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Chelsea Agonistes

The dance of construction around the High Line

Derailed by the death of my mother and a few work projects, I took my eye off this blog for awhile, and have only now begun the process of revising a few pieces that fell out of date. First: the “What’s That Building?” guide. I’ve updated this feature to include many new buildings that have popped up around the High Line in the past couple of years, and also re-formatted it so the photos are larger. In the process of updating I removed the “glimpses of architecture” we can see in the distance — towers, spires, domes — and created a separate page that identifies them; it too is (roughly) organized from south to north. “What’s That Building?” is the most trafficked piece on the site, so I’m happy to have it back in good shape. Thanks to the readers who wrote and gently nudged me.

Writing about new buildings in my neighborhood is tricky because the presence of so much heavy construction is extremely hard on the nerves. I find myself hitting the delete key more often than usual in an effort to maintain composure and objectivity. There are several large projects on my block alone, and we must endure the noise, dirt, blocked traffic and fumes from idling vehicles all day and also (incredibly) late into the night. Developers in this town have so much power and influence that they are able to routinely get permission to work long hours; in our case, work begins at 7am and continues until 11pm, six days a week. And we are lucky; the developer (Albanese in partnership with Vornado) has been extremely responsive to complaints and requests from residents, and the crews are polite and highly focused on worker and pedestrian safety. But there’s only so much they can do. Modern construction requires gigantic machines, sky-piercing cranes, massive flatbed trucks, endless parades of cement mixers, and brutally intrusive, never-extinguished LED klieg lights that cast a creepy, bone-white glow in bedrooms across the street and down the block.

It can feel sometimes that no one cares about the actual people who live on these blocks that are being re-made all over the city. My downstairs neighbor has a small child whose bedroom window looks out on the construction project. Who cares about the late-night disruption to a toddler? Does the Mayor? The Buildings Dept.? The developer? The truck driver? Probably not; their interests are to make the city (and their pocketbooks) hum, one way or another. And so the rest of us suffer through it, doing our best to be good citizens who somehow see, and celebrate, the benefits of all this “progress.” It would be so much easier to accept if at least half of all this new construction were devoted to affordable housing. We would still suffer the long, ugly barrage of construction, but at least, at the end of it, our neighborhoods would retain the diversity that drew most of us here in the first place. But that is a subject for another post. [continue reading…]

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High Line Architecture: The Whitney Museum

New Home for the Whitney. Choto courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

New Home for the Whitney. Photo courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

When architect Renzo Piano speaks about the Whitney Museum of American Art he uses his entire body to illustrate the artistic intent of his new building. During the museum’s official dedication ceremony he gestured first to the east, and a view that cuts across Manhattan Island. “This building talks to the city,” he said, then turned left and pointed to the Hudson River. “It also talks to rest of the country: all the way west, to Los Angeles, if you look carefully,” and then to the world beyond. This new building, with its massive windows and expansive 360 degree views, seems designed to enable a sort of outward-looking contemplation and engagement that most museums, with their emphasis on what’s inside, right in front of you, don’t encourage.  “I’m pretty sure that beauty will save the world,” Piano said, and this new home for one of the country’s foremost collections of American art makes the point at every turn that all the beauty inside is made more powerful by its connection to a greater, wider landscape.

This is the fifth article in my series “High Line Architecture.” Like the previous other pieces, it’s not an architectural or aesthetic review but instead a look the history of the place a building occupies, and a contemplation of how the landscape around the High Line has changed over time. (See below for links to the previous articles; as always, click an image to enlarge it.)

Renzo Piano: "I'm pretty sure that beauty will save the world."

Renzo Piano: “I’m pretty sure that beauty will save the world.”

There’s something felicitous about the fact that this quintessentially American institution, one that celebrates creative inventiveness and innovation, sits on land that’s man-made.  When the first Europeans arrived at these shores in 1609, they would have sailed or paddled over the spot where the Whitney now stands.  Gradually, beginning in the early 19th century, this watery area was filled in so an early generation of developers and real-estate schemers could start building stuff on it. Like much of the far West Side — virtually everything west of Tenth Avenue, including the High Line — the Whitney sits not on Manhattan schist but on landfill. (Interestingly, as the map below shows, the High Line roughly follows the landfill line all the way to the Rail Yards. This makes a walk from one end of the park to the other a great way to contemplate not only how we transformed what was on our island but also how we transformed the geography of the island itself.)

