Four Great Buildings That New York Demolished — Decades Before the Folk Art Museum – Next City
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Four Great Buildings That New York Demolished — Decades Before the Folk Art Museum

The American Folk Art Museum building in Manhattan. Credit: Dan Nguyen on Flickr

The Museum of Modern Art’s announcement last year that it would tear down the American Folk Art Museum building, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, met an outpouring of opposition from architects and critics. The short, asymmetrical, windowless building never captured the public’s imagination — it was something that, really, only an architect or critic could love — but MoMA’s decision inspired a number of lamentations, many focusing on the structure’s mere 13 years of life.

Alexandra Lange at the Design Observer wrote:

The news last week that David Adjaye’s 2008 Wakefield Market Hall faces the wrecking ball made me start looking for a third example of what begins to seem like a trend: premature demolition. Definition: When a purpose-built structure designed by a well-known architect is destroyed at or before it reaches adolescence. The market hall: eight years. The Folk Art Museum: thirteen years. On Twitter, Philip Nobel reminded me of a third example: Bart Voorsanger’s Morgan Library addition, also demolished at thirteen.

Mimi Zeiger at Dezeen blames it on the Instagram generation:

Perhaps we need to steel ourselves for more rapid architectural cycle. Harvey Earl introduced new auto body models every three to five years. Too slow. Our era trades on the pop-up, the art-fair tent and the pavilion. The breathless pace of the internet only underscores design as a temporary, consumable product to be traded over mobile devices. To know the American Folk Art Museum is to Instagram the American Folk Art Museum.

While it’s tempting to blame demolitions on our generation treating architecture like a pop-up food truck, the truth is that the architectural cycle has actually gotten longer. New York City, home of the Folk Art Museum, is the best example: The city’s growth has slowed dramatically, first by the onset of urban decline and now by the restrictive zoning code imposed in 1961, which has been tweaked since then but remains substantially in effect.

While there have been plenty of postwar demolitions, they pale against the churn at the turn of the last century, when buildings were thrown up and torn down in the blink of an eye, sometimes making the American Folk Art Museum look like it’s lived to a ripe, old age. Here are four examples of grand buildings torn down before their time was up, decades before the glass curtain wall was popularized and a century before our attention span was trimmed to 140 characters.

Credit: New York Public Library

William A. Clark House

After it was completed in 1907 (or was it 1908 or 1911?), William A. Clark’s mansion on Fifth Avenue was pilloried in the press, not unlike condo towers built for oligarchs and billionaires today. A contemporary Architectural Record review of the Clark House called its tower “meaningless and fatuous.” Thirteen years in the making by the time it was finished, it was “an old man’s” fad, said the Times. “Viewed from the street the building strikes the observer as too big, too heavy, too massive, for its ground space and its residential surroundings.”

Today, of course, the house would be stunning. Even 10 years later people had softened to it, with the New Republic writing: “Decent people were indignant and considered it an affront to the city and to themselves. But time has consecrated its ugliness and it is almost an act of vandalism to tear it down.”

But torn down it was, less than 20 years after its completion, and replaced by 960 Fifth Avenue, a much larger apartment house built during the speculative frenzy leading up to the Great Depression. While 960 Fifth is a fine enough structure (indeed, one of the most sought-after co-op buildings in the city), it doesn’t hold a candle to the old Clark House. Gone was the instantly recognizable, pedestrian-scaled Clark House, and in came an inoffensive, cookie-cutter Rosario Candela block — one of 19 for which he filed plans in 1927 and 1928 alone.

The Clark House was one of many unique, turn-of-the-century Upper East Side mansions demolished by rapacious developers in the 1920s. The Cornelius Vanderbilt II House at 72nd and Madison, for example, built in the 1880s as one of the finest homes in the country, fell prey to a fellow luxury retailer, Bergdorf Goodman, which opened its flagship store on the site in 1928.

Not many photos exist of Grand Central Station, so short was its life.

