New York City contains a wealth of architectural styles, from modest row houses to ornate churches to soaring skyscrapers. Constructed over 300 years, these buildings represent the changing tastes of the city’s residents from Colonial times to the present. A brief look at the city’s most popular styles provides a unique perspective on the city’s past, present, and future.
This style reflects Renaissance ideas made popular in England, and later in the United States, through the publication of books on 16th-century Italian architects. In the United States, the style was seen as an appropriate expression of the relative prosperity and security of the colonies. It was a sharp contrast to the unadorned Colonial style that preceded it.
St. Paul’s Chapel, on Broadway between Vesey and Fulton streets (1764–66, Thomas McBean), the only pre-Revolutionary building remaining in continuous use in Manhattan, is an almost perfect example of the Georgian style, with a pediment, colossal columns, Palladian window, quoins, and balustrade above the roof line. The Morris-Jumel Mansion in Harlem, built in 1765 and billing itself as “Manhattan’s oldest house,” also survives from the late Colonial era. Although it’s a 20th-century reconstruction of a formal English house built here in 1719, Fraunces Tavern, 54 Pearl St., is another fine example of the style.
Federal was the first truly American architectural style. Federal was popular with successful merchants throughout the cities and towns of the eastern seaboard. Its connection to the prosperous empires of Rome and Greece was seen as an appropriate reference for the young United States. In New York, the Federal style was popular for row houses built after the 1811 creation of the city’s grid pattern of avenues and streets.
In the West Village, near and along Bedford Street between Christopher and Morton streets, are more original Federal-style houses than anywhere else in Manhattan. House nos. 4 through 10 (1825–34) on Grove Street, just off Bedford, present one of the most authentic groups of late Federal–style houses in America. Another house from the period that you can see and visit is the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum (ca. 1784) in Inwood, at the northern tip of Manhattan.
Greek Revival (1820–60)
The Greek Revolution in the 1820s, in which Greece won its independence from the Turks, recalled to American intellectuals the democracy of ancient Greece and its elegant architecture, created around 400 B.C. At the same time, the War of 1812 diminished American affection for the British influence, including the still-dominant Federal style. The style was so popular it came to be known as the National Style, and was used for numerous state capitols, as well as the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Perhaps the city’s finest Greek Revival building is Federal Hall National Memorial (1834–42), at 26 Wall St., where George Washington took his presidential oath in 1789. It has a Greek temple front, with Doric columns and a simple pediment, resting on a high base, called a plinth, with a steep flight of steps.
Gothic Revival (1830–60)
The term Gothic Revival refers to a literary and aesthetic movement of the 1830s and 1840s that occurred in England and later in the United States. The revival style was used for everything from timber cottages to stone castles and churches. Some structures had only one or two Gothic features, most commonly a steeply pitched roof or pointed arches, whereas other buildings, usually churches, were accurate copies of English Gothic structures.
Trinity Church, at Broadway and Wall Street (Richard Upjohn, 1846), is one of the most celebrated, authentic Gothic Revival structures in the United States. Here you see all the features of a Gothic church: a steeple, battlements, pointed arches, Gothic tracery, stained-glass windows, flying buttresses (an external bracing system for supporting a roof or vault), and medieval sculptures. This was the tallest building in the area until the late 1860s.
The architecture of Italy served as the inspiration for this building style. Its adaptability made it immensely popular in the 1850s. In New York, the style was used for urban row houses and commercial buildings. The development of cast iron at this time permitted the mass production of decorative features that few could have afforded in carved stone. This led to the creation of cast-iron districts in nearly every American city, including New York.
New York’s SoHo–Cast Iron Historic District has 26 blocks jammed with cast-iron facades, many in the Italianate manner. The single richest section is Greene Street between Houston and Canal streets. Stroll along here and take in building after building of sculptural facades.
Early Skyscraper (1880–1920)
The invention of the skyscraper can be traced directly to the use of cast iron in the 1840s, such as those seen in New York’s SoHo. Experimentation with cast and wrought iron eventually allowed buildings to rise higher. (Previously, buildings were restricted by the height supportable by their load-bearing walls.) Important technical innovations—involving safety elevators, electricity, fireproofing, foundations, plumbing, and telecommunications—combined with advances in skeletal construction to create a new building type, the skyscraper. These buildings were spacious, cost effective, efficient, and quickly erected—in short, the perfect architectural solution for America’s growing downtowns.
Solving the technical problems of the skyscraper, however, did not resolve how the building should look.
New York’s early skyscrapers relied heavily on historical decoration. A good early example in the Beaux Arts mode is the American Surety Company, at 100 Broadway (Bruce Price, 1895). The triangular Flatiron Building, at Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street (Daniel H. Burnham & Co., 1902), has strong tripartite divisions and Renaissance Revival detail. And, finally, the Woolworth Building (Cass Gilbert, 1913), on Broadway at Park Place, dubbed the “Cathedral of Commerce,” is a neo-Gothic skyscraper with flying buttresses, spires, sculptured gargoyles, and pointed arches.
