New York is a city of landmarks: world famous skyscrapers, grand monuments and cultural icons. But many of its must-see places each came shockingly close to becoming something completely different, some for better, some for worse. Visiting the sites of these remarkable unbuilt schemes can heighten the enjoyment of touring the things that actually got built. You could see dozens of unbuilt plans at the new Queens Museum exhibition, and in the book “Never Built New York” (Metropolis Books, 2016). Or roam the city, with these visions in the back of your mind.
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Central Park is, in every sense, the “Clearing in the Distance” that Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux originally imagined it should be. It is a bucolic idyll hemmed in by an uproarious metropolis.
Now spread out on the Great Lawn and imagine a completely different landscape: perfectly symmetrical, flattened formal gardens composed of topiaries patterned as stars and spirals and paisley flowers.
That was the engineer John Rink’s 1857 rigidly whimsical vision for the park, one of the entries submitted to the city-sponsored competition. A few years later, the architect Richard Morris Hunt argued that what the “silent stretch of rural landscape…” lacked was the “artistic grandeur of Paris.”
CreditNew York Historical Society
Hunt’s dream was to position a series of gates throughout the park, including the “Gate of Peace,” a huge semicircular terrace framing a 50-foot-high column leading to a pair of stair-stepped cascades that would feed a basin below, on the southeast end of the park. It had all the grandiloquence, Calvert Vaux sneered, of Napoleon III.
Farther west along 59th Street, at the intersection of Sixth Avenue, might have been home to yet another reimagined Central Park – this, from the fecund pen of Ernest Flagg, the noted architect, circa 1904. The park would have been drastically cinched. He proposed a slender mall that would run the entire length of Manhattan, subsuming a thin strip of the park and Sixth Avenue, too.
Of course Olmsted and Vaux’s pastoral vision won out (as it did in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park), and their creation is today considered hallowed ground that not even the most determined designer would dream of altering.
Grand Central Terminal
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Grand Central Terminal, with its celestial ceiling and unshakable aura of Beaux-Arts magnificence, is arguably the grandest space in New York. But it almost suffered the same fate as its exceptional sibling, Penn Station, whose above ground structure, designed by McKim, Mead & White, was demolished to heighten the value of air rights amid the railroads’ decline. As pressure to use the air rights above Grand Central Station mounted, developers tried time and again to propose lofty alternatives.
CreditPei Cobb Freed
The gutsiest was I.M. Pei’s Hyperboloid, sponsored by the developer William Zeckendorf, in 1956. The hourglass-shaped design, whose altitude would have surpassed that of the Empire State Building, was light years ahead of its time, incorporating a weblike steel exoskeleton to support the open floors within. Squint and you’d think you were in Dubai, 2016.
More than a decade later, the developer UGP Properties proposed Marcel Breuer’s 175 Park Avenue, a modernist slab — mirroring Walter Gropius’s Pan Am Building just north — that would have rammed right through the station’s Grand Concourse (and in a later plan, would replace its facade). Preservationists, led by none other than Jacqueline Onassis, fought the project all the way to the Supreme Court, winning a battle that finally gave the fledgling movement much-needed momentum.
The city renewed its love affair with Grand Central, and almost 20 years later the station was renewed with the completion of a $200 million restoration, highlighted by a thorough cleaning of Paul César Helleu’s magnificent gold-leafed Zodiac mural on the ceiling of the Main Concourse.
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There are few places as evocative as the Great Hall of Ellis Island, where thousands upon thousands came to the New World. After the federal government decommissioned the island in 1954, it opened the site to developers, who proposed all manner of projects, from a resort to a university to a prison.
The highest bid came from the Damon Doudt Corporation, which commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to sketch a city-within-a-city called the Key Plan, consisting of stacked living spaces arranged around a large open plaza surrounded by bubble-shaped buildings containing theaters, a planetarium and much more. The plan was conceived by Frank Lloyd Wright, but the drawings were executed by his successor firm, Taliesen Associated Architects.
Wright, not surprisingly, would have designed every square inch of the development, including the boats to get there. None of the proposals were accepted, and later the National Park Service commissioned Philip Johnson to turn the site into a nostalgic landmark. Vines would have overgrown what would become a neglected ruin; side by side with Johnson’s 130-foot-tall, ziggurat-shaped tower dedicated to the millions of immigrants who had first disembarked there.