The original 1609 shoreline (dotted line), a Lenape Indian Trail, and the High Line.

The original 1609 shoreline and the High Line. Map by Marty Schnure.

The huge complex of buildings across the street from the Whitney, the West Coast Apartments, is another example of  ingenuity: modern commercial refrigeration was pioneered here. In the late 1890s, the Manhattan Refrigerating Company developed one of the earliest and most technologically advanced cold-storage facilities, based on a complex system of underground pipes that fed cooled water from the Hudson River into a huge, multi-storey warehouse that eventually would connect with the High Line, itself an innovation that opened in 1934.

This little patch of land(fill) also has a long and distinguished foodie history. As early as 1879 there were outdoor farmers’ markets here; the neighborhood was filled with merchants who came from all over New York state, from Long Island to the Hudson Valley, to sell poultry, meat, seafood, eggs, butter, vegetables, beer. You can still trip over the Belgian block (also known as cobblestones) that were here long ago, or take refuge from a downpour under the metal canopies that sheltered grocers in rainy weather.

The photo below is from the first decade of the 20th century and shows the area where the Whitney now stands. This year two restaurants — Santina (under the High Line) and Untitled (in the Whitney) — opened on this very spot, each in a virtual glass box with windows onto the street and a commitment to serving food made from local farmers and growers. Generations removed from the men who came here with horse and donkey carts, they include a welcome 21st century cohort: urban farmers who grow produce on rooftops in Brooklyn and Queens.

But the rich food history stretches back even further:  long before there was a railroad or a farmers’ market here, the area was a prime hunting and fishing grounds for the Lenape people. Using data from the Welikia Project, the 1609 shoreline map also shows the location of a Lenape Indian trail that runs over land now occupied by the handful of remaining meatpacking plants that still operate underneath the High Line and gave the neighborhood its name.

Farmers' Market at Gansevoort Street, circa 1910s. Courtesy NY Public Library

Farmers’ Market at Gansevoort Street, circa 1910s. Courtesy NY Public Library

The Whitney site was also important in the military history of the United States: in 1808, in anticipation of a war against Britain, a fort was hastily built here on pilings erected in the Hudson River. Known as Fort Gansevoort, it was named after the revolutionary war hero Peter Gansevoort.  Some five decades later, Gansevoort’s grandson, Herman Melville, would spend almost twenty years just across the street at the Gansevoort Dock, where he worked as a Customs Inspector.

Fort Gansevoort, Coursey New York Public Library

Fort Gansevoort, Coursey New York Public Library

All this history: food, trains, technology, soldiering. A bit of river at the edge of a forest becomes a fort, a farmers market, a multi-storey refrigerated warehouse with a railroad passing through it, a world-class park and now an art museum that urges us to look outward, through its many windows, onto the wide and complex world we inhabit. Inside, the museum deploys art and artists to push the boundaries ever farther and inspire and challenge those acts of contemplation and engagement.

The whole project feels experimental, even radical. On the fifth floor, the architects provided a sitting area that runs the length of the museum and faces west, encouraging visitors to sit and contemplate the Hudson River. All day long the boats go by: water taxis, ferries, oil tankers, cargo ships, police vessels, luxury yachts, cruise ships, kayaks and barges carrying gasoline and home heating oil, like the one in my photo below. On the West Side Highway cars, trucks and motorcycles rumble along. Between the river and the highway cyclists, bladers and skateboarders glide by on the bike path. All the while, visitors in the new Whitney Museum are sitting and watching. Behind and above them, racing across the wall and visible to all those mariners, drivers, cyclists and pedestrians outside, are the “Running People” of Jonathan Borofsky, an artist known for works that capture figures in movement: people walking, running, flying. This museum, resting on its man-made foundation in a place saturated with invention and history, has taken us into a new era of art appreciation, one where we are always engaging and never quite sitting still.

Piano conveyed everything the new Whitney stands for when he said, in his closing remarks: “Thank you for coming. The building is yours.”


