June 21, 2024

New York’s Lost Buildings

New York is a famously busy place, and the changing face of the city sometimes sweeps its past aside. Here are some of New York's lost buildings, and what replaced them.


Fifth Ave and 33rd Street

New York's lost buildings: The Waldorf-Astoria

New York's lost buildings: The Waldorf-Astoria
The Waldorf-Astoria

The Astor family were originally from Germany, and migrated to America, via England, in the 18th century. The family patriarch, John Jacob Astor, made his living as a humble fur trapper, but by the 1890's the family were America's wealthiest, having assembled a vast portfolio of real estate.

New York's lost buildings: The Waldorf-Astoria
The opulent interior

In 1893, heir to the fortune (and John Jacob's great-grandson) William Waldorf Astor demolished the family mansion at 33rd and 5th, and built in its place the Waldorf hotel. 13 stories high, with palatial public areas, electric fixtures, and baths and telephones in every room, it was instantly the world's grandest hotel.

But it's acclaim didn't last long. Four years later, Waldorf's cousin and rival, John Jacob Astor IV, would build The Astoria Hotel, right next door. Similarly appointed, but four stories higher, The Astoria was designed to eclipse the Waldorf, as New York's premier venue.

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and the two Astor cousins were convinced to join forces. A 300 foot marble corridor was constructed, linking the two hotels above street level, with the new premises rebadged as The Waldorf-Astoria (dubbed 'Peacock Alley' by locals).

33 and Fifth, present day
33 and Fifth, present day.

The grand hotel lasted three decades. By 1928, both Astor cousins were deceased, and the hotel was sold for redevelopment. The entire block it stood on was eventually razed, to make way for the Empire State Building, completed in 1931.


Broadway and Liberty Street

New York's lost buildings: The Singer Building

New York's lost buildings: The Singer Building
The Singer Building

Founded in Scotland in 1853, by the start of the 20th century 'Singer' was the world's leading manufacturer of sewing machines. Singer machines were so popular, in fact, that demand regularly outstripped supply, and the company sold more machines annually than all other manufacturers combined.

Singer Building interior, NYC
Singer building interior.

So it's no surprise that for it's American headquarters, Singer would build on a grand scale.

Constructed over three years, from 1906 to 1908, the Singer Building on Broadway was, at 41 stories, the world's tallest. It's stunning red and blue granite tower, with the company offices right at the top, was one of New York's best known landmarks in the first half of the twentieth century.

One Liberty Plaza, NYC
One Liberty Plaza; same location, present day.

But, post World War II, sewing machine sales declined and the company eventually decided to sell their iconic building. After an unsuccessful attempt to convince the New York Stock Exchange to take over the property, the Singer Building was sold for redevelopment. United States Steel eventually purchased the premises, which was demolished in 1967. It was replaced by the rather nondescript 'One Liberty Plaza.'


Sixth Avenue

New York's lost buildings: The Hippodrome

New York's lost buildings: The Hippodrome, interior
The Hippodrome; NYC's biggest theatre.

On April 12, 1905, the Hippodrome theatre on Sixth Avenue opened with a riotous 4 hour extravaganza; clowns, elephants, a 60 piece orchestra, 150 dancers, spaceships, fireworks, there was even a serious theatre piece about the civil war.

With more than 5 000 seats, and a central location not far from Times Square, at a stroke the Hippodrome established itself as New York's biggest, liveliest venue.

Houdini appears at the Hippodrome
Houdini and Jenny, the elephant.

It retained this rank for the next two decades. The Hippodrome specialised in vaudeville reviews, sometimes augmented with big name performers; in 1918, Harry Houdini created a sensation in New York when he performed his disappearing elephant trick, live on stage.

Later the venue would be used as a cinema and, as it fell on hard times, for a whole grab bag of live entertainments; wrestling, daredevils, animal acts, and penny operas.

The Hippodrome Building, NYC
The Hippodrome Building; the same site, present day.

But even in the glory years, it was difficult to make such a large venue economically sound.

The Great Depression damaged the theatre's business, and World War II finished it off. The Hippodrome closed in August 1939, and was demolished shortly afterwards. Incredibly, the site then sat vacant for 13 years, until a modern office building - named after the theatre - was constructed in 1952.


Seventh and Eight Avenue - 31st to 33rd Street

New York's lost buildings: The original Penn Station
Penn Station, 1910.
New York's lost buildings: The original Penn Station
Penn station at night, 1940's.

For many architecture and history buffs, this is the lost building.

Built in 1910 and occupying four full city blocks, the original Penn Station was designed to provide a grand entrance to rail travellers arriving in NYC. With its enormous, high ceiling-ed halls, exposed iron fixtures, and vast granite passageways, Penn Station was the city's grandest public building.

New York's lost buildings: The original Penn Station, interior

New York's lost buildings: The original Penn Station, interior
The interior of the station.

But the building's enormous scale made it difficult to maintain. And as air travel became cheaper, and the US government expanded their 'Interstate' highway network, rail passenger numbers began to decline. By the 1950's, the station was in a diminished state; dirty, in need of repairs, and increasingly less profitable.

