Posted by: mike on Feb 11, 2014

Category:Sacred placesExploring New YorkLatest

New York City:  Riverside Church

On Riverside Drive overlooking the River Hudson is a great twentieth-century Gothic church of surprising proportions, the Baptist Riverside Church, largely financed by John D Rockefeller Jnr, and opened in 1929 to the designs of Allen, Pelten & Collens.

Especially when seen from the river, the huge tower, 392 feet high, dominates the church, which is itself a hundred feet high and 215 feet long. 

The tower is in fact a 22-storey office building for the church administration, surmounted by a 72-bell carillon which visitors can inspect on their way to view the panorama from the top of the tower. 

From here the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan dot the horizon.

Riverside Church is proud of its stained glass and sculpture.  It has two Epsteins, the bronze ‘Madonna and Child’ (1927) and the gilded mould of the cast ‘Christ in Majesty’ at Llandaff Cathedral, Wales.

From the outset of its ministry, started by Rev Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878–1969), Riverside Church has been a springboard for all kinds of social intervention, and has provided a pulpit for a dazzling array of speakers, from Martin Luther King to Nelson Mandela, Jesse Jackson to Desmond Tutu, and Fidel Castro to Bill Clinton.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Feb 7, 2014

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesExploring New YorkLatest

New York City:  Trinity Church

Perhaps the most famous image of Wall Street is the vista westwards along the canyon of tall twentieth-century buildings to the apparently modest-sized Trinity Church, designed by Richard Upjohn and completed in 1846.

This was itself once the tallest building on Manhattan, 281 feet high.

The original foundation dates from a royal charter of 1697, and the present building is the third on the site.

The great wealth of the trustees arose from Queen Anne’s 1705 grant of the land west of Broadway between Fulton and Christopher Streets, the rentals of which have supported widespread endowments, educational institutions and subsidiary chapels.

Upjohn’s church was a significant influence on the architecture of nineteenth-century New York, firstly because it effectively established the Gothic Revival here (though its suspended plaster vault would have offended contemporary English purists such as Pugin), and because it helped to popularise the use of the local brownstone, a material which became synonymous with New York housing in the half-century that followed.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture 'The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City', please click here.

Posted by: mike on Dec 14, 2013

Category:Exploring New YorkLatest

New York City Citicorp Center

When they designed Citicorp Center, now renamed 601 Lexington Avenue, in Manhattan in 1977, the architect Hugh Stubbins and the structural engineer William LeMessurier were faced with the uncompromising elders of St Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, who were entirely happy to have their tired nineteenth-century Gothic building replaced but refused point-blank to give up its corner site.

Consequently, William LeMessurier supported the tower on four stilts planted firmly in the centre of each side so that it overhangs the corners of its footprint.  This odd-looking construction is stabilised by a series of stacked braces that transfer the load of the 59-storey structure to the nine-storey supporting columns.

The Citicorp Center was fitted with a 400-ton tuned mass damper to stabilise the effect of high winds.  Other tall towers of the period, while rolling safely with the wind, had made their inhabitants nauseous.

The wedge-shaped top was intended to carry solar panels which were never installed because the slope faces north.

The building is remarkable, not only for its engineering attributes, but for the fortuitous discovery and surreptitious repair of its structural weaknesses.

Within a year of the opening, LeMessurier received a phone-call from a trainee architectural engineer questioning the ability of the centre columns to support the building in extremely high winds.

Niggled, LeMessurier revised his calculations, and realised that in following the regulations by calculating wind-resistance square to the building he’d ignored the potential effects of quartering winds, hitting the tower cornerwise where there was no support to ground-level.

Casual discussions of the specification for a new project alerted LeMessurier for the first time to the fact that his office had sanctioned the use of bolted braces instead of welded ones in the Citicorp tower.  This made the building vulnerable to a once-in-55-year wind, but if the tuned mass damper was disabled by a power failure, the vulnerability increased to once in every sixteen years.

This came to light in June, just at the start of the hurricane season.

The building’s owners, Citibank, a team of construction-industry specialists and the City of New York – all of them anxious to avoid a public panic – arranged for the two-hundred-odd braces to be quietly patched with heavy steel plates, one by one, during evenings and weekends, without disturbing the building’s users.

The press were fed an innocuous explanation which remained unprobed because, as the work began, the entire New York newspaper industry was shut down by a strike.

And the city’s Office of Emergency Management created an emergency plan to evacuate the building and 156 blocks of the surrounding neighbourhood if high winds were forecast.

Part way through the process Hurricane Ella headed directly for New York City, only to turn eastwards and follow the coast northwards towards Canada.

This remarkable episode remained outside the public domain for twenty years until an article in the New Yorker [] was published in May 1995.

Le Messurier, whose entire career had been on the line eighteen years earlier, was hailed for his integrity in owning up to the problem and providing a solution.  601 Lexington Avenue is now rated as resistant to a once-in-700-year hurricane even without the damper.