“Running People at 2,616,216” (1978 – 79) by Jonathan Borofsky. The Whitney Museum of American Art, 5th floor, the inaugural exhibition “America is Hard to See.”




To learn more about the Gansevoort Market area of the West Village, read Tony Robins’ excellent walking tour which is filled with history and illustrations. Download a PDF or read it online here.

Architecture on the High Line
: click the image below to read previous posts in the series

Tim Saternow Furniture Exchange Warehouse, 525 West 22nd Street, 1940 (Spears Building), 2010 Watercolor on paper, 60x40”

The Spears Building







The Morgan Mail Facility

Cass Gilbert-designed warehouse, now Avenues School

RC Williams Warehouse / Avenues School

The Westyard Distribution Center

Westyard Distribution Center







High Line Architecture: The Spears Building

Tim Saternow Furniture Exchange Warehouse, 525 West 22nd Street, 1940 (Spears Building), 2010 Watercolor on paper, 60x40”

Tim Saternow, Furniture Exchange Warehouse, 525 West 22nd Street, 1940 (Spears Building), 2010 Watercolor on paper, 60×40”

The fourth entry in the High Line Architecture series is the Spears Building at 525 West 22nd Street.

Once a furniture warehouse operated by Spear & Co., this sprawling, handsome brick building was constructed in 1880 by Kinney Brothers and used as a cigarette packing factory. Kinney was a unit of the giant American Tobacco Company, and until it was broken up by antitrust laws it controlled more than 90% of the tobacco market in the USA. Kinney had a large operation on 22nd Street, capable of putting out 18,000,000 cigarettes each week. 600 people worked in the factory complex, which consisted of several other buildings on the block.

In 1892 a five-alarm fire gutted the entire factory, destroying tens of millions cigarettes. Thankfully the fire started early in the morning and no one was injured, but damage was extensive.  This sad event prompted one of my all-time favorite New York Times headlines, which ran on October 7, 1892: “One Fiend Beats Another: Fire Smokes Forty Million Cigarettes in Short Order.” Imagine that: the smoke from 40 million cigarettes burning just above the lawn on today’s High Line….

By the time Robert Moses was envisioning an elevated freight railroad in the 1920s, the warehouse had been taken over by Spear & Co., and instead of cigarettes it was filled with furniture.  In 1931 a section of the complex on the east-facing side was torn down to accommodate the High Line. Tim Saternow’s marvelous painting (above) captures the street scene of the 1940s, including the old street lamps and iconic water towers that still sit atop the building.

Like the R.C. Williams wholesale grocer a few blocks to the north, Spear & Co. installed loading docks along the side of its warehouse so trains could expeditiously load furniture onto box cars for distribution around the country. (Today, the stadium-style “seating steps” of the High Line cover the area where the rail sidings were.) Spear & Co.’s headquarters were in Pittsburgh and they operated several retail stores in Manhattan, including a large one on 34th Street next to the Empire State Building, one in Brooklyn, and the cool Art Deco building that appears in the photo below on Jamaica Avenue in Queens. The company motto, “We give you time,” appeared prominently on its storefronts; on the Queens store, it wraps around the clock on the building’s facade just below the company name. [For more about the Spears furniture business see this excellent article in Brownstoner.]

Spear's Furniture retail store in Queens. Photo: NY Public Library

Spear’s Furniture retail store in Queens. Photo: NY Public Library

Saternow’s painting depicts a familiar scene on the industrial West Side during the early decades of the 20th century: the mix of rail and trucks that moved goods around the city and the country.  In an odd coincidence, the general manager of Spear & Co., Arthur S. Guggenheim, died on a train en route from his home in Pittsburgh to Penn Station; it was the same year that Tim Saternow’s painting depicts: 1940.

The b&w photo below was taken in 1934  from the newly opened freight viaduct, looking north from 21st Street. It shows the Spear & Co. warehouse on the left, and the Guardian Angel School (right foreground) which was originally located on 23rd Street. The New York Central Railroad paid the church to move to its current location, on Tenth Avenue and 21st Street, since it was blocking the path of the viaduct — a reminder that this neighborhood has always been a work-in-progress.

