By the late 1920s, the human-scaled buildings of Little Syria were beginning to be hemmed in and overshadowed by skyscrapers. The intersection of Morris and Washington Streets, once lined with low-rise row houses and tenements, was transformed by the construction of two Art Deco skyscrapers between the years 1929 and 1931, both designed by the firm of Starrett and Van Vleck using a colorful, richly textured materials palette, then again by construction of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel beginning less a decade later. The Battery Parking Garage was part of the original plans for the tunnel and was the first municipal parking structure ever built in New York City. There are also a number of historic cast- iron street lampposts in the vicinity on either side of the tunnel entrance, all of them the second generation of mast arm-type that was designed and installed throughout the city in the early 20th century.
MORRIS STREET AT GREENWICH STREET
Benjamin Wistar Morris with Carrere & Hastings
The intersection of Morris and Greenwich Streets perhaps best embodies the economic and technological forces that reshaped Little Syria, and Lower Manhattan in general, over the course of the 20th century. On the southeast corner stands the rear facade of the massive Cunard Building, one of the first major skyscrapers to be built under the 1916 zoning resolution, which established
certain limits on building bulk and massing in order to avoid the complete “canyonization” of Lower Manhattan. Across the street from the Cunard Building lies the giant trench that is the exit to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, a monument to mid-century automobile-based urban planning. It is here that Greenwich Street forks off into Trinity Place, notable as the location where one of Manhattan’s earliest elevated rail lines split into two lines running northwards along Sixth and Ninth Avenues, respectively. A historic mast-arm lamppost remains at the north side of Morris Street, in the section of median that will shortly become the southern part of an expanded, redesigned Elizabeth Berger Plaza. Famed photographer Berenice Abbott photographed Morris Street at Greenwich Street in the 1930s, capturing the last remaining tenement building juxtaposed with the towering Cunard Building. The Cunard Building is a NYC Individual Landmark and listed on the State and National Register of Historic Places.
Photo courtesy of The New York Public Library.
BOOKLYN-BATTERY TUNNEL AND BATTERY PLACE
Battery Place, Greenwich Street to Washington Street
Ole Singstad, chief engineer through 1946; Ralph Smille, chief engineer after 1946; Erling Owre, architect
The Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, which connects Lower Manhattan with Brooklyn, was constructed over a ten-year period from 1940 to 1950—including a three-year wartime hiatus—and is the longest tunnel of its type in North America. It replaced the low-rise buildings of the former Syrian Quarter. The severe-looking Moderne style ventilation building at Battery Place was designed by Parks Department architect Aymar Embury II and completed in 1950. The facade inscription facing Battery Park commemorates the 1946 consolidation of the city’s Tunnel Authority and Triborough Bridge Authority into the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. The other architecturally notable vent building is the white octagon located off the northern tip of Governors Island, designed by the successor firm to McKim, Mead, & White. The Tunnel was renamed in 2012 in honor of former New York State Governor Hugh L. Carey. Historic photo courtesy of The Library of Congress.
THE BATTERY AND CASTLE CLINTON
Castle Clinton: 1808-11, Lt. Col. Jonathan Williams and John McComb, Jr.
Originally sited on an island some 300 feet off the Battery, Castle Clinton was built for the War of 1812 as one of a pair of fortifications, the other being the still-surviving Castle Williams on the northern shore of Governors Island. The horseshoe-shaped brownstone monument has seen many and varied incarnations during its over 200-year history, including pleasure garden and concert hall, aquarium, ruin and finally National Monument. It also served as an immigration station, processing nearly eight million immigrants newly arrived in America — as compared to the roughly 12 million immigrants who passed through Ellis Island, its successor.