Grand Central Depot/Station/Terminal

New York still mourns Penn Station, but it wasn’t the first grand train station to come down. On Manhattan’s east side, Grand Central Terminal as it looks today is actually the third iteration of that station. The first, Grand Central Depot, was erected in 1871 in the prevailing Americanized Second Empire fashion. The small building was not big enough for what became the New York Central, which had the only intercity rail line into Manhattan. The city embarked on a costly renovation, stripping the structure down to the train shed and rebuilding a six-story head house. The reconstruction wrapped up in 1900, and the new terminal was dubbed Grand Central Station.

Not three years later, its demolition began. A horrific accident occurred in 1902 in the Park Avenue tunnel through which trains entered the heart of Manhattan, triggered by primitive signaling and poor visibility in the smoke-filled tunnel and exacerbated by exploding, scalding steam engines. The disaster spurred the railroad to electrify the line into Grand Central and undertake a massive renovation of its Manhattan terminal.

By 1913, the current Grand Central Terminal was finished. While there was surely some civic pride involved in its construction, the intended beneficiaries were the railroad’s shareholders. In addition to making room for a growing numbers of riders, the new station was also a massive real estate play, one of the boldest in New York history. Without the smoke of the old steam engines, new electric trains could be tucked safely underground, leaving blocks of prime Manhattan real estate open to development for New York Central’s benefit. In a move that the city would repeat with less success a century later, New York Central developed a huge office and hotel complex above the old gash on Park Avenue, creating development rights out of thin air. Not everybody was pleased. Like today’s hand-wringing over shadows in Central Park cast by tall skyscrapers to the south, one New Yorker writer complained that “sunset comes to Park Avenue about two o’clock these days.”

Deconstruction of what was New York’s tallest office building not long before.

Gillender Building

When built in 1897, the Gillender Building was thought to be the tallest office building on earth, “one of the wonders of the city.” Yet so ravenous were developers at the turn of the century — and so lax were the building rules — that this thin, 20-story skyscraper came down 1910, just as it was entering its teenager years.

“The demolition of the Gillender Building,” wrote the New York Times, “will be the first time that such a high-class office building, representing the best type of modern fireproof construction, has been torn down to make way for a still more elaborate structure.”

“While the tearing down of this modern skyscraper makes a record in the building improvements of the city,” went another Times story, “another record was set in New York realty values, for the plot on which it stands was purcahsed less than four months ago by the Bankers’ Trust Company for about $1,250,000, or $675 a square foot, being the highest price ever paid for real estate on Manhattan Island.”

In its place went up the Bankers Trust Company Building, now 14 Wall Street, one of many bank-fueled speculative real estate plays in the Financial District. The Gillender Building never stood a chance — the logic of the market dictated that it had to go, and there wasn’t yet a zoning code to get in the way of the oversized, commercialized cross between the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus and St. Mark’s Campanile in Venice that was thrown up afterward.

The flamboyant old Waldorf-Astoria, torn down to build the boring (but massive) Empire State Building.

Waldorf-Astoria Hotel

Before the Waldorf-Astoria moved uptown, the hotel — actually two hotels, the Waldorf and the Astoria, opened in 1893 and 1897, respectively — was located on the western side of Fifth Avenue, between 33rd and 34th streets. In the 1930s, the Waldorf-Astoria moved uptown (built on Park Avenue using New York Central’s air rights, in fact), and the old building on Fifth Avenue was razed to build the Empire State Building.

Completed in 1931, the Empire State Building was a financial disaster, opening just as the Great Depression began. It had vacancies for years. The building is far denser than anything that would be allowed today — the developers multiplied their acreage by 30, twice the density that would be allowed on that plot today and three times what is allowed to its immediate south and east — and sits alone on its part of the skyline. Barring any deep deregulation of zoning in the area, it will remain that way, a poorly timed investment of tremendous proportions that has become one of New York’s most iconic symbols.

The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

Stephen J. Smith is a reporter based in New York. He has written about transportation, infrastructure and real estate for a variety of publications including New York Yimby, where he is currently an editor, Next City, City Lab and the New York Observer.

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