Spear & Company furniture warehouse, from the High Line, 1934. Courtesy West Side Improvement Project brochure

Spear & Company furniture warehouse, from the High Line at 21st Street, 1934. Courtesy West Side Improvement Project brochure

After the last train ran along the High Line in 1980 the viaduct was abandoned, and over time transformed into an invisible (at least from the street) spontaneous garden. Rick Darke’s photo (below) shows an intriguing little path made by trespassers — precursor to the more popular one that would replace it some three decades later — plus a few birds sitting like notes on a musical staff, looking down on a peaceful wild garden in the middle of the city.

The Spears Building, looking north from 20th Street. Photo by Rick Darke.

The Spears Building, looking north from 20th Street. Photo by Rick Darke.

The photo below shows the abandoned loading dock along with a multitude of graffiti that once covered the building. The NYC graffiti police removed most of the graffiti from the High Line during remediation, but on the Spears Building they left the famous REVS COST tag along with faded remnants of a few others. Running down the southeast corner of the building (far left in the photo below), you can also see the faded letters that spell out TOWER’S, the apparent successor to Spear. Tower operated bonded warehouses in locations throughout the city, including along the west side of Manhattan; according to one source the company operated a warehouse at 511 W. 22nd Street building, which was once part of Spear’s factory complex, between 1955 – 1971. These ghost signs are common around West Chelsea; just a bit west, at 532 W. 22nd, are the faded letters of a long-gone lumber company. But as development rampages through the neighborhood they are disappearing fast. New construction begun in 2017 will most likely block the lumber ghost sign within a year or two.

Spear & Co. loading dock on the abandoned High Line. Photo by Tim Saternow

Spear & Co. loading dock on the abandoned High Line. Photo by Tim Saternow

The Spear & Co. factory was converted into a condominium in 1996, and while many unit owners renovated away the details of the building’s industrial past, some of the lofts retain the original wooden plank ceilings, iron castings, and support beams that recall the old factory. Long ago, some worker hammered a series of nails into a pattern displaying the initials “F.A.,” which are now part of a loft on the 5th floor. Was he a cigarette packer or a furniture maker? No one knows.

In 2012, when Section Two of the High Line opened, the Spears Building became the backdrop for the “seating steps,” a popular hang-out for people-watching, snacking, smooching, and the occasional wedding ceremony. The High Line Art program uses the wall of the building just opposite the seats to project films or display art works, like Ed Ruscha’s mural in 2014. So this place has also become an outdoor auditorium/art gallery as well.

Spears Building and High Line lawn

Spears Building and High Line lawn

Almost exactly 120 years after the devastating fire of October 1892, the Spears Building was hit by another fiend: Hurricane Sandy. The “superstorm” ravaged New York City On October 29 during a full moon, when tides are at their highest. Worse, the storm surged coincided with the approaching high tide along the Atlantic Coast. The Hudson River, a tidal estuary, rose a record 8 to 9 feet in Lower New York Bay, and on 22nd Street the river exceeded the 4′ level, flooding the basement and lobby of the Spears Building. The photo below was taken by Haider Gillani during the storm; click here to see a photo from the same place taken in July 2014 and here to see the Sandy high water mark emblazoned (still) on 22nd Street.

22nd Street, just outside the front door of the Spears Bldg., during Hurricane Sandy. Photographer unknown.

22nd Street, outside the front door of the Spears Bldg., during Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Haider Gillani.

Tim Saternow’s painting, which he graciously allowed me to use here, has been hanging in the Spears lobby since 2009 — the same year the High Line opened — and it’s a much-loved fixture by the building’s residents.  It was almost a casualty of the hurricane, but luckily the water didn’t rise quite high enough to reach it. Tim was able to rescue the painting the day after the storm, and once the lobby had been repaired it was returned to its rightful place.