During the 1930s and 40s Castle Clinton was at the center of an epic preservation battle between legendary city Parks Commissioner Robert Moses and opponents of his plan to raze the structure for a parkway and bridge connecting Manhattan’s Battery with Brooklyn. A coalition of historic, art and landscape societies, led by the Regional Plan Association’s Robert McAneny, advocate Albert S. Bard, Manhattan Borough President Stanley Isaacs, and admiralty attorney C. C. Burlingham organized as the Central Committee of Organizations Opposing the Battery Bridge to fight Moses’ plan. Moses lost, Castle Clinton was declared a National Monument in 1946 and the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel was built instead. Castle Clinton is a NYC Individual Landmark and listed on the State and National Register of Historic Places.
MOTHER SETON SHRINE (originally the James Watson House)
7 State Street
attributed to John McComb, Jr.; extension 1806
Originally constructed in 1793 as the elegant private residence of James Watson, a merchant and the first Speaker of the New York State Assembly, the Federal style mansion at 7 State Street is a remarkable survivor from the early period when Lower Manhattan was home to the city’s wealthy and fashionable families. It is also notable for its long association with the history of Roman Catholicism in America.
Elizabeth Ann Bayley (1774-1821), a Staten Island native and religious pioneer who later became the sainted Mother Seton, briefly lived at 8 State Street before an 1803 trip to Italy that resulted in her conversion to Roman Catholicism (in an 1805 ceremony that took place nearby at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church on the corner of Church and Barclay streets). In 1884, 7 State Street became home to the Parish of Our Lady of the Rosary to better serve the Irish immigrants. In 1965, it was restored and protected with landmark status and, in the same year, the Classical-Revival style Our Lady of the Rosary church containing a shrine honoring Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton was constructed immediately to the left. The first American citizen to reach official sainthood, Mother Seton was canonized in 1974, on the 200th anniversary of her birth.
To the east of the building was the Leo House, a settlement house founded by the German Catholic Church in 1889 to serve German immigrants. The settlement house moved in 1926 to West 23rd Street in Chelsea. To the right of Mother Seton Shrine sits a skyscraper at 1 State Street Plaza, a building which began the wave of displacement faced by the immigrant community of the area by replacing the tenements and rowhouses that formerly occupied its space. Mother Seton Shrine is a NYC Individual Landmark and listed on the State and National Register of Historic Places.
PETER MINUIT PLAZA
NYC DOT; AECOM, construction manager; Michael Victor Ruggiero, Landscape Architect; Ben van Berkel, UNStudio, Sculptor
Situated at the foot of Manhattan within view of New York Harbor, this plaza memorializes the early contact between the Native American inhabitants of Manhattan and its European explorers. Its centerpiece, the Plein and pin-wheel-shaped Pavillion, was donated by the Kingdom of the Netherlands to commemorate Henry Hudson’s arrival in 1609. The plaza’s namesake, Peter Minuit, was the third Director of the Dutch New Netherland colony, who in 1626 entered into an agreement with the indigenous Lenape. Though widely considered an outright purchase by subsequent colonists, this agreement was closer to a shared use contract allowing both parties equal access to live on and harvest the bounty of lower Manhattan. By the 1660s, the settlement of New Amsterdam was a thriving and diverse trading port with 18 languages spoken in the neighborhood. A bronze replica of the 1660 plan is on the north side of the plaza at State Street. Today, this plaza and transit facility is the city’s “busiest intermodal hub,” serving commuters by foot, bike, ferry, subway, and bus.
Photo by Wally Gobetz.
FRIENDSHIP BAPTIST CHURCH / HOUSE OF FRIENDSHIP COMMUNITY CENTER
144-146 West 131st Street, Manhattan
1883, William J. Merritt
170 West 130th Street, Manhattan
1884, William J. Merritt; 1928, altered by Vertner Woodson Tandy
Originally constructed for the Baptist Church of the Redeemer, this freestanding Romanesque Revival style building is of great cultural importance to the city for its ties to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s-60’s. After changing hands several times, it was sold in 1936 to the Friendship Baptist Church, founded by the Rev. Dr. John Iverson Mumford. From the beginning, the church supported Civil Rights. Its second pastor, Dr. Thomas Kilgore Jr., was an associate of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who delivered a sermon here in 1955. Among Rev. Kilgore’s other local and national Civil Rights efforts, he led the church to found the House of Friendship Community Center, which, in 1963, became the National Headquarters for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, organized by Bayard Rustin. The congregation, still active today, was deeply involved in organizing the Harlem community’s participation in that historic March. In addition to its social and political significance, 170 West 130th Street’s façade is architecturally significant as the work of Vertner Woodson Tandy, the first African-American architect registered in New York State. The House of Friendship Community Center is located in the Central Harlem West — 130-132nd Street Historic District.
