“A History of New York in 27 Buildings” by Sam Roberts. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019. 287 pages, $28 (hardcover).
“New York: Then and Now” by Marcia Reiss and Evan Joseph. London: Pavilion Books, 2019. 144 pages, $19.95 (hardcover).
Sam Roberts has published several books on New York, hosts a cable TV program and a podcast on the city and was urban affairs correspondent for The New York Times. In “A History of New York in 27 Buildings,” he features 27 buildings that still stand in New York City and that can convey a lot of information about the city’s past. The color picture on the cover is striking, but the black-and-white photos inside that illustrate individual buildings vary in quality, with some being grainy and somewhat dark. There are also several typographical errors, but these are only minor problems, however, because each building has a fascinating history that is important to relate and readers can still visit the buildings on tours of the city and take their own images.
Federal Hall at 26 Wall St. was constructed on a site hallowed by John Peter Zenger’s trial, which helped establish freedom of the press, the Stamp Act Congress, the Confederation Congress and George Washington’s inauguration as first president. It is also where the first Congress met and passed the Bill of Rights. The building that witnessed all of these events was demolished soon after 1812 and the new Customs House soon replaced it. Roberts points out that by the Civil War annual customs duties collected there could pay off the interest on the national debt and that goods passing through New York’s port “accounted for more than half the dollar value of all the nation’s imports and exports.”
One of the most interesting chapters is titled “The Hunter College Gymnasium.” In it Roberts first discusses the offer made by Lewis Morris, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, for the fledgling American government to make his large estate in the Bronx, Morrisania, the nation’s new capital. Morris proclaimed that, in contrast to the swampland on the Potomac that Congress was considering as the best site, his estate was a place where sick people came to restore their health and vigor. Although his proposal failed miserably, in 1946 the Bronx briefly became a kind of world capital when the campus of Hunter College was offered as a site for the new United Nations organization. The early meetings of the Security Council did convene in Hunter College’s Gymnasium, after extensive renovation, and the flags of 51 nations flew in the traffic circle out front. Unfortunately, two flags were displayed upside-down. However, the much-larger General Assembly was scheduled to meet in Flushing Meadows on the site of the 1939 World’s Fair, and John D. Rockefeller Jr. soon purchased a site on the East River that would become the permanent home of the United Nations and end the Bronx’s brief fling as a world capital.
The Apollo Theater in Harlem has been a major site for music performances for the better part of a century. The author notes that the Harlem Renaissance of the late 1920s had largely bypassed it, but when it introduced its Wednesday Amateur Night contest in 1934 things began to change dramatically. First prize was a weeklong engagement on the stage that could make a star overnight. The judges must have been good at picking winners because the group of performers who started their careers with Amateur Night includes the Chantels, Billy Eckstine, Ella Fitzgerald, Jimi Hendrix, Billie Holiday, the Ink Spots, the Isley Brothers, the Jackson 5, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Patti Labelle and the Blubelles, Stephanie Mills, Thelonius Monk, Leslie Uggams and Sarah Vaughn. The Apollo’s motto was “where stars are born and legends are made.”
One of the lesser-known buildings included is the Bossert Hotel in Brooklyn. It was here in 1945 that Branch Rickey told Jackie Robinson that he wanted “a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back” and thus began the relationship that would integrate American baseball. This is also where, 10 years later, the Brooklyn Dodgers celebrated winning their only World Series. In addition, the Bossert was home to several Dodgers players in the 1940s and 1950s.
“New York: Then and Now” is a lovely picture book that also packs in a lot of information about the Manhattan buildings it features. This is a revised version that includes more recent “Now” photographs of New York’s constantly-changing skyline. Marcia Reiss has published several books about New York City and has served on the Parks Council and in the Department of Ports and Trade. Evan Joseph is an architectural photographer whose work has been featured in Architectural Digest, New York magazine, Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. For each building included the authors provide black-and-white photographs of the structure in the late 19th or early 20th century and another one of the site taken recently in color. All of the photographs are very clear and of high quality and for some entries additional photos are included to either illustrate interiors or to make some additional comparisons.
In the section on Trinity Church on lower Broadway, we learn that the current church is the third incarnation and that Captain Kidd actually provided block and tackle for hoisting the building stones for the first one, erected in 1698 by the British colonial government. That version burned down in a city fire in 1776 that may have been set by American rebels protesting British occupation during the American Revolution. I would have added that the church was often the site for revelers who regularly came there to hear its bells welcome in the New Year before there was a Times Square uptown. The church’s cemetery also holds the graves of Alexander Hamilton and Robert Fulton.
A building that appears to have changed very little over the course of over a century is the Ansonia residential hotel on Broadway between 73rd and 74th streets on the Upper West Side. The apartments originally “had multiple bedrooms, parlors, libraries and formal dining rooms, served by central kitchens and professional chefs on each floor.” It also had a small farm on the roof with dairy cows. A bellhop delivered fresh eggs to the residents every morning, until the Department of Health shut down the farm in 1907. Some famous hotel residents include Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Enrico Caruso, Igor Stravinsky, Arturo Toscanini and Lily Pons.
Perhaps the saddest building comparison is that dealing with Penn Station. The photo taken around 1915 shows the grandeur and extent of the exterior of this architectural wonder. There is a smaller photo of the interior waiting room that shows the height of the coffered ceiling and the light coming through the windows, but a larger shot of the interior would have been useful here. The photo of Penn Station now shows the office tower and Madison Square Garden, the “giant doughnut of a building,” that was placed above the grand waiting room. The only positive result coming from the disastrous decision to destroy the marvelous Penn Station is that, even though turnover of buildings happens regularly in New York, it is much more difficult to replace the great ones and Grand Central Station is a testimony to that fact.
Both of these books provide interesting insights into the architecture and the history of the Big Apple. I recommend them highly for anyone interested in learning more about the city than what one usually gets on a first visit. Both can be used to plot walking tours or future trips.
– Reviewed by Richard Weigel, Western Kentucky University History Department.