By Nick Ottens
This was originally put up on Never Was as a single article but has been split into two here. The first article is 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.
Metropolitan Life Tower
By the 1920s, the headquarters of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (also known as MetLife) on Madison Avenue — known for its distinctive clock tower — was becoming too small. Architects Harvey Wiley Corbett and Dan Everett Waid were hired to design a new building, which would sit on the same bloc.
Their proposed 100-story tower would have been the tallest in the world at the time, but the 1929 crash intervened. Only the base of what was called the North Building was constructed, between 1932 and 1950, thirty stories high.
In the late 1920s, the Metropolitan Opera was looking for a new home. Benjamin Wistar Morris developed a plan for a new opera house on a stretch of Midtown owned by Columbia University, however, the Met could not afford it. John D. Rockefeller Jr., the son of the oil magnate, was willing to help pay for the new building. Columbia leased the plot to Rockefeller for 87 years at a cost of $3 million per year.
Then the stock market crashed and the Met had to abandon its quest for a new opera house altogether. Rockefeller went ahead with the construction of what became Rockefeller Center.
New York City acquired the land between Chrystie and Forsythe Streets in 1929 with the intention of demolishing the tenements that littered the area. The Regional Plan Association, a group of bankers, developers, railroad men and philanthropists, suggested replacing the houses with a grand avenue: the Chrystie-Forsyth Parkway. Their design maximized air and light by incorporating low-rise buildings, parks and adequate spaces between Art Deco skyscrapers.
Nothing came of the proposal. Instead, a park was built, named after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s mother, Sara.
Obelisk at Battery Park
As late as 1929, there were still plans for a World War I memorial. Eric Gugler, who would go on to design Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Oval Office, proposed this 180-meter obelisk at Battery Park. Similar to the Washington Monument, but — this is New York, after all — 75 meters taller.
I’m not sure if this was a serious proposal or Chester B. Price’s imagination running wild. There is little information about this architect and illustrator online. The New York Times ran a short obituary in 1962. The Smithsonian American Art Museum has a small collection of his work online.
In any event, his tower would have overshadowed both the old City Hall and the new Manhattan Municipal Building (of which we saw alternative designs earlier).
New York in 2031
In September 1931, Science and Mechanics featured on its cover a vision of New York in a hundred years drawn by Frank Rudolph Paul.
The Empire State, the tallest building in the world at the time, is dwarfed by colossal buildings twice its size. An even larger structure looms in the background with statutes that themselves are the size of skyscraper.
Future Tower City
Edwin Maxwell Fry didn’t look quite that far ahead. The British architect, who would go on to design many buildings in colonial Africa, was hired by the aforementioned Regional Plan Association to design a “Future Tower City” in 1931.
Much like their failed Chrystie-Forsyth Parkway, the association’s rationale in this case was to clear Manhattan of slum and working-class areas that they claimed outraged “one’s sense of order.”
Sunnyside Yards Terminal
Also in 1931, the same Regional Plan Association proposed building an office and terminal building on top of the Sunnyside Yard in Queens — which is still an eyesore.
The tower, designed by Arthur C. Holden & Associates, “would dominate all this part of the Borough of Queens,” the association wrote.
You can find out more at the RPA’s blog.
Filling in the Hudson River
Norman Sper was a publicist and engineering scholar who proposed damming the Hudson River on the north and south sides of Manhattan to create around ten square miles of new land.
Modern Mechanix reported in March 1934 that the plan would have involved widening the Harlem River in order to allow for sufficient drainage into the East River.
Sper estimated his project would cost around $1 billion to execute, or $19 billion in today’s money. But the potential profits were enormous:
An annual income of a hundred million dollars a year would represent a return of ten percent on the investment of a billion dollars and engineering experts all agree that this would be only a trifle of the amount that could be realized from this great project.
Several engineers consulted by Modern Mechanix agreed, but this was 1934 — the height of the Depression. It’s not hard to understand why this reclamation project never happened.
Modern Mechanics reported in February 1930 that one New Yorker had come up with a particularly novel way to make the city easier to reach by aeroplane. He proposed to put turntable runways on top of skyscrapers:
The device is declared to offer many advantages over the proposed platforms for such landings. The landing table can be tilted at any angle and swung about in any direction so that the wind is along its axis. The incline naturally serves as a brake on the landing ship and air blasts assist in checking the speed of the landed ship. The turntable would also present an incline which would enable a faster than ordinary take off.
I know the taxi ride from JFK to the city can be a drag, but I’d still take that over risking my life with one of these contraptions. Who was the brilliant/maniac New Yorker who came up with this?
Turns out it can always get worse.
From the same magazine — Modern Mechanix — comes this idea by “a French engineer”:
Proposed as a solution to the problem of locating an airport in the heart of any big city, a design for a long orientable runway, which would be mounted on circular tracks atop tall buildings.
What could possibly go wrong?
This may have seemed like a good idea pre-9/11, but the idea of building a huge airport in Manhattan would surely be laughed out of the room today.
I’m not sure if it was more realistic half a century ago, but this is what Life magazine published in March 1946: A “dream” airport for New York on the Hudson River shore.
It is an airport built 200 feet above street level right over 144 square blocks of Manhattan’s crowded, valuable West Side from 24th to 71st Streets and from Ninth Avenue to the river.
The top would be roughly the size of Central Park and accommodate three parallel runways.
Under the landing platform would be ten stories of apartments and office space, topped by a vast hangar deck with a 50-foot ceiling clearance.
Further down, traffic would be tunneled through the network of buildings while ships could dock right under the terminal.