In 1962 the Pennsylvania Railroad, the private company that ran the station, decided to sell the surface land for redevelopment. The existing rail network was to be concentrated on underground platforms, while the existing above ground station was set to be demolished and replaced with a new sports arena, and an office block.

Madison Square Gardens under construction
Madison Square Gardens, under construction.
Penn Station entrance, present day
Penn Station, present day.

Despite a sustained public outcry - the New York Times called the plan 'vandalism' - Penn Station was demolished in 1964. To be fair to the conveners of this plan, the new sporting arena that took its place, Madison Square Gardens, has since become an iconic part of the city. The Penn Station building, a modern, mixed use office block, is a little less inspiring.


5th Avenue and West 57th Street

New York's lost buildings: Cornelius Vanderbilt House

Cornelius Vanderbilt was a great American success story.

Born into a poor family on Staten Island in 1794, Vanderbilt left school at 11 to work in the family business; ferrying freight across New York in a small boat. By the time he was 16, he had his own vessel, and by the time he was 19, he had two. And by the time he was 23, he was the business manager for a large firm that controlled shipping around New York harbour.

This lucrative position provided him the capital to invest in still bigger industries; international shipping (predominantly with Europe), and then the railways, as they expanded across America. By his early 40's, Vanderbilt had risen from his humble start to be one of the wealthiest men on earth.

New York's lost buildings: The Vanderbilt mansion, on 5th Ave.
The Vanderbilt mansion, on 5th Ave.

His son, Cornelius the Second, inherited the family fortune on his father's death, in 1882. He immediately set about building a grand residence for himself; demolishing three brownstones on Fifth Avenue (then New York's most prestigious residential street) to make room for an enormous mansion. The luxuriously appointed residence, the largest ever constructed in the city, was completed in 1883.

New York's lost buildings: Cornelius Vanderbilt House, 1920s
Early 1920's; the Vanderbilt House overshadowed by skyscrapers.

But Cornelius did not get to enjoy his mansion for long. He suffered a stroke in 1886 and passed away that year, leaving the property to his widow, Alice. She continued to live in the house for the next thirty years, as the surrounding neighbourhood grew up around it. But eventually, one by one, the residential properties in the area were sold off and replaced by hotels and office buildings.

The Bergdorf Goodman Department store, NYC
The Bergdorf Goodman Department Store.
Vanderbilt House gates in Central Park
Vanderbilt Gates in Central Park.

The Vanderbilt House was finally sold and demolished in 1926, replaced by the Bergdorf Goodman Department Store, which still stands on the site to this day. The gates from the old Vanderbilt property can be found in Central Park.


5th Avenue and West 76th Street

New York's lost buildings: Temple Beth-El
Temple Beth-El; once considered the finest synagogue in the US.

New York's lost buildings: Temple Beth-El

In 1891, the New York Jewish Congregation Beth-El sold their synagogue on Lexington Ave, and relocated to a grand new building on 5th Ave. Temple Beth-El, as it was known, was a vast, and striking, construction; the edifice combined Moorish and Roman designs, and the gold topped dome could be seen for miles around.

Temple Beth-El, New York, interior
Temple Beth-El, interior.

The elaborate interior was constructed out of gold, onyx and marble, and was large enough to accommodate 3 000 people. The temple's total cost was $600 000, an enormous sum at the time.

But while Temple Beth-El immediately became a well known Jewish landmark, it was in use for a surprisingly short time. By the late 1920's, Congregation Beth-El had decided to merge with the larger Congregation Emanu-El, and relocate to their synagogue on 65th Street. Temple Beth-El was still used sporadically after this, with the last service conducted in 1929.

Temple Beth-El location, present day
The same site, present day.

Sadly, after this time, the building fell into disrepair. By the time it was sold, in the early 1940s, it was a shadow of its former self; the interior was riddled with holes, and had been stripped of its valuable materials, and the doors and windows were boarded up. In 1945, the temple was demolished and replaced by an apartment building.


Seventh Ave, Central Park South

New York's lost buildings: The Navarro Flats

Perched like a Gothic fortress overlooking Central Park, the Navarro Flats were designed to provide a new standard of luxury living in New York. Built by Spanish entrepreneur Jose Francisco de Navarro in 1882, the outsize complex, also known as the 'Spanish Flats', was actually comprised of 8 separate apartment buildings.

New York's lost buildings: The Navarro Flats
The Navarro Flats.

Most of the apartments were duplexes; epic 7 000 square feet premises, with their own drawing room, billiard room and library. But the price tag for such opulence was hefty; $20 000, plus an annual service fee, pricing it out of the reach of most  New Yorkers.

And so, despite the lavishness of the building, and the publicity that surrounded its opening, the project was doomed to failure. Only a small number of the apartments were sold, and Navarro himself was soon heavily in debt, and pursued by his creditors.

Navarro Flats location, NYC, present day

The Navarro Flats were demolished in 1926, and replaced by the modern (at the time) Hampshire and Essex buildings. Both are still standing, to this day.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *