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Unbuilt New York- Part 1

By Nick Ottens

This article was first published over here by our friends at Never Was Magazine and is shared as part of our partnership with Never Was. For more articles like this please check out their site.

This was originally put up on Never Was as a single article but has been split into two here.

Elevated railways, sky bridges, rooftop airports and a plan to drain the East River. New York City would have looked very different if these architects and engineers had had their way.

Arcade railway

Proposed New York City arcade railway below Broadway

This was essentially the first subway proposal for New York. In the 1860s, Egbert Ludovicus Viele, an engineer, came up with a plan for what he called an Arcade Underground Railway. It involved replacing the roads with railways and building another street level on top of it for carriages and pedestrians.

Owners of property along Broadway weren’t too happy about the proposal and it would take another forty years before New York got its subway.

Pneumatic Elevated Railway

Henry Gilbert’s design for a Pneumatic Elevated Railway

Even more steampunky was Henry Gilbert’s proposal for pneumatic railway tubes suspended from Gothic steel arches over New York City’s streets.

This was not a totally wild scheme. Gilbert had been the superintendent of the Central Railroad of New Jersey and obtained a patent for his elevated railway idea. He created a company but struggled to attract financing in the middle of the 1873 Wall Street Panic.

North River Bridge

Gustav Lindenthal’s 1887 plan for a North River Bridge

The view of Manhattan from New Jersey would have looked quite different if Gustav Lindenthal had had his way. This Czech-born civil engineer called for an enormous, 1.8-kilometer bridge in 1887 that would have spanned the Hudson River.

The North River Bridge would have been sixty meters wide and sixty meters high to accommodate twelve railroads and 24 traffic lanes. It would have been twice the length of the George Washington Bridge, which connects Manhattan and New Jersey further up the Hudson River. The two supporting towers would have been bigger than the Woolworth Building, which was the world’s tallest skyscraper at the time.

The North River Bridge was never built, but Lindenthal did get to design a bridge on the other side of Manhattan: the Hell Gate Bridge, which connects Randalls and Wards Islands to Astoria in Queens.

Cathedral of Saint John the Divine

Ralph Adams Cram’s design for the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York

Construction started on the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in 1892, but the building remains unfinished today. Hence its nickname: St John the Unfinished.

The cathedral was conceived as Byzantine-Romanesque, but after the death of Bishop Henry C. Potter, who had been the driving force behind it, the noted Gothic Revival architect Ralph Adams Cram was hired in 1908 to “Gothicize” the building. Cram’s design was clearly inspired by the Notre-Dame de Paris.

William Halsey Wood’s design

Other designs were submitted by Alexander Hay and William Halsey Wood. I’m not sure if Hay took part in the original 1888 competition, but Wood did. His design, a seemingly endless series of turrets, spires and arches surrounding an enormous domed tower, “drew both high praise for originality and criticism for impracticality,” writes Luis Rodriguez of the New York Historical Society.

Hotel Attraction

By 1908, Antoni Gaudí was already a well-established architect. He had designed various homes and public spaces in Barcelona in his unique, organic style and was about to commit himself entirely to the construction of his masterpiece, the Sagrada Família.

Before he did, though, Gaudí was commissioned by a group of New York businessmen to design a luxury hotel for the city.

Characteristically, Gaudí drew up plans for what would have been the tallest tower in New York at the time. Nothing came of his proposal. It’s unclear why. One story says the businessmen fell out with Gaudí over his left-wing political beliefs. Another says Gaudí fell ill.

Whatever the reason, Manhattan clearly missed out. The science-fiction series Fringe gives us a glimpse of what could have been. In its alternate-universe New York, Gaudí’s Hotel Attraction was built — and it looks amazing.

Museum of Natural History

Design for the American Museum of Natural History in New York

The American Museum of Natural History is already one of the largest in the world, but its designers — Josiah Cady, Louis Berg and Milton See — had something even more monumental planned: a vast complex in Romanesque and Gothic Revival styles. Only the museum’s south range was built according to their design.

