New York City, synonymous with its frenetic pace, neon lights, massive billboards, and towering skyscrapers, has some architectural gems hidden in plain sight. Listed here are 10 such hidden architectural details that tend to be overlooked amidst the glitz and glamour of the city.
1. Brownstone Buildings
A casual stroll on the Upper East Side of Manhattan gives you quaint views of chocolate brown colored homes. These brownstone homes are as distinct to New York City as the prominent yellow cabs zooming through the city or Manhattan’s sky-high towers. The first appearance of brownstone can be dated back to the 1780s when Federal Style architecture was prevalent in the United States. Brownstone was used in true Federal Style homes at the base and the stoop, below the main door.
However, the most prominent style of Brownstone in New York City was built in the late 1800s in the Italianate Style. The brownstone is a kind of sandstone that deepens its classic brown hue with exposure to air. The majority of New York City’s brownstone came from Portland in Connecticut, making it very easy to transport and also cheaper than other materials such as limestone, marble, and granite. Some Brooklyn neighborhoods rich in brownstone residences are Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope, Fort Greene, and Bedford Stuyvesant. These brownstone townhouses are key components to some of the finest houses built in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
2. Stoops and the City
The stoop is arguably the most beloved architectural feature of New York City. The origin of the stoop came from the Dutch influences in the city in the 17th century. They built stoops to raise their homes above floodwaters. However, in New York City, stoops had other practical purposes. The grid master plan of New York City did not leave any space for alleys that let servants or merchants enter homes.
The stoops provided an alternate entrance below the staircase that led to the lower level of the house. By the nineteenth century, the stoop had taken on many architectural styles, from varying heights of the Romanesque Revival and the Queen Anne Style to the stoop’s dog-legged shape. The stoop was not meant to serve a community function, but New Yorkers used the stoop as a gathering space and a vantage point to look out for the neighborhood.
3. Horses and Stables
The Upper East Side Historic District in the 1800s was lined with brownstone residences and stables when the primary mode of transportation was horse carriages on the city’s cobblestone streets. Some of these houses even had equestrian symbols like saddles, horse heads, and reins carved into their floors. The characteristic large arched doorways of the carriage houses can still be seen today if you look out for them. They represent the city’s most sought-after real estate because of their quaint history.
4. Cast Iron District
The SoHo district of lower Manhattan is also known as the Cast Iron District, which consists of 26 blocks and about 500 buildings. The 19th century saw the district evolve into a commercial district, and a majority of these buildings were built using cast iron. Cast iron proved to be cheaper than granite and marble and even adapted to ornate facade elements. It was also strong and mostly fire-resistant, which made it a desirable material of choice.
By the early 20th century, the district declined, and most of its businesses and wealthy residents left. This was when a large group of artists came to occupy these large loft spaces that were very affordable for their studios. These artists played an essential role in preserving the character of the neighborhood. Today, the district, primarily dominated by retail stores, was eventually designated as a New York City landmark by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
5. Juliet Balconies
If the city lets you look up from its usual chaos without being hustled in your way, you are bound to spot unique architectural details. One such element is Juliet Balcony. The name comes from Shakespeare’s beloved character Juliet, but architecturally, a Juliet balcony is an extremely narrow metal balcony fitted outside French windows. They were mainly added for aesthetics but were effectively useless, being just a few inches wide. There have been several arguments about the need for these balconies, but facades of some buildings are adorned with charm when a Juliet balcony is present.
6. Terracotta Details
It is not easy to think of anything but its tall steel and concrete towers in a city such as Manhattan. A closer observation of old Manhattan will open your eyes to a range of building materials. In the late 1800s, terracotta became a popular architectural material. It was sturdy, inexpensive, fireproof, and easy to carve for ornamentation. Louis Sullivan’s work in Chicago inspired the wide use of terracotta in skyscrapers. The lesser-known Bayard Condict Building is the only building designed by Sullivan in New York City and is one of the most celebrated terracotta structures. The 22 story tall Flat Iron Building is also adorned in terracotta, as was the iconic Woolworth Building. They were made to look like limestone and are hence often mistaken for their materiality.
7. World’s First Passenger Elevator
Among other historical events to happen in New York City, the first-ever safe passenger elevator ever built was opened in the city in 1857. The E. V. Haughwout Building, designed by John P. Gaynor, was the first five-story high retail structure built with cast iron. It was also the first store to have a passenger elevator designed solely for the use of its customers. The elevator was installed in March 1857 by Elisha Otis that cost about $300 and had a speed of 0.20m/s. Visitors at the time were drawn to see the new elevator and, in turn, stopped to shop!
8. Pomander Walk
Tucked away in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, there is a well kept secret community of Tudor style homes resembling an old English village. The Pomander Walk is a gated street between Broadway and West 94th and 95th streets. The colony houses twenty-seven homes secluded away from the main street featuring Tudoresque ornamentation. Each house was designed for two families but created the illusion of individual cottages. The facade materials feature brick, stucco, stone, and painted wood, making the facades very colorful. The Pomander Walk is one of the last row house developments in Manhattan and the Upper West Side.
9. Subway Mosaics
The New York City subway system had endured several design styles and movements since 1904. It is easy to miss the rich art and architectural history of the subway system in a daily commute. During the establishment of the system, the city insisted on commissioning artists to embellish the stations with mosaics to enhance user experience. Squire J. Vickers, who was the chief architect of the subway system, was also responsible for the mosaics that adorned the walls underground. He designed unique color-coding systems within the mosaics to represent different zones and stations of the city.
In recent years, the MTA has not only restored many of Vickers’ works but also featured many new artists. The 8th Street station features ‘Broadway Diary’ by Timothee Snell that depicts neighborhood landmarks. The 23rd Street station portrays mosaic inlays of various hats by graphic artist Keith Godard representing famous New Yorkers that once frequented that very intersection.
10. Fire Escapes of the City
Fire Escapes are hard to miss, as they are an essential part of New York City’s urban fabric. The metal stairs started appearing on building facades around 1860 when it was required by the law during a time when many buildings were prone to dangerous fires. Before the enforcement of a physical metal stair, some buildings had pulley systems to let tenants down in baskets, and in other cases, buildings used ropes to escape. The external fire stair had to be installed on the street-facing facade with strict rules on its use.
New Yorkers, often in search of more space, started reusing the extra balcony space for several purposes. Often romanticized in movies, they actually are quite grimy rather than glamorous. In today’s world, where urban dwellers are encouraged to stay indoors, these fire escapes are proving to be community builders for neighborhoods. Many New Yorkers have turned this small space into a mini oasis during times of quarantine.
The multi-dimensional and exciting New York City would not be complete without these architectural nuances that embellish, enrich, and enhance its personality.