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New York City Guide

New York Architecture & Landmarks

The skyscraper is New York City's trademark. In Midtown, and again in the Financial District, tower dozens of shimmering, glass-sheathed buildings that create shadow-filled canyons filled with scurrying human forms far below. Quintessential among the edifices is the Empire State Building, once the world's tallest building -- a record that was surpassed by other skyscrapers long ago.

Huge stone mansions dot the Upper East Side; some of the largest fill entire city blocks and have been converted into museums. The Upper West Side is known for its elaborate, castle-like apartment buildings, many centered on spacious courtyards. Central Park, an 843-acre oasis, is completely manmade, with every bush, tree, and rock planned. Harlem is home to magnificent brownstones and churches.

With the exception of the Financial District, downtown architecture tends to be low-slung, with many buildings only five or six stories tall. Exquisite brownstones can be found in Gramercy Park, Murray Hill, and Greenwich Village. Most of the East Village, Lower East Side, and Chinatown are composed of what were once regarded as tenement buildings.

The bridges connecting Manhattan with the boroughs are architectural feats. Most handsome among them is the pedestrian-friendly Brooklyn Bridge, which can be accessed via a ramp near City Hall Park in Lower Manhattan.

The Brooklyn Bridge, a pedestrian-friendly bridge that connects Manhattan with Brooklyn, is an architectural icon.
©2006 NYC & Company
The Brooklyn Bridge, a pedestrian-friendly bridge that connects
Manhattan with Brooklyn, is an architectural icon.

Insider's Guide: The Best of Architecture & Landmarks in New York

Before doing anything, check the tour schedule of the
Municipal Art Society, which gives the best and most frequent architectural walking tours in the city. The Society also runs the Urban Center (457 Madison Ave, at 50th St), housing an excellent bookstore and exhibition halls devoted to Big Apple architecture and history. Serious architecture buffs will want to pick up a copy of the AIA Guide to New York City, edited by Noval White and Elliot Willensky. An entertaining 1,000-page urban classic, it's organized as a series of architectural walking tours, with more than 2,000 photos and maps.

Touristy though it is, the Empire State Building (350 Fifth Ave, at 34th St) is a must stop. One of the world's most famous buildings, it was erected during the Depression in an astonishing 14 months, at the rate of 4 1/2 stories a week. An especially good time to visit the Empire State is at night, when there are fewer tourists and the whole city lies lit at your feet, but be aware that it's only open until midnight.

Other world-famous architectural sites in Midtown include Rockefeller Center, the Mobil Three-Star Plaza Hotel, and Trump Tower, but if you're looking for something less commercial, head across East 42nd Street, lined with one architectural gem after another. Begin at the lavish, beaux arts 1911
New York Public Library (at Fifth Ave), designed by Carrere & Hastings. Free tours are given every day at midday when the library is open and many fine book-oriented exhibits are displayed in Gottesman Hall. Further east is the 1913 Grand Central Terminal (between Vanderbilt and Lexington Aves), built around a vast 125-foot-high concourse with a vaulted, star-studded ceiling. The Municipal Art Society gives tours of the station every Wednesday at midday.

Other architectural attractions on East 42nd Street include the stunning, art deco Chrysler Building (at Lexington Avenue) and the old Daily News Building (220 E. 42nd St), designed by Raymond Hood, with a revolving globe in its lobby. The Ford Foundation (320 E. 42nd St) houses a lush three-story indoor garden. Tudor City (near First Ave) is a romantic, self-contained residential community.

The most charming part of the city, architecturally speaking, is the western reaches of Greenwich Village, more accurately known as the West Village. Blocks especially worth exploring are Barrow Street, Bedford Street, and Commerce Streets between Seventh Avenue and Hudson Street. Also, take a gander at the 1876 Jefferson Market Library (Sixth Ave and 10th St), a red-and-white Gothic extravaganza, and Washington Square (between MacDougal Street and Washington Place, 4th St and Waverly Place), where a marble arch designed by architect Stanford White marks the north entrance.

SoHo and TriBeCa are known for their cast-iron architecture. Originally envisioned as a cheap way to imitate elaborate stone buildings, the cast-iron facades were prefabricated in a variety of styles and bolted onto iron-frame structures.

The soaring 1883 Brooklyn Bridge, the world's first suspension bridge, is not to be missed. The best time to stroll across it is at sunset, when the rays of the sun reflect off the steel cables. Before or after, take a look at the Woolworth Building (233 Broadway, between Barclay and Park Place), a wedding-cake extravaganza designed by Cass Gilbert, on the edge of City Hall Park.

Many of the Upper West Side's most stunning apartment buildings stand along Central Park West (Eighth Avenue) between 62nd and 75h Streets. Most famous among them is the 1884 Dakota (at 72nd St), built in a European-chateau style by Henry Hardenburgh, who also designed the Plaza Hotel. Among the many famous people who once lived at the Dakota was John Lennon; he was assassinated outside the building in 1980.

Also on Central Park West is the American Museum of Natural History (at 79th Street), housed in an enormous, castle-like building. One of the city's most famous museums, it is best known for its breathtaking dioramas. Adjoining it is the Rose Center for Earth and Space, which is a gleaming, glass-sheathed tower with a huge globe at its center.

At the southern end of Harlem, reigns the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (Amsterdam Ave at 112th St). The world's largest Gothic cathedral, it's still under construction. Farther north, along Malcolm X Boulevard/Lenox Avenue (known by both names, an extension of Sixth Avenue), you'll find the very fine Mt. Olivet Baptist Church (W. 120th St), once a synagogue, and St. Martin's Church (at 122nd St), known for its stained-glass windows. Striver's Row (between 138th and 139th Sts, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Frederick Douglass Blvds) is a prosperous residential block lined with 158 four-story homes. The most impressive were designed by McKim, Mead, & White.

New York's architecture is indeed legendary -- and so is the city's shopping. Go to the next page to find out about everything from the ritzy Fifth Avenue establishments to the quirky shops that are off the beaten path.