Never Built New York, a new exhibition at the Queens Museum in New York City, examines some of the ridiculous (and occasionally brilliant) alternative outcomes for the Big Apple. The history of what might have been is just as fascinating as what is, with skyscraper bridges and a real glass dome above Midtown Manhattan, among other fascinating possibilities.
The curators of the exhibition, Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell gave BuzzFeed News a pick of some of the most peculiar designs on display. Here is how New York City would have appeared if events had taken a slightly different course.
The Ellis Island Key Plan, 1959
Frank Lloyd Wright’s original idea was for the replacement of Ellis Island when it was shut down with a “city within a city.” On top of terraced, circular plazas, living areas were positioned in the middle, with infinite programs fanning out around the edges. Despite having the highest bid—that of the Damon Doudt Corporation, which employed Wright—no team ultimately prevailed, and Ellis Island later became a recognized national historic site.
The 1870 Gilbert’s Elevated Railway
Rufus Henry Gilbert was granted a patent for his “pneumatic railway” in 1870. Riders were propelled around the city by compressed air flowing through two rows of what Gilbert referred to as “atmospheric tubes.” The 24-foot-tall wrought-iron Gothic arches that held up the raised tubes were supported by thin, fluted Corinthian columns. The state government granted Gilbert a charter in 1872 to construct his elevated pneumatic railway, but the Panic of 1873 caused Wall Street to crash the following year.
Battery Park Obelisk, 1929
In order to commemorate World War I, Eric Gugler, a significant member of the city’s Regional Planning Association, suggested building an obelisk on 16 acres of Battery Park’s landfill. With a visitors gallery and beacon rising around 600 feet above sea level, it would have been about 250 feet taller than the Washington Monument at 800 feet tall.
Not only from the bay but also throughout Broadway and throughout the entirety of lower Manhattan and beyond, the obelisk would have been visible. Robert Moses, who was at odds with the Regional Planning Association over his proposed Brooklyn-Battery Bridge, which RPA had criticized as an “unjustifiable defacement” of the Battery, ultimately put an end to the idea. Moses was never able to build his bridge, and Gugler also never received his obelisk.
1925 skyscraper bridges
The East and Hudson Rivers would be traversed by apartment-lined bridges as part of Raymond Hood’s design for skyscraper bridges. This notion never really took off. Although he published his strategy in the New York Times Magazine, no client ever expressed interest in it.
In the early 20th century, many plans were put up to alleviate the terrible congestion issues the city was experiencing. If these had been constructed, it would have completely altered how we think about density in New York. Perhaps there would have been more daring construction projects on landfills and creative uses for wasted land and infrastructure.
1961’s The Dome Over Manhattan
In 1961, Buckminster Fuller changed his original plan to cover midtown Manhattan with a 2-mile-diameter geodesic dome. The dome would be three times as tall as the Empire State Building, be centered on 42nd Street, and extend from 29th Street to 62nd Street from the river to the river.
This larger geodesic dome by Fuller was constructed using thousands of aluminum struts and covered with wire-reinforced, shatterproof glass. Any snow or ice would evaporate thanks to the electrical cables that were woven into the dome’s skin. The idea was to build a climate-controlled area that would save the city a tonne of electricity.
The dome was never much more than a paper concept. When entrepreneur William Zeckendorf urged Fuller to create one for his Yonkers Raceway, the idea came closest to becoming a reality. That was a bust.
1963: The ABC Office Building
The 1963 ABC-TV tower designed by Bertrand Goldberg was created as a retort to the boxy CBS “Black Rock” Building by Eero Saarinen. The white office skyscraper with a black antenna tower that is nearly three times as tall was created by a Chicago architect to resemble a squiggly waveform.
Two attenuated cones that were joined in the middle made up the flying antenna tower. A spinning top-shaped enclosed observation chamber measuring 47 feet in diameter was 1,323 feet above the street. ABC’s executives scoffed at the radical suggestion and cried poverty, especially when Goldberg put secretaries in offices with views that were on par with those of their bosses.
