“The Heart of New York”

Another panorama, but unlike the last one, the photographer didn’t cheat this time. All of the pictures were taken from a single vantage point and can be combined into a reasonably seamless single view. It’s from 1908 or so, and the title refers to the financial district below Chambers Street. The panorama starts looking southeast from a spot high in the air (see below) and a bit north of Chambers Street:

The low building in the lower right, with the octagonal skylight, is the New York County Courthouse except not one has ever called it that. It’s the Tweed Courthouse. North of it, across Cambers Street, is the Emigrant Savings Bank, but not the one that’s there now. This is the 1887 building, not the extant 1910 building. The smallish building to the left of Tweed is the old City Court, soon to be demolished when this photo was taken. The large low building, looking much like a misplaced factory, is the terminal for elevated trains crossing the Brooklyn Bridge; the south end of the Park Row branch of the Second and Third Avenue elevated is just to its left. The tall domed building is the Pulitzer Building, housing the New York World newspaper. What looks like a cluster of buildings to its right is the Tribune Building after its vertical expansion. Shifting slightly to the right:

When Tribune was expanded upwards, its tower was also expanded upwards. The building with a hip roof and open arcade at its top, just to the right of Tribune, is the American Tract Society building at 150 Nassau Street. The building to the right and in front of 150 Nassau is the (old) New York Times building; to the right of the Times is the Potter Building. The low building with a cupola, past Tweed, is City Hall, which is the oldest building in the whole panorama, completed in 1812. Again to the right, looking due south along Broadway:

What’s now the south end of City hall park was then the (old) General Post office, with its loading dock facing north, toward the park. The twin-domed building is the Park Row Building, the St. Paul Building is to its right, and the Singer Tower and City Investing Building are visible a few blocks to the south. The Home Insurance and Postal Telegraph Buildings are on the far right, facing the park. Finally, a little more to the right and west:

This last angle captures the Broadway Chambers Buidling at the far right and the National Shoe and Leather Bank just south of it.

There are a few things to look for in the pictures, starting with the incredible amounts of detail, mostly terra cotta, high up. If you’re taking an architectural style meant for low-rise buildings and stretching it out for skyscrapers, you have a scale problem to address: do you keep the ornament at the right size, making it undersized for the building, or do you keep it proportional to the height, making it much bigger than the ornament on the original buildings in that style. Perhaps the best illustrations are in the last picture, where the acroteria on Broadway Chambers and the cornice on Shoe and Leather are both huge to look the right size from the street.

The density of downtown in those days before zoning is clear, as is the prevalence of smoke from coal-burning boilers. We’re before both the Triangle fire and the 1916 Buidling Code, so even some of the most modern buildings have iron fire shutters on their side walls. New Yorkers had been trained to look at the street facades to evaluate architecture, and the sides facing lot lines are typically very plain in a manner that prefigures modernist facades. Four of the buildings seen and mentioned were the tallest in the world at some point in the twenty years prior to the photo, but none of them looks exceptionally tall by modern standards. Maybe Singer does.

Finally, there’s the question of where the photographer was standing. The block immediately north of Chambers Street is the Sun Building, which is too low for this view, so the likely answer is the roof of the Dun Building, on the east side of Broadway at Reade Street. The picture at the top is a reasonably accurate drawing of the Dun Building, which was demolished in 1975 along with the rest of its block for nothing much – a one-story taxpayer was there for the next fifteen years – and eventually replaced by a high-rise federal office building.

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