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Archive for the ‘Common Law Urbanism’ Category

 

I’m happy to report that The American Conservative, in its New Urbs featurehas published my article about the key factors that shaped Late Victorian urbanism in the United States. My piece focuses on this period before zoning, and explores the physical, legal, economic, and cultural phenomena that drove neighborhood development in the absence of comprehensive plans. I chose this period because it has intrigued me for a long time; and because so much of the New Urbanism of today seems to be imitating the forms of that era without necessarily asking the important questions about the larger context that created them. TAC deserves credit for taking a lead in discussing the important dynamic between urban form, society, and sustainable communities. Here’s a nice piece by executive editor Lewis McCrary about the walkability of New Jersey shore towns, many of which I have walked through, and many of which have an urban fabric that dates from the same period that my article describes.

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Woolworth Building
Click on the above photo to see my full album!

My office is just across Park Place from the landmark Woolworth Building. Once the world’s tallest skyscraper, the whimsically Gothic tower still dominates the western edge of New York’s town green. Back in the fall, I took a guided tour of the lobby — which is otherwise off limits — which turned out to be a pretty incredible experience. Here are some pictures.

Would definitely recommend to anyone with an interest in the building itself, early skyscrapers, tesellation and mosaics, the transition from classical to modern architecture, or just the history of American business. The colors are incredible. Likewise, the masonry and marble. Photos in my album begin in the main lobby, then move to the back of the main floor, down into the basement (where a lost entrance to the subway can be found, sealed off), and finally up to the balconies, where you can almost touch the tiled ceilings.

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Click on the above photo to see the full album.

Was up on the walkway of the Manhattan Bridge. The view is really incredible, especially of the rooftops of Chinatown, and the lower stretch of the East River. The walkway sways a little bit in the wind, and — there are subway tracks right beside it — it really shakes when a subway goes by. It’s much less touristy than the Brooklyn Bridge, and still reminds me a little bit of how the city was in the 80s and early 90s: lots of graffiti, neglected infrastructure, homeless people. I saw three street people getting high, and another lying flat on the walkway.

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Around the Hoboken Rail Yard

Just some night photos from the Hoboken rail yards and surrounding blocks. (Click on the above photo to see my full album.)

As much as Hoboken has become a bland commuter city, a lot of the industrial-era infrastructure survives. The waterfronts in Hoboken, Jersey City, and Weehawken once served as a break-of-bulk point for all rail lines coming back to Port of New York from the American interior. In the 19th century, passengers and freight bound for New York City would leave the rails at these stations along the New Jersey waterfront to be ferried across the Hudson River to Manhattan. In the early 20th century, the Hudson Tubes made passenger service into Manhattan possible; and, later, the tunnels to Penn Station allowed the main lines to enter the city. Today, the PATH system still links the sites of three of the old New Jersey terminals: Hoboken (once the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western terminal), as well as Newport (once the Erie terminal) and Exchange Place (once the Pennsylvania Railroad terminal). Here is a map by James R. Irwin, showing the old setup:

new_york_city_railroads_ca_1900

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Surrogates Court
One the most striking buildings in the New York Commons area, the Surrogate’s Courthouse was begun in 1899. In addition to housing the Manhattan probate court it is home to the municipal archives and is therefore sometimes called the Hall of Records.

The Surrogate’s Courthouse has some of the city’s most ornately detailed interior masonry, including heavy columns that support a mezzanine that encircles a soaring atrium. Building materials include variegated colored marble, like something out of classical antiquity. Natural lighting is sparse, and late-Victorian lamp fixtures do not fully compensate. It is enough to create a pervasive gloominess throughout the building. Together, these elements set the tone of its echoing corridors, which comprise a labyrinth of beautiful but eerie spaces — so fitting for a courthouse of this jurisdiction. This building is about death and dusty records, and its architecture reflects those cold facts through darkness and weight, but it also captures the somber and transcendent role of the law in making permanent the legacies of those who are gone. To be anodyne was not a priority in 1899.

Click on the above photo to see my full album.

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Canal Street
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20 Exchange Place
More about the building’s history here. Incredible details. Click on the above photo to see my full album!

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