The idea came from William Zeckendorf, a New York real-estate mogul. He estimated that building this monstrosity would cost around $3 billion, or nearly $40 billion in today’s money. He also figured it would take 55 years to recoup the investment.
Life predicted increased air travel would make Zeckendorf’s idea “a necessity”.
Thankfully, they were wrong about that.
An airport on the Hudson River wasn’t Zeckendorf’s only pet project. Where John D. Rockefeller Jr. had his Rockefeller Center, Zeckendorf would have X-City, a modernist building complex on Manhattan’s eastern waterfront. It was to have apartment and office buildings, a marina, a new home for the Metropolitan Opera and — of course — a rooftop airport.
Zeckendorf didn’t have the money to make it happen, though. In 1946, he sold the land to the Rockefeller family, who donated it to the United Nations.
Untapped Cities has more.
Brooklyn Battery Bridge
The Brooklyn Battery Bridge was one of the first controversial projects of New York’s all-powerful building master Robert Moses.
In the late 1930s, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia sought to alleviate congestion in the city. The original plan was to build a tunnel between Brooklyn and Manhattan. Moses preferred a bridge.
Locals objected. A bridge would have ruined Battery Park and obstructed the view of the Manhattan skyline. Property owners on either side of the water feared it would depress the value of their real estate. Eventually it took the intervention of federal authorities to stop Moses.
The New York Preservation Archive Project has more.
Avenue through Washington Square Park
Moses’ next defeat came in Greenwich Village. Now a charming neighborhood, in the 1950s it was pretty desolate. Moses’ plan to clean it up was to extend Fifth Avenue straight through Washington Square Park. The argument was that it would improve the flow of traffic and provide access to his planned Lower Manhattan Expressway.
Community resistance, led by activist Jane Jacobs and former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, defeated the plan.
Paul Rudolph’s Lower Manhattan Expressway
The whole Lower Manhattan Expressway project — a proposal for an elevated, ten-lane highway through the middle of Lower Manhattan — was hugely controversial. The city ultimately abandoned it in 1968 after years of protest.
A year earlier, the Ford Foundation had employed the Brutalist architect Paul Rudolph to breathe new life into it.
Rudolph went way beyond the original plan. He sank the expressway into the ground and added enormous towers and monorails on top of it. The old city would have completely disappeared under vast pyramid-shaped, glass-and-concrete monstrosities.
Towers on the Hudson River Piers
Life magazine reported in November 1962 that Governor Nelson Rockefeller had proposed a dramatic plan for constructing skyscraper apartment buildings on tax-exempt real estate. These would rise in so-called “air space” above publicly owned highways, schools, subway yards and piers.
The plan was for middle-income families, earning between $5,000 and $10,000 per year — too much to qualify for public housing but too little to afford private rent in Manhattan — to populate these riverfront apartments.
Bertrand Goldberg’s proposed headquarters and transmission tower for ABC television would have graced the New York skyline at 400 meters, making it the tallest building in the city at the time (1963).
The main building, 175 meters high, was a complex circular structure of concrete and glass which resembled a set of bundled tubes. The various clusters were organized around a communal space in the center for joint enterprises. The transmission antenna would have stood next to it.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ellis Island
After the immigration center on Ellis Island was decommissioned in 1954, the site was offered to developers. The winning bid proposed to build a “completely self-sustained city of the future,” designed by the recently deceased Frank Lloyd Wright. It consisted of thousands of apartments and huge, air-conditioned domes with hospitals, schools and theaters.
The scheme was rejected, but it featured in Grant Morrison’s Manhattan Guardian comic 2005.
Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe’s Battery Park Apartments
You don’t have to be a fan of Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe’s work to see that his proposal might have been an improvement over the bland, grey- and pastel-colored towers that were built on the southeastern tip of Manhattan instead.
World Trade Center
One of the early proposals for the World Trade Center, published in June 1960, was for an exhibition hall and 50- to 70-story building on the site of the South Street Seaport, which had seen a continuous decline in business for decades.
Ultimately, a site on the other side of Manhattan was chosen: Radio Row, a neighborhood in the Lower West Side that was also in need of a revitalization.
Victor Gruen’s Welfare Island
Victor Gruen, an Austrian-born architect known for his urban revitalization proposals which had inspired the master plans for Fort Worth, Texas and Kalamazoo, Michigan, was commissioned in 1961 to come up with a plan to breathe new life into what was then known as “Welfare Island” due to the presence of many alms houses, hospitals and even a lunatic asylum.
Gruen would have paved over the entire island and erected multiple tower buildings to house up to 70,000 New Yorkers. There would have been pools, tennis courts, shops and schools. Mayor Robert F. Wagner was impressed, but others thought the proposal monstrous.
Under Wagner’s successor, John Lindsay, the city opted for a more modest plan by Philip Johnson and John Burgee. It introduced more green spaces, better transit access and just 5,000 additional apartments.
South Ferry Plaza
In 1987, the firms Fox & Fowle Architects and Leslie E. Robertson Associates proposed building a skyscraper on top of the South Ferry terminal in Lower Manhattan. The building, 330 meters high, would have been topped off by a glass dome with an observation deck and restaurants that lit up at night, hence the project’s nickname, “A Lighthouse at the Tip of the Island.”
This design by Mark Foster Gage Architects would have put a 102-story dieselpunk tower in the heart of Manhattan’s so-called Billionaires’ Row: a set of luxury skyscrapers along the southern end of Central Park.
6sqft reports the whimsical design is a “habitable sculpture of sorts, adorned from top to bottom in ornaments ranging from gears and propellers to an abstracted pair of birds diving in for a landing on two wing-supported balconies.” At the top would be a temple-like observational platform, crowned by a golden wreath.
Sadly, nothing came of the project.
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.