Architecture in New York City, A Guide for the Casual Traveler

Take a Bite Out of the Big Apple

Home Depot at West 23rd Street in New York City
Home Depot at West 23rd Street in New York City. Photo © Jackie Craven

New York City is just different. It calls itself "The Big Apple." Even the Home Depot store is not your usual Big Box Architecture—it's in this elegant building on West 23rd Street.

First off, New York, NY is huge, with people and buildings in five boroughs that individually could be major American cities. Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island are all part of New York City. Yet the casual visitor thinks only of Manhattan, so here are some of the sites to see with that focus.

Manhattan:

Manhattan is the stuff of songs—Downtown, Uptown Girl, East Side West Side, all around the town. Manhattan's real song is what architects call "the built environment." Manhattan tells a vital part of America's story and can offer any traveler a crash course in commercial and public architecture.

Known for its soaring skyscrapers, Manhattan has large and small jewels that define architectural history. Here's a sample architectural tour of New York City, from art deco details to modernist masterpieces. Also learn about construction at Ground Zero and the yearly architectural festivities of Open House New York.

Top 10 in Midtown Manhattan:

This is the area where you end up from an out-of-town train or bus. It's where tourists gather, line up for the latest Broadway spectacle, and mingle with other like-minded people from around the world. Here is some of the neighborhood architecture:

1. The Empire State Building—You don't have to go to the top. You don't have to know its history. But you can't ignore this building. It is an architectural presence.

2. AT&T Headquarters (SONY Building)—Stand far enough back to look at the top. Ohio-born architect Philip Johnson was so playful. Then go find his Lipstick Building for another chuckle.

3. Grand Central Terminal and Grand Central Terminal City—You'll see the Chrysler Building from here, but walk a little further to The News Building, a grand Art Deco tall building that was the model for Superman's Daily Planet.

4. Guggenheim Museum—If you have time for only one museum, go to Frank Lloyd Wright's swirling organic architecture. There's always something to see, inside and out.

5. If you have time for another museum, head over to the Morgan Library & Museum, designed by Charles Follen McKim in 1906 and expanded by Renzo Piano in 2006. If you like Piano's work, check out the new New York Times building and the new Whitney Museum.

6. The corporate architecture of Gordon Bunshaft—including the Lever House, a bank building at 510 Fifth Avenue where you can see the vault from the street, and the curvaceous Grace Building by Bryant Park—all brought a modern sensibility to the City.

7. Radio City Music Hall and 30 Rock are places to see and be seen in Rockefeller Center. Raymond Hood is the architect to thank.

8. Seagram Building—Architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe changed the city by creating a public plaza in front of this 1950s-era skyscraper. It had never been done before.

9. The Flatiron Building was one of the first tall buildings in NYC, and it's still a tourist attraction.

Take one of the free Flatiron District tours around Madison Square Park and learn about the old railroad terminal, the new skyscrapers, and the murder of architect Stanford White.

10. United Nations Headquarters—Not officially part of NYC or Manhattan, the UN Plaza is an international territory designed by international architects, including Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer. The Secretariat building ushered in the International style of architecture.

And when you get tired of looking up, relax in Central Park, the historic public space designed in 1858 by Calvert Vaux and America's first landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted. On a nice day, walk around the entire patch of green.

Downtown and Lower Manhattan:

The southern tip of Manhattan is the oldest part of the City. It's said that Wall Street actually had a wall to protect the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam from human and animal invaders.

Walking Down Wall Street today is an American history lesson of democracy and capitalism. Just off Wall Street is George Post's iconic 1903 design of the NY Stock Exchange building. Architect Cass Gilbert is a noticeable presence in Lower Manhattan with the 90 West Street Building (1907) near Ground Zero, the US Custom House (also 1907), and the iconic 1913 Woolworth Building. Within view is the iconic Brooklyn Bridge and Statue of Liberty. You can even stay in history, as the 1932 AIG Building has converted from insurance offices to residences at 70 Pine Street.

Possibly the most devastating event in New York history was the terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Reconstruction of the area has brought together the work of some of the most remarkable architects and engineers from all over the world. What Are They Building on Ground Zero? lists the latest progress at what was once called Ground Zero, the center of the attacks. Visiting the Skyscraper Museum at 39 Battery Place will help you better understand the special challenges faced when building this all-American architectural form.

Open House in New York City Every October:

Mark your calendars. Every October New York City opens its doors to architecture enthusiasts, and there's always a lot to see.

openhousenewyork® is a city's celebration of the built environment—and New York's been built up throughout the years. In one weekend every October, the general public has the chance to talk with architects, visit design studios, and tour buildings rarely open to the public. Some events require a reservation, so it's best to plan ahead for this urban open house. There's always a lot to see @OHNY, because, hey, it's New York City!

The OHNY website, www.ohny.org, is a wonderful way to stay informed. The organizers take great pains to make your visit as easy as possible. They've got the Facebook presence, and the requisite Twitter and Instagram accounts. They are, indeed, "dedicated to educating the public about New York City's architecture and design."

And they do mean design, including "interior design."  Every year you can reserve your space to visit a loft, explore a designer apartment, or walk into an architect's studio. Rain or shine, the celebration marches on. Tours book early, but there's plenty of free sights to go around, and some of the best private architecture is open to the public just this one day a year.