The other distinctive element of the Spears Building is the pair of “silent sentries” that have stood on its roof for more than a century. New York City is filled with water tanks, what beloved CBS newsman Charles Kuralt described as “the hoops and staves of the Middle Ages.” As our neighborhood reinvents itself with modern architecture and 21st century urban greenways made from post-industrial ruins, the water towers on the old cigarette-packing-factory-turned-furniture-warehouse-turned-condominium are like anchors of the past. They help us better appreciate the long — and ongoing narrative — of this wonderful place. Here are some photos I’ve taken over the years in different seasons:

Spears Building water tank, February 2, 2014

Spears Building water tank, February 2, 2014

Spears Building water tank, February 4, 2014

Spears Building water tank, February 4, 2014

Spears Building water tank, March 27, 2014

Spears Building water tank, March 27, 2014

Spears Building water tank, November 18, 2011

Spears Building water tank, November 11, 2011

Spears Building water tank, December 2, 2013

Spears Building water tank, December 2, 2013

Note: special thanks to Livin’ The High Line readers Bruce Ryan and Susan Spear for their feedback and insights.


Morgan General Mail Facility – Tenth Avenue between 28th – 30th Streets

Westyard Distribution Center – Tenth Avenue between 31st – 33rd Streets

R.C. Williams Warehouse / Avenues School – Tenth Avenue between 25th – 26th Streets

Spears Building – 525 West 22nd Street




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More Reflections on the High Line


I’ve stopped marveling at the fact that every time I visit the High Line I notice something new; it’s just the reality of this place, and one of its many charms.  But here’s a new view that surprised me yesterday, something I never noticed before: the building across the street from the Tenth Avenue Square, on 17th street, is reflected in the giant window there. This is a street view; it’s a tricky, unpredictable intersection that requires concentration not on the High Line but on the traffic (cars, skateboarders, cyclists, trucks, doormen hailing cabs, scooters, jaywalking pedestrians, dogs, baby carriages; but no more freight trains).  I only noticed it because I was looking up at the guy in the balaclava who was taking a stop-time series of images of the new High Line billboard (click the image to see him more closely).


In the late afternoon, many buildings around the High Line — and particularly the DEA headquarters, shown above and below — reflect a lovely diamond pattern from the setting sun. Nowadays the glassy buildings like the IAC Headquarters and the Jean Nouvel apartment building tend to get the most dramatic reflections, but the old warehouses uniquely display this unusual light patterning.

Just another example of how the park and its surroundings continually engage with each other.



High Line Architecture: Morgan General Mail Facility

501 West 29th Street, standing defiant

Morgan General Mail Facility, from the Ohm apartment building, November 2012

This third piece on High Line architecture focuses on the Morgan General Mail Facility on Tenth Avenue between 28th and 30th Streets. Of the buildings I’ve covered so far in this series (the Westyard Distribution Center next door and the former R.C. Williams warehouse a few blocks south) the Morgan has the oldest and richest back-story. Spanning three centuries, from the 1860s to the second decade of the 21st century, this massive structure and the land it sits on offer up many threads in the history and culture of New York City.

The photo above, taken from the roof of the Ohm apartment building on Eleventh Avenue, reveals much of modern story. Completed in 1933, the Morgan was built with funds and labor from the New Deal’s WPA program. It was designed to connect with the High Line and create a seamless path for the more than 8,000 mail trains that crossed the country each year on an intricate network of rail lines before ultimately proceeding south alongside the Hudson River on tracks of the New York Central Railroad into Manhattan. The last 30 feet or so of their journey took them across Tenth Avenue on a specially constructed spur that led directly into the postal facility. My photo was taken hours after the first snowfall of 2012, and you can easily see the rails on the abandoned spur and the bricked-up siding where the trains once entered the building.  The photo below is from the West Side Improvement Brochure and shows the Morgan in the year it was built. Look closely and you can see a locomotive motoring through the siding (as always, click a photo to enlarge it). [continue reading…]

Cass Gilbert-designed warehouse, now Avenues School
Cass Gilbert-designed warehouse, now Avenues School

The second building in my new series about architecture along the High Line is the former R.C. Williams warehouse, now Avenues School, on Tenth Avenue between 25th – 26th Streets. [Click here to read the first piece in the series, about the Westyard Distribution Center, and here for the “What’s the Building?” feature]

Just before Avenues opened last Fall I gave a lecture in the school’s cafeteria to the teachers and administrative staff. I wanted to welcome them to the neighborhood and also share some insight into the unique role their building plays in the High Line’s history. While researching the lecture I discovered a short book in the New York Public Library about R.C. Williams, the company that built this warehouse in the early 1930s. In its pages, to my great delight, I found a surprising story that makes a direct thematic link with the schoolhouse of today.

