get planning permission now, yet it’s far too lucrative a concentration of floorspace to be in any danger of demolition.

In fact it’s been refurbished twice in recent decades, by the T P Bennet Partnership in 1993-5 and by EPR Architects in 2001-6.

I must have walked past it many times without noticing, despite its huge scale.  Now that I recognise it I rather like it, for its own leviathan elegance and for its connection with Manhattan and Milan.


Air rights

New York Central Building [now Helmsley Building] and Pan Am Building [now MetLife Building], New York City (1981)

New York Central Building [now Helmsley Building] and Pan Am Building [now MetLife Building], New York City (1981)

I recently came across Meredith L Clausen’s book The Pan Am Building and the shattering of the Modernist dream (Massachusetts Institute of Technology 2005).  It’s obvious from the title that she doesn’t much like the building.  She tells in great detail the story of a Manhattan building that symbolises the over-ambition of financiers seeking to make money out of transport.

This huge Modernist block sits astride the railroad tracks that lie in tunnel beneath Park Avenue, separating Grand Central Terminal (Reed & Stem, Warren & Wetmore 1903-27) from the former New York Central Building, now the Helmsley Building (Warren & Wetmore 1929).

Emery Roth’s original design, which would not have interrupted the Park Avenue vista, was altered, enlarged and turned 90° by Pietro Belluschi and Walter Gropius, who proposed, unsuccessfully, to demolish the New York Central Building to create a public park.

The development was commissioned by the New York Central Railroad in a desperate attempt to shore up their finances as traffic leached from rail to air.  The building reeks with irony, a hubristic symbol of the age of air-travel, no longer owned by the luckless company that built it.

Completed in 1963, it became the Pan Am Building because it was tenanted by Pan American World Airways, the last company to claim the right to have their logo on the outside of a New York skyscraper.  Initially the airline occupied fifteen floors of offices and ran a booking hall at street level.

The roof of the Pan Am Building was designed as a helicopter landing-pad offering rapid transfer from mid-town to JFK Airport for up to eight passengers at a time.  This grandiose scheme was unpopular from the start for obvious reasons of noise and danger.  Eventually, a fatal accident on May 16th 1977 put a stop to it:

The design is apparently derived from an unbuilt Le Corbusier design and the Pirelli Tower, Milan (Gio Ponti & Pier Lugig Nervi 1959) [].  Its distinctive footprint is repeated in Britain in the 331ft Portland House, Westminster (Howard Fairbairn & Partners 1960-3) [], and echoed by the 253ft Taberner House, Croydon (H Thornley 1964-7 – due for demolition) [] and the 656ft Alpha Tower, Birmingham (Richard Seifert & Partners 1969-73) [].

Pan American Airways came to grief, driven to bankruptcy in the face of the 1973 oil crisis, the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, the destruction of Flight 103 over Lockerbie in December 1988 and the effect on oil prices of the First Gulf War of 1991.

In 1990, Pan Am gave up their remaining four floors of the building and shortly afterwards the owner, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company changed the name to the MetLife Building and replaced the Pan Am name and logos with their own.

Though the airline ceased to exist in 1991, the Pan Am brand still functions.  It now belongs to a railroad company:

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture ‘The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City’, please click here.