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Instead, Finegold Alexander + Associates Inc, and Beyer Blinder Belle, restored the main building of the station over the course of eight years, and it reopened as home to the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration in 1990. It has received more than 40 million visitors since.
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Crossing into Columbus Circle on foot is daunting. Cars, buses and cabs decidedly have the upper hand. It’s much simpler to circumnavigate it rather than wade into the circle itself.
Travel backward in time to 1948, however, and in an alternate universe you might have encountered a genuinely futuristic construct that allowed you to cross the circle, in style. Matthew Nowicki, a Polish émigré architect, hoped to encircle the vexing roundabout with an elevated linear accelerator-cum-shopping center.
His promenade, lined by stores and cafes, would have been a sleek, white, 60-foot-wide saucer with two loops. One, facing the Columbus Monument, was an exterior colonnade whose “columns” were the exposed steel arcs supporting a poured-in-place concrete roof. The other, outer loop, was enclosed by 20-foot-high floor-to-ceiling glass windows tilted toward the surrounding streets. You could have walked the 1,100-foot circumference, master of the streets below, levitated two stories above the roadway.
It was never built. A full renovation of Columbus Circle completed in 2005 included a new fountain, benches and green space. By far the largest development on the circle is the Time Warner Center, which contains CNN’s studios, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Jazz at Lincoln Center and some of the fanciest shopping and dining in the city. Around the circle, the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) opened inside Edward Durell Stone’s refaced Huntington Hartford Gallery of Modern Art.
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In recent years Times Square has become a syrupy sweet haven for tourists and a hated destination for everyone else. But what if the land that has been transformed from porn empire to outdoor mall had an entirely different precedent?
Just before the Great Depression, the designer Joseph Urban proposed the Reinhardt Theater, an Art Deco masterpiece “wedding beauty and ballyhoo” with a black glass facade offset with intricate golden metalwork. “A theater is more than a stage and auditorium,” Urban wrote in his 1929 book, “Theaters.” “It is a place to experience a heightened sense of life.” If only that were the case for Times Square today.
Another ambitious, but unrealized, precedent for the area would have been Ely Jacques Kahn’s Dowling Theater, a postwar fusion of Modernism with Art Deco’s bursts of neon color, texture and light.
CreditAvery Archive, Columbia University
Years later, Venturi Scott Brown proposed a tower for 42nd Street and 8th Avenue that would have announced itself with a fiery starburst, making Times Square’s omnipresent billboards a key element of the building’s design.
Times Square is still a constant work in progress. Its latest iteration is more pedestrian-friendly, thanks to five plazas that span almost two acres of space formerly occupied by bumper-to-bumper traffic.
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When you think of Madison Square today, what springs to mind are recent staples like Shake Shack and Eataly, and immortal landmarks like the Flatiron Building and the clock tower of the Metropolitan Life building.
The area’s stately character would certainly have been stretched skyward had it not been for the Great Depression, which reduced the size of Henry Wiley Corbett’s Metropolitan Life North Annex from more than 100 stories to a scant 29. From Madison Square Park, consider the bulky stump and its relatively short size, and now hypothesize whether Lower Manhattan’s canyons would have been replicated here after its completion.
CreditAvery Archive, Columbia University
Another severe downturn, The Great Recession, killed Rem Koolhaas’s 24-story building at 23 East 22nd Street. Hoping to take advantage of the neighboring air rights, Koolhaas proposed a building that stepped its way out and up from its site, its cantilevered units containing glass bottoms. Another building killed by that downturn was Daniel Libeskind’s One Madison, an ethereal, vegetation-laced tower built on stilts, hovering above what is now the Credit Suisse Tower.
The Flatiron district is now booming — perhaps too quickly. Two of the newest towers erected in recent years are CetraRuddy’s 621-foot-tall One Madison, a vertical line of stacking cubes, and KPF’s 777-foot-tall 45 East 22nd Street, which cantilevers over an adjacent building.
Rem Koolhaas has set his sights on the area again: he is now planning his first New York residence down the street, 121 East 22nd Street.
Washington Square Park
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It is the stomping ground of academics and potheads, hustlers and innocents, dissidents and wing-tipped businessmen, poets and folk singers.
Despite the domineering formality of the neo-Classical arch honoring the 100th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration, Washington Square Park is certainly one of the city’s most deeply informal public spots.
But if you take a seat by the fountain, you are occupying a spot that would have been smack in the middle of the mini-freeway that the city’s former construction czar, Robert Moses, planned to build, slicing the park in half. As you looked through the arch, you’d have been watching cars speeding beneath its marble entablature, along a newly extended Fifth Avenue pushing south into Lower Manhattan.