The story begins in the first decade of the 19th century when New York City had “four banks, no water supply worth mentioning, no gas, nor any of the conveniences we find so necessary today.” It did, however, have “the finest harbor on the Atlantic Coast,” and it was here, in 1807, that Robert Fulton launched the first commercial steamship and sparked a revolution in trade and commerce.  At the same time, near the dock where Fulton’s vessel departed, another young entrepreneur, Cornelius Vanderbilt, was beginning to build his shipping empire. And two ambitious young men, Richard Williams and John Mott, partnered in a wholesale grocery venture that would use the modern transportation technology to forge new markets across the ocean. Like Vanderbilt, they established themselves on South Street, the red hot center of international trade. Mott & Williams became stockholder’s in Fulton’s Ferry, and located their store as near to it as they could. From their front door the two young grocers could look out and see “a forest of masts of vessels from all the ports of the world.”

The Fly Market, early 19th century, near today’s South Street Seaport

R.C. Williams was one of America’s first truly global companies, the original “supermarket to the world.” Looking back on its first few years, the author of a company history published in 1933 observes that:

“Our pride in the year 1811 was our fleet of tall clippers, our lines of packet ships, which sailed out of New York, Boston, and Charleston to all the oceans. In the tea races to China they defeated the fastest vessels of the British, the French and the Dutch. We were in many ways sovereign of the seas. Our ships carried furs, whale oil and West Indian rum and spices to Europe, returning loaded with finery, food delicacies and well-wrought articles of continental workmanship.”

During the course of its long history, R.C. Williams was constantly innovating. It was among the first to distribute food in cans, and pioneered in packaging, marketing, merchandising and retailing. They were also trendspotters, and predicted — to their enormous profit — that coffee would become king in the American home and Prohibition would be short-lived. They created one of the first international brands, Royal Scarlet, which they then franchised across a series of retail store locations. Today we see this everywhere, from Whole Foods to small regional chains; R.C. Williams was doing it back in the opening years of the 20th century.

But beyond its global reach and innovation, what I found most fascinating of all is that this company, from its very beginnings, pioneered in ideas. They saw themselves “as a medium of exchange, not only of commodities but of information and ideas.” They offered advice to customers on everything from bookkeeping to window dressing, and trained their buyers so they could advise customers on crop conditions around the world, seed production, sanitation, managing overheads, doing business in international markets, and more. Not only was this company an innovator in the food business; it was, almost a century before the age of the Internet, an information company.

R.C. Williams Warehouse, with a locomotive at the loading dock,1930s

Over the decades R.C. Williams  moved and expanded its business, and in the 1920s learned of yet another transportation innovation that was on the horizon: Robert Moses’ High Line. This elevated freight rail line promised another revolution in New York City trade and commerce: it would cut through existing buildings and enable locomotives to sail above the congested city streets, their box cars filled with every conceivable type of freight, from perishable goods like meat, dairy and vegetables to books, furniture, cigarettes and the U.S. Mail.

And so, a century after its founding, the R.C. Williams Company again put itself at the crossroads of the latest transportation innovation, and purchased land on Tenth Avenue for a new warehouse. They hired Cass Gilbert, one of the greatest architects of the day, to design a building that would be worthy of their position in the global food industry they had helped develop. Gilbert, architect of the U.S. Customs House and Woolworth Building, modeled the new warehouse after his Brooklyn Army Terminal, which had recently been completed. He designed it to maximize efficiency and create a seamless flow of goods from the tracks of the High Line, into the warehouse, and onto the many trucks that waited on loading docks in the street below.

Fleet of trucks at the R.C. Williams warehouse, 1930s

On August 1, 1933 — a year before the High Line officially opened — a train rumbled down the viaduct to commemorate a moment in history. Someone snapped a photo, and in it we can see an extraordinary convergence of people, industry, and the entrepreneurial spirit that has long driven this city. There, on the loading dock of his new warehouse, stands Arthur P. Williams, a direct descendent of the founder of this global enterprise. He is shaking hands with Frederick Ely Williamson, the man now running the New York Central Railroad, the line Cornelius Vanderbilt built off the profits of his shipping interests — a  business begun,  like the R.C. Williams Company, a few miles downtown near South Street around 120 years before.  Perhaps Vanderbilt had even known, and done business with, the original Mr. Williams. It’s certainly possible.