Civic Center on Blackwell’s Island

Drawing of Thomas J. George’s proposed civic center on Blackwell’s Island, New York

Around the turn of the last century, New Yorkers yearned for an Acropolis to crown their burgeoning metropolis. Former congressman John De Witt Warner lamented New York’s lack of “one or more great civic centers … effectively grouped … public or quasipublic structures that are, as it were, the vital organs upon which its vigor and character must so largely depend.”

Most of the planning centered around City Hall in Downtown Manhattan, but Thomas J. George, then a young architect, had a different idea: convert Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island) into a new city center.

New York was expanding eastward, George argued, and Blackwell’s Island was closer to Midtown, the commercial heart of Manhattan. A Civic Center there would be truly central.

His scheme demanded the construction of two bridges, one of which would have passed right through the dome of the capitol, which bears a resemblance to the Administration Building Richard Morris Hunt had designed for the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893.

The Gotham Center for New York City History has more.

A few more bridges

Illustration of existing and proposed bridges, from New York Tribune

New York Tribune published a map in January 1, 1911 that showed the various proposals for new bridges and tunnels around Manhattan.

Sandwiched between the existing Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan Bridge was a new bridge named after “Long Pat” McCarren, the Democratic political boss of Brooklyn at the time. It came close to being built.

The Hell Gate railway bridge actually was built between 1912 and 1916. So was the Henry Hudson Bridge connecting the tip of Manhattan and the Bronx, although its construction was delayed until 1935 and plans for a highly ornamental concrete bridge were watered down a simpler, and cheaper, steel arch bridge.

The blog Stuff Nobody Cares About has more.

Future New York

1925 postcard

Many steampunks will be familiar with this picture. It’s a 1925 postcard that imagines the future of New York, but the original image is from 1911.

“The City of Skyscrapers” has elevated railways, both over its streets and between buildings, connected by huge (and probably hugely expensive) sky bridges. Airships fly overhead. All the towers are in the pleasant Renaissance and Gothic Revival styles of the early twentieth century.

Grand Centrals that could have been

Between 1903 and 1913, New York’s Grand Central Station was torn down and replaced in phases by a Grand Central Terminal — still called “Grand Central Station” by most New Yorkers. Out of the many firms that vied to design the new railway station, two were selected: Reed & Stem of St Paul, Minnesota, who were responsible for the overall design, and Warren & Wetmore of New York, who were responsible for the building’s Beaux-Arts style.

Reed and Stem envisaged the new Grand Central as the heart of a “Terminal City” that would include new homes for the Metropolitan Opera and the National Academy of Design as well hotels and office buildings.

Other firms had different ideas.

McKim, Mead & White, who would later build the old Penn Station as well as the campus of Columbia University, proposed a sixty-story skyscraper, which would have been the tallest tower in the world at the time.

Samuel Huckle Jr. of Pennsylvania proposed a baroque turreted building.

After the Second World War, Grand Central nearly fell victim to the same modernization craze that claimed Penn Station.

I.M. Pei’s design for the Hyperboloid that would have replaced Grand Central Terminal, New York

The first attempt to demolish the station came in 1956, when famed architect I.M Pei designed an eighty- to 102-story, hourglass-shaped tower known as the Hyperboloid. The railroad rejected it because it would have been too expensive to built.

By 1968, New York Central had merged with Pennsylvania Railroads to become Penn Central and they were looking for office space. Marcel Breuer designed a 55-story tower that would have stood above Grand Central. The terminal’s facade would have been preserved, but the entire main waiting room and part of the main concourse would have been demolished to make way for the skyscraper’s foundations.

Fortunately, the loss of Penn Station spurred New Yorkers into action. A Landmarks Preservation Commission was formed which designated Grand Central an historic landmark. Developers and the railroad appealed the decision all the way up to the Supreme Court, which finally ruled in the preservationists’ favor in 1978.