If Moses’s wider vision had been fulfilled, the lengthened artery would have served a whole new neighborhood of superblock apartment buildings he had designated to replace the “blighted slums” along the blocks south of the park to Houston Street. The historic streets eviscerated, Washington Square blanched and bloodless, you would have wondered why it was you’d decided to visit the park in the first place.
While Washington Square is in fact gleaming from a recent $30 million update, it has, like the village around it, lost much of its bohemian character. Now the major issue here is not blight, but gentrification.
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Obligatory photos in front of Lincoln Center’s famous fountain would have been quite different if Wallace K. Harrison’s ambitious proposals for the Metropolitan Opera hadn’t been quashed by untold layers of bureaucracy. Before Harrison’s plans, sites for the Metropolitan Opera had been proposed near Columbus Circle, Rockefeller Center, the Museum of Modern Art and Washington Square.
None of those came to be, either. But once Lincoln Square was settled on, Harrison, the lead designer of the United Nations, proposed more than 50 designs. Most of them featured experiments with sculptural concrete, each more dazzling than the next; more evocative of the Sydney Opera House or J.F.K.’s TWA Terminal than the Rubik’s cubes of Lincoln Center.
CreditAvery Archive Columbia University
But a consortium of officials wagged their heads at these plans, for budgetary and aesthetic reasons. The blandest design of all is the one that got built.
Lincoln Center completed a major overhaul, led by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, in 2010, but one of its most ambitious plans — a redesign of David Geffen Hall by Thomas Heatherwick and Diamond Schmitt Architects — was recently abandoned.
American Museum of Natural History
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As you climb the subway steps to Central Park West, looming overhead is the faceted red-granite American Museum of Natural History, whose rusticated walls and 150-foot-tall towers look like a Brobdingnagian brownstone.
Race up the south entrance stairs, pause beneath the arches of the loggia, run your hands along the soft limestone pillars, and imagine a metamorphosis occurs: The vermilion walls peel away, fine dentils recede into flatness, turrets and towers, with their finials and conical caps, transform themselves into concise pyramids. The entire 77th Street front would butter itself over with a thin veneer of sober gray limestone.
CreditAmerican Museum of Natural History
The building, Aymar Embury’s 1942 conception, would be a windowless two-story base pierced by an entrance spaced precisely in the middle of a blank wall. The final effect: unenchanting institutional modernism indistinguishable from a government office building.
Since this proposal to wrap the museum in austere facing failed (as did Embury’s plan across town to replace the Metropolitan Museum’s steps with a circular driveway), the museum has continued to grow by accretion. In 1992 Kevin Roche built an eight-story library; in 2000, Polshek Partnership (now Ennead Architects) completed the Rose Center for Earth and Space; and now Studio Gang is planning the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation.
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Battery Park, at the southernmost tip of the city, might be the ideal starting point for an imaginary journey into Manhattan. A stroll along the bayside offers vistas of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island and the Jersey skyline, and a view uptown of the seemingly unending escarpment of skyscrapers implanted on formerly Dutch colonial farmland.
The primo location has made the area the number one spot for unbuilt ventures. At least a half-dozen “watergates,” elaborate landings for dignitaries arriving by sea; a floating airport, by the genius industrial designer, Norman Bel Geddes; a bridge landing for the Brooklyn-Battery Bridge, in 1939; a Ferry Terminal building, with a giant big-screen clock by the postmodernist architects Venturi, Scott Brown; the list goes on.
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But none can match, for sheer bravado, the Obelisk by the architect Eric Gugler, in 1929. At 800 feet, the “Gateway to America,” would have dwarfed the Washington Monument by 250 feet. On axis with Broadway, the tower would have risen on 16 acres of landfill, extending Manhattan in a broad paved arc 400 feet into the bay. From Broadway, looking south, the obelisk would have stood out. From its observation deck, nearly 65 stories up, Brooklyn, Bayonne, Sandy Hook, Far Rockaway – the very curvature of the Earth – would have been within view.
These days Battery Park, with its unobstructed views of New York Harbor, is best known as the place to queue up to catch the ferry to Ellis Island or the Statue of Liberty. And while Louis Kahn never built his planned Holocaust Memorial on this site, it is also home to Kevin Roche’s ziggurat-shaped Museum of Jewish Heritage.