Mr. Williams & Mr. Williamson celebrate the opening of the High Line, 1933

What drew me to dig deeper into this history is Avenues, which calls itself “the World School” and developed from a vision to create a “truly global education.” Having just completed its first academic year, Avenues is in the process of building campuses in Sao Paolo, Beijing  and London. Eventually, its students will engage in the classroom live, via teleconference, with young people from other cultures around the world. The project has attracted controversy, but it’s a bold new experiment in education, and I think it’s notable that it takes root on a patch of Manhattan real estate that is rich with a history of innovation.

In 1931 Cass Gilbert accepted the Gold Medal for Architecture from the Society of Arts and Sciences, and put forth his own vision for the future. It’s one that would echo well in the halls of the building he was then designing:

“My plea is for beauty and sincerity, for the solution of our own problems in the spirit of our own age illuminated by the light of the past; to carry on, to shape new thoughts, new hopes, and new desires in new forms of beauty as we may and can; but to disregard nothing of the past that may guide us in doing so…”

There’s a spirit that abides in this building. It has been gorgeously restored and transformed into a 21st century school, but the loading dock is still there, just outside the cafeteria, and the train tracks are too. You can see them all from the High Line. On the roof flies an American flag, but it too has been altered for a new age: the artist, Frank Benson, digitally mutated the perspective of the stars and stripes in an effort to create a flag that appears to be perpetually waving in the wind. Check it out: it looks familiar, but it has the future written all over it.

The American flag at Avenues School, designed by artist Frank Benson

[Click here to read the first piece in the High Line Architecture series, about the Westyard Distribution Center, and here to see all the pieces in the series]


High Line Architecture: Westyard Distribution Center

The Westyard Distribution Center

The Westyard Distribution Center

As part of my ongoing lectures and talks about the High Line I’ve been digging deeper into the history of many distinctive buildings near the old viaduct-turned-park. “What’s That Building?”— a guide to architecture in the High Line’s viewscape —  is a popular feature on this blog, and today I’m launching a new series of slightly longer pieces about selected buildings that will let me share their fascinating histories and at the same provide a new context for understanding them in relation to the High Line.  I’m starting with the Westyard Distribution Center, a mammoth structure on Tenth Avenue between 31st – 33rd Streets. [Click here for the full series.]

The Westyard Distribution Center was completed in 1970 and is considered a significant example of the architectural style Brutalism, which is defined by the use of rough materials like textured concrete and brick, and sharp, geometrical angles. When it opened, the Westyard had the only indoor, year-round ice rink in New York City (it closed years ago and today the cool kids skate at Chelsea Piers a few blocks south). It was built as a distribution center, and has 38 loading docks for trucks; today it’s home to a number of news companies including the Associated Press, New York Daily News, and WNET-TV, which explains all the satellite dishes on the roof. It is also known as Manhattan West.

To fully appreciate this building you need to approach it more like a piece of sculpture than a piece of architecture, which means moving around and seeing it from every possible angle. The photo below shows the Westyard from Seventh Avenue — almost half a mile away. It’s a lousy shot because the light was bad and I was about to be hit by a car when I took it, but it shows how this massive, imposing building just elbows itself onto 31st Street, like it owns the place. It’s the architectural version of the pushy, aggressive, New Yorker:

The Westyard from 7th Avenue

The Westyard from 7th Avenue

I think this is a building that no one really loves in Manhattan except, perhaps, those of us who love trains and the city’s long, pioneering railroad history. The Westyard Distribution Center offers the perfect perch from which to contemplate both the past and present.  But first, you have to leave the street and get a bit higher….

Looking east from the roof of the Ohm apt. building at 30th Street

Looking east from the roof of the Ohm apt. building at 30th Street

Looking down on the Westyard you start to see how the building functions; how it straddles the train tracks that are used by three major railroads in New York City: the MTA’s Long Island Railroad (LIRR); New Jersey Transit’s commuter line; and Amtrak, the ultimate successor (after many bankruptcies, buyouts, and combinations) of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s New York Central Railroad.