1904’s Diagonal Plan
One of many suggestions for new avenues and diagonals, all aimed at reducing traffic in Manhattan, was to cut a new street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues from Penn Station to 53rd Street. The general plan was to span the grid with a cat’s cradle of diagonals, as well as streets like Fifth and Half Avenue.
Mayors, architects, and civic officials all supported the construction of additional roadways, but none of them—neither diagonal nor straight—were ever created because powerful real estate interests refused to part with their priceless assets. Even if they were, the costs would have been absurd and the city would have had to drastically raise its tax rate, which was cause for rebellion both then and still.
In 1964, at the New York World’s Fair, the Galaxon Pavilion
The Portland Cement Company’s Galaxon was planned as the main attraction of the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Paul Rudolph created it. It was a tower for observing stars that resembled a satellite dish. Instead, the Unisphere, a globe-shaped structure, was selected by the fair’s organizers as a representation of global cooperation.
The Flushing Meadow Corona Park would have had a considerably larger focal point and possibly garnered more attention after the World’s Fair had this been constructed. Although the World’s Fair did emphasize futurism and space-age innovations, this monument would have steered the event even more strongly in the direction of the galaxy.
American Indian National Memorial, 1909
Rodman Wanamaker was the inspiration behind the memorial. He and Buffalo Bill were out to dinner one night in 1909 when he came up with the concept for “The Great Bronze Column of Staten Island,” a massive monument to be built for New York Harbor. The idea changed, and a few years later Wanamaker’s monument assumed the shape of the New York Public Library, with buffalo flanking it and a massive effigy of an Indian chief perched atop. Wanamaker had grown disenchanted with his own invention by 1913.
One Staten Island resident summed up the architectural legacy and impact perfectly when he said, “Had one man’s grandiose vision been realized, the first sight to greet immigrants arriving in the New World after 1913 would have been something more nearly resembling the world’s largest cigar-store Indian, rather than Bartholdi’s graceful, torch-bearing Goddess of Liberty.”
1860–1863: The Central Park Gates
Richard Morris Hunt, who would go on to become one of the city’s most significant architects, persuaded the city’s park commissioners to accept his proposal in 1863 to construct a number of imposing entrances to the tranquil Central Park. Morris aimed to “protect the grand effect” in order to prevent the park’s entrances from being overshadowed by the city’s burgeoning architecture. Entrances to the park would be in the foreground rather than the backdrop.
Hunt’s gates were criticized severely by Calvert Vaux, who collaborated with Frederick Law Olmsted to construct the new park, who called them “Napoleon III in masquerade all over.” The gates represented the empire, while the park represented democracy. Vaux’s perspective won out.
1929: The Met Life North Annex
Just to the north of the Met Life building, Harvey Wiley Corbett and Dan Everett Waid were to construct the highest skyscraper in the world for the Metropolitan Life Corporation. Corbett’s design for Rockefeller Center was reflected in its Art Deco design. It was first suggested in 1929, but due to the Great Depression, it was scaled back from almost 100 stories to just 31 stories.
But the foundation was the same. The Flatiron District, and Madison Square, in particular, would likely have new midtown with extremely tall skyscrapers reaching in all directions thanks to this significant precedent.
1906 The Coney Island Globe
The Coney Island Globe, designed by Samuel Friede, was intended to be a 700-foot-tall, cast-iron entertainment complex for Coney Island that would house vaudeville theatres, circus rings, ballrooms, a roller-skating rink, and a number of other attractions. Additionally, it would have given sweeping panoramas of the region. In essence, it combined the Steeplechase Park, Luna Park, and Dreamland activities into a single structure.
Friede had no intention of implementing the plan. He stole millions of dollars from investors, and the treasurer of his business was detained for theft. In his book Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas mentioned Friede’s Globe and referred to it as “an enormous steel globe that has landed into a replica of the Eiffel Tower.”
1945: Manhattan Airport
A greater than 30-block-long airport proposal by developer William Zeckendorf would border the Hudson River. The proposal was instantly rejected by Robert Moses as absurd. Manhattan residents would have a far shorter trip to catch an airline if it had been completed. However, there would be far more traffic and noise from airplanes. Moreover, some ominous approaching.
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