Walking the Grid

It is the 200th anniversary of the Commissioners’ Map and Survey of Manhattan Island and the organisation of NYC into the grid system, with east to west as streets and north to south as avenues. Interestingly Broadway was an old trade route and as it would have been too disruptive to move it, it remained the only diagonal road. This gives us the triangular plots where it itsersects the grid, these have often become parks and public spaces.

To learn more I signed up for the ‘Walking the Grid’ Tour with the Municipal Arts Society of New York City. The tour was very enjoyable, being surrounded by New Yorkans (New Yorkites, Yorkads, Yorkers?… er, at a loss guys, sorry) keen to learn more and explore the history of their city. I had not realised it was a local society and this gave an interesting perspective. Unusually (for me) it was assumed I was from New York and as a result a lot of the information was from an American and New York perspective and some of the important figures mentioned had significance locally that I lacked. I informed the Guide of my project and he assured me there was plenty of terracotta and this proved not to be a disappointment.

I enjoyed Francis Morrone, the guide’s presentation style. He started with the buidling, its designer and providence and then filled in with its history and interesting social story. The tour explored the streets from Union Square to Madison Square, which are special and interesting in that the layers of history are visible and the adaptations made throughout time can been seen and understood.

We saw several of the famous C19 architects’ offices, which I found particuarly interesting, I guess this is where the people and the social history really meet the architecture for me. And I’m sure everyone finds it interestng to see the place where great artists, or designers work from, what their view is, what their desk is like, the tool they have to hand and the pictures they have on the wall.

The highlights for me were some of Stanford White’s buildings, lavishly dripping in moulded terracotta decoration:

It really was raining heavily throughout, so I didn’t dare get my camera out often and the quality of the images reflects the weather too, apologies.

And we also saw the McKim, Mead and White offices, which although these were the most prevelent architects of the time, described to have designed a building every 10 blocks in the New ork City, their offices are not designed byt hem and are in fact rather bland. It seems like any other company they got the most appropriate site for their offices based on price and availability at the time.

I also enjoyed the handsome Goelet building at 900 Broadway, also by McKim, Mead and White with simple and elegant brickwork detailing:

Here I encountered Beechers Homemade Cheese Company, who now occupy the site, I think I may have to return!

We spent some time discussing ‘lofts’ which today have quite a different meaning today from when they were built as untilitarian, industrial spaces, the erection of which could signify the death of an area.

There was far too much shared to describe here, but I would certainly recommend the tours as a different way of exploring the city in fine historic magnification.

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