If you go up even higher — I took the photo below from the observation deck of the Empire State Building — you can see a train motoring underneath the Westyard en route to the Rail Yards. And you also see the High Line looping around the Rail Yards, half green and half concrete.

Westyard Distribution Center looking West

Looking west from the observation deck of the Empire State Building

Back at street level, if you were to sneak into a parking lot nearby and stick your camera through a hole in the fence (I swear I didn’t cut that chain link!), what you would see is a very active railroad passage:

East side of the Westyard Distr. Center, looking down

East side of the Westyard Distr. Center, looking down

When you get up high again and look down onto the stub yard (called “stub” because it has no egress) what you see are trains from the LIRR that are parked there during the day. These trains came from Queens and Long Island to Penn Station, where they disgorged their passengers who then dispersed themselves around the city to do its business. The trains then motored a bit further west, under the Westyard, to the parking lot. When the commuters are done, at the end of the day, the trains return to Penn Station and take the now-tired commuters home to their families.

LIRR "stub yard," looking north from Ohm Bldg.

LIRR “stub yard,” looking north from Ohm Bldg.

Basically the stub yard is a giant railroad parking lot, and soon it will be covered with a deck and turned into a small city of office buildings, residences, and park spaces. It has a fancy new name, The Hudson Yards, and its own special tax structure. Soon the trains will be invisible, but the activity of the rail yard will go on as always underneath the new development.

The New Jersey Transit commuter trains make a right turn and head north, underground, somewhere below the Westyard building, which was designed to connect with the Lincoln Tunnel. Those trains then pass under the Hudson River to New Jersey.  Amtrak’s Albany and Canada-bound trains also pass under the Westyard, take a right and head north, but they follow the path of the old New York Central line up the coastline along the Hudson, which I roughly traced in a red line on this map:

Amtrak on the old New York Central tracks. Icons denote "cuts" in the street

Amtrak on the old New York Central tracks. Icons denote “cuts” in the street. [Click to enlarge]

Those places I marked with little train icons show the cuts in the street where you can see still the train tracks, like this one, at 60th Street…

Amtrak cut at 60th Street near 11th Avenue

Amtrak cut at 60th Street near 11th Avenue

Sometimes you can actually see a train coming through one of the cuts, which can be found between 43rd – 46th; 48th – 49th; and 60th Streets. [Note: it helps to have the Amtrak app on your phone so you know when to expect one.] The train in the photo below is Amtrak #290, the Ethan Allen, from Albany to New York, scheduled to arrive at 1:50 PM. It was on time; I took this shot at about 1:48 at 38th Street between Tenth & Eleventh Avenues. It’s not a great photo, but it does give you a sense of the geography: there, on the right side in the background, is the tall Ohm apartment building at Eleventh & 30th Street, where I took the aerial shots that appear in this piece:

Amtrak's Ethan Allen passing through the 38th St. Cut

Amtrak’s Ethan Allen from Albany, passing through the 38th St. Cut

This aerial, 360-degree tour shows how the Westyard Distribution Center is the beating heart of the railroad on the West Side of Manhattan. This gives it a direct relationship to the High Line, though it’s not so easy to discern from the park (or, for that matter, from the street). In time, all visible traces of the rail lines will be covered, including the cuts I’ve mapped out above, which are fine reminders of our city’s magnificent railroad history. (Visit while you can…) Still, just knowing the tracks are there will always let me feel a connection to the past, and permit a deeper understanding of the neighborhood in which I live. All those passengers on all those trains — the LIRR, NJ Transit and Amtrak — will continue to pass under the Westyard; soon there will be a new Seventh Avenue subway station on Eleventh Avenue that will bring more trains — and people — to our increasingly crowded neighborhood. And of course there’s the still-expanding, former freight railroad, the High Line, which connects and brings to life so much of this history.

So next time you’re walking in the park, tip your hat to the Westyard. It may not be our most beautiful neighbor, but it has a story that few can beat.


On the wild High Line’s Tenth Avenue Spur at 30th Street, looking east


[Click here to read the second piece in the series, about the former R.C. Williams warehouse, today’s Avenues School and here to find all the pieces in the High Line Architecture series.]

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