Beaux Arts (1890–1920)
This style takes its name from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where a number of prominent American architects (including Richard Morris Hunt [1827–95], John Mervin Carrère [1858–1911], and Thomas Hastings [1860–1929], to name only a few) received their training, beginning around the mid–19th century. These architects adopted the academic design principles of the Ecole, which emphasized the study of Greek and Roman structures, composition, and symmetry, and the creation of elaborate presentation drawings. Because of the idealized origins and grandiose use of classical forms, the Beaux Arts in America was seen as the ideal style for expressing civic pride.
New York has several exuberant Beaux Arts buildings, exhibiting the style’s key features. The New York Public Library, at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street (Carrère & Hastings, 1911), is perhaps the best example. Others of note are Grand Central Terminal, at 42nd Street and Park Avenue (Reed & Stem and Warren & Whetmore, 1903–13), and the U.S. Customs House (Cass Gilbert, 1907), on Bowling Green between State and Whitehall streets.
International Style (1920–45)
In 1932, the Museum of Modern Art hosted its first architecture exhibit, titled simply “Modern Architecture.” Displays included images of International Style buildings from around the world, many designed by architects from Germany’s Bauhaus, a progressive design school. The structures shared a stark simplicity and functionalism, a definite break from historically based, decorative styles.
The International Style was popularized in the U.S. through the teachings and designs of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969), a German émigré based in Chicago. Interpretations of the “Miesian” International Style were built in most U.S. cities, including New York, as late as 1980. Two famous examples of this style are the Seagram Building, at 375 Park Ave. (Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 1958), and Lever House, 390 Park Ave., between 53rd and 54th streets (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, 1952). The latter is credited for popularizing the use of plazas and glass curtain walls. Another well-known example is the Secretariat building in the United Nations complex, at First Avenue and 46th Street (1947–53), designed by an international committee of architects.
Art Deco (1925–40)
Art Deco is a decorative style that took its name from a Paris exposition in 1925. The jazzy style embodied the idea of modernity. One of the first widely accepted styles not based on historic precedents, it influenced all areas of design, from jewelry and household goods to cars, trains, and ocean liners.
Art Deco buildings are characterized by a linear, hard edge, or angular composition, often with a vertical emphasis and highlighted with stylized decoration. The New York zoning law of 1916, which required setbacks in buildings above a certain height to ensure that light and air could reach the street, gave the style its distinctive profile.
Despite the effects of the Depression, several major Art Deco structures were built in New York in the 1930s, often providing crucial jobs. Rockefeller Center (Raymond Hood, 1932–40), a complex that sprawls from 48th to 50th streets, between Fifth and Sixth avenues, includes 30 Rockefeller Plaza, a tour de force of Art Deco style, with a soaring, vertical shaft and aluminum details. The Chrysler Building, Lexington Avenue at 42nd Street (William Van Alen, 1930), is a towering tribute to the automobile. The Chrysler’s needlelike spire with zigzag patterns in glass and metal is a distinctive feature on the city’s skyline. The famous Empire State Building, Fifth Avenue at 34th Street (Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, 1931), contains a black-and-silver-toned lobby among its many Art Deco features.
After years of steel-and-glass office towers in the International Style, postmodernism burst on the scene in the 1970s with the reintroduction of historical precedents in architecture. With many feeling that the office towers of the previous style were too cold, postmodernists began to incorporate classical details and recognizable forms into their designs—often applied in outrageous proportions. The Sony Building, at 550 Madison Ave. (Philip Johnson/John Burgee, 1984), brings the distinctive shape of a Chippendale cabinet to the New York skyline. The Morgan Bank Headquarters, 60 Wall St. (Kevin Roche, John Dinkeloo & Assocs., 1988), resembles a classical column, with modern interpretations of a base, shaft, and capital. The base of the column mirrors the style of the facade of the 19th-century building across the street.
The new building boom at the beginning of the 21st century has brought edifices designed by such modern architectural giants as Frank Gehry, who designed the IAC Building on West 18th Street with the look of billowing curtains and the tallest residential building in the Americas 8 Spruce Street; by Sir Norman Foster, who designed the geometrically patterned Hearst Tower at 300 W. 57th St.; and by Renzo Piano, who designed the 52-story headquarters of the New York Times at 620 Eighth Ave. at 42nd Street, which opened in 2007 (and was climbed by not one, but two, “human spiders” on the same day in June 2008!). Piano also took charge of the vast makeover and addition to the Morgan Library, completed in 2006 as well as the new Whitney Museum, which opened in 2016 in the Meatpacking District.