By then, the railroad had neglected maintenance and delayed repairs for two decades. It would take another decade for renovations to get underway and restore Grand Central to its former glory.

Grand Central’s official website has more.

National American Indian Memorial

Proposed National American Indian Memorial

The National American Indian Memorial was a proposed monument to Native Americans on the site of Fort Tompkins in Staten Island, near the entrance to New York Harbor.

The project was the brainchild of Rodman Wanamaker, a department store magnate and patron of the arts. Congress set aside the federal land needed for the memorial in 1911, but neither it, nor any other government agency, was willing to provide funding. Wanamaker didn’t want to pay for the whole thing himself either and the project fizzled out during World War I.

Proposals to drain the East River

Visualization of John A. Harris’ plan to drain New York’s East River, from Popular Science (December 1924)

The first proposal to drain the East River came from T. Kennard Thomson, an engineer, in 1911. He suggested filling in the East River and extending Manhattan to the south. The Harlem River would be widened and a New East River dug east of Brooklyn to empty into Jamaica Bay. The Brooklyn Navy Yard, which would lose its access to the sea, was to be relocated to the mouth of New York Bay.

Thomson recognized that his plan would be expensive. But he also foresaw big rewards, writing in the January 1916 edition of Popular Science that the returns would “quickly pay off the debt incurred, and then would commence to swell the city’s money bags until New York would be the richest city in the world.”

Eight years later, John A. Harris, the deputy police commissioner of New York, similarly proposed draining the East River and transforming it into a transportation artery, including roads, subway lines and parking space, in order to relief congestion in Manhattan.

Harris envisaged the construction of two dams: one near the Williamsburg Bridge and one near Hell Gate. The riverbed would be “bridged with levels supported by steel uprights,” thereby connecting the boroughs of Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens, Popular Science reported that year. In the middle of the thoroughfare a new city hall could be built.

Victory Memorial

Design for Water Gate in New York by Franklin and Arthur Ware and M.D. Metcalfe

Immediately after the Great War, New York architects called for a monument to celebrate America’s victory.

The first proposal came from Donn Barber in 1918, who argued for integrating a sports stadium in a memorial site near Grant’s Tomb on Riverside Drive.

Otto Eggers and E.H. Rosengarten proposed a similar memorial about ten blocks down. It would double as a dignified harbor to welcome guests to the country.

The brothers Franklin and Arthur Ware and their partner, M.D. Metcalfe, similarly proposed a victory arch that would double as gateway to the city, but they more logically placed it in Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan.


New York Lighthouse by Maurice Durand

Did New York Harbor need a lighthouse? French architect Maurice Durand certainly thought so and proposed a structure that would surely have made an impression to those newly arriving in America.

Durand may have been biased, though. Designing lighthouses was his speciality. He built several on the Atlantic coast of his native France after the Second World War.

Living on a bridge

Hugh Ferriss' painting of Raymond Hood’s design for an “apartment bridge” in New York

The architect of 30 Rockefeller Plaza suggested that, to reduce congestion and create living space, fifty- to sixty-story apartment buildings could be added to New York’s bridges. There would be room for 50,000 residents on either side of this beast.

Larkin Tower

John A. Larkin’s design for the world’s tallest tower in New York

Businessman and self-styled architect John Larkin twice tried to built the tallest tower in the world.

His first attempt was in 1926, when he proposed a 110-story Larkin Tower for Midtown Manhattan, not far from Times Square. The tower would have been 370 meters high, pretty much the same height as the Empire State Building that was completed five years later. It was never built.

Larkin recycled his design in 1952, when he announced plans for a 600-meter high World Trade Building. This was unreal. Today there are only four buildings in the world that tall and they were all built in the last decade.

The New York Times has more.


Nick Ottens is the editor of Never Was, an online, non-commercial alternate-history magazine, formally known as the Gatehouse, with a special interest in the Steam, Diesel and Atomic Eras.


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