AFRICAN BURIAL GROUND
290 Broadway, Manhattan
2004-07, Memorial: Rodney Leon and Nicole Hollant-Denis
During the 18th century, when New York City was second only to Charleston, South Carolina, for its population of enslaved Africans, a roughly six-acre site north of present- day City Hall Park, then just outside the city’s northern border, was an African burial ground for an estimated 15,000 people, both free and enslaved. In 1794, the city closed the burial ground and leveled the hilly terrain with landfill to make way for development, thus preserving the burials below. Over time, the area was developed and the burial ground forgotten, much like the history and contributions of the African community itself. In October 1991, the General Services Administration (GSA), a federal agency, announced the rediscovery of intact burials and the remains of more than 400 people on the site of a planned federal office building at 290 Broadway. The GSA was criticized for its handling of the archaeological study and control was handed over to a team at the historically black Howard University. Because of strong activism by the African-American community, Congress passed and President George H. W. Bush signed a law to prohibit construction on the site where remains were found and to fund a memorial. The memorial opened in 2007 and a visitor center within 290 Broadway, run by the National Park Service, opened in 2010. The African Burial Ground is considered the largest colonial- era cemetery for enslaved African people, and in addition to being of great historical and spiritual significance, is a major resource for the study of the African diaspora. The African Burial Ground is part of the African Burial Ground & The Commons Historic District; a National Historic Landmark and listed on the State and National Register of Historic Places.
Photo courtesy of the National Parks Service.
MARGARET CORBIN DRIVE AND CIRCLE
Fort Tryon Park, Manhattan
Margaret Cochran Corbin (1751-1800) was the first American woman to receive a military pension for her service during the Revolutionary War. When her husband, John Corbin, enlisted in the army to fight for the colonists, Margaret decided to go with him as a “camp follower” to cook, do laundry and nurse the wounded. On November 16, 1776, Corbin assisted her husband in operating a cannon during a Hessian attack on Fort Washington (today’s Fort Tryon). When John was fatally wounded, Margaret heroically took over his post and continued to fire at the enemy. Before the four-hour battle was through, she was severely wounded and nearly lost her left arm. In 1779, the Continental Congress awarded her a lifelong pension equivalent to half that of a male veteran. She died at age 49 and was buried in Highland Falls, NY, but in 1926, the Daughters of the American Revolution had her remains moved to the post cemetery at the U. S. Military Academy at West Point, where she is the only Revolutionary War soldier buried on the academy grounds. Today, a plaque in Fort Tryon Park honors her bravery and both the park drive and circle are named for her.
Photo courtesy of The New York Public Library.
JANE JACOBS RESIDENCE
555 Hudson Street, Manhattan
attributed to John Cole
From 1947 to 1968, this was the home of author, urban theorist and activist Jane Jacobs (1916-2006). While it is not certain that she wrote her 1961 seminal work “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” here, she did often reference her home in Greenwich Village while extolling the virtues of thriving urban settings with bustling sidewalks and small-scale, mixed-use buildings —like 555 Hudson. She wrote and spoke out against the then-rising practice of slum clearance and urban renewal, and was instrumental in the fight to save the South Village, SoHo and Little Italy from Robert Moses’ Lower Manhattan Expressway. Her work heavily influenced contemporary urban thought, despite urban planners who, at the time, criticized her lack of formal education. Today, her legacy is celebrated every May with Jane’s Walks — volunteer-led walking tours in urban neighborhoods — throughout the country. The Jane Jacobs residence is located in the Greenwich Village Historic District.