A more critical view of Le Messurier’s ethics can be found at

Other accounts of the whole episode are at and

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture 'The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City', please click here.

Posted by: mike on Mar 14, 2013

Category:Exploring New York

New York City:  Ellis Island (1981)

New York City:  Ellis Island ferry-boat (1981)

When I first visited New York City in 1981 my host, my school contemporary Malcolm, insisted there were two places I must visit – the Cloisters and Ellis Island.

Ellis Island was the major immigration reception station for the United States, handling 90% of arrivals from the Old World, from whom 40% of the present-day population are descended, between 1892 and 1954. 

Here the “tired...huddled masses” first set foot in the New World, and the stringent examinations they underwent determined whether they would be allowed to remain.

The “island of tears”, out in the bleak expanse of New York Harbour, has a powerful emotional pull on American consciousness.

When I first visited Ellis Island the facilities were much as they’d been left after the station finally closed on November 29th 1954.  The minimal security team had had little success in preventing pilfering on the otherwise deserted island.  Water in the central-heating system froze during the winter, and the buildings deteriorated inexorably as the vegetation took over the grounds.  The ferry Ellis Island was left at its moorings, where ultimately it sank.

Since then, Ellis Island has been transformed into an immaculate museum by the National Parks Authority, commemorating the contribution that immigrants have made to American life.  Inevitably, it has lost the patina of decay which badly needed arresting.  I’m glad I saw it in its unrestored state:  it was a powerfully evocative place back then.

The modern visitor can still see the baggage-handling facilities, the scene of much overcrowding and of notorious “losses” of immigrants’ possessions, the staircase which formed part of the “six-second medical”, in which signs of undue exertion were regarded as diagnostic evidence, and the great Registry Room, in which inspectors had to decide, by interview using interpreters in any of up to thirty languages apart from English, whether an immigrant was “clearly and beyond a doubt” eligible to land.

The history of European colonisation is a complex and controversial aspect of international history.  Malcolm was right in urging me to fit in one of the building blocks of my understanding of the USA by visiting Ellis Island while I was in New York.

Admission to Ellis Island is free, but it is – obviously – only accessible by boat.  The public ferry from the southern tip of Manhattan is bookable at  Details of the facilities on the island are at the voluminous website

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture 'The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City', please click here.

Posted by: mike on May 23, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureTransports of delightLife-enhancing experiencesExploring New York

New York City Grand Central Terminal

The very heart of Manhattan’s 42nd Street is Grand Central Terminal, New York’s principal monument to the age of the railroad, which will celebrate its centenary next year:

Many New Yorkers have never forgiven the destruction of the other great terminus, Penn Station, McKim, Mead, and White’s triumphant pink granite temple to transportation, built in 1910 and flattened in 1963:

Grand Central was the destination of steam-hauled trains from the north, ploughing down a cutting that was covered over when electrification became practical from 1889 onwards.

Begun in 1903, the terminal was structurally completed ten years later but not fully operational until 1927.  Its concourse is 275 feet by 120 feet and 125 feet high, lit by arched windows 75 feet high.  The Guastavino roof is decorated with a painted zodiac (which is for some reason reversed) by Paul Helleu. 

It has sixty-seven tracks on the two levels, a turning loop and connections to the subway, including the 42nd Street Shuttle, which takes a minute to shunt between Grand Central and Times Square.

This was the starting point for some of the great trains of the early twentieth century, the Knickerbocker to St Louis, the Ohio State Limited to Cincinnati and the Twentieth Century Limited to Chicago to which, among its many luxuries, is attributed the original red-carpet entrance.

A major conservation campaign, led by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, saved Grand Central from demolition in the 1970s, and in 1994-8 a $197-million renovation was undertaken by LaSalle Partners and Williams Jackson Ewing, the restorers of the superb Union Station in Washington DC.

Now it looks as good as it did in 1913 – if not better.

The quintessential Grand Central experience, other than catching a train, is to eat at the Oyster Bar [], where journalists used to take advantage of the acoustics to pick up scoops.  If that's outside the budget, there's plenty to eat in the food court:,

To see images of parts of Grand Central Terminal that ordinary travellers don’t see, go to

To enjoy the best flashmob invasion of the Grand Central concourse go to

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture 'The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City', please click here.

Posted by: mike on Apr 29, 2012

Category:Exploring New York

Portland House, Westminster

It’s a commonplace that, when walking round a city, we miss so much by not looking up.  We’re conditioned to survey the eye-level streetscape, while just above shop-fascia level there’s a wealth of history and architecture telling us stories.

Some time ago I read around the Pan-Am Building in New York City, and discovered that the design of 1963 Manhattan skyscraper was based on the 1959 Pirelli Tower in Milan, and was related to at least three UK buildings.  This I duly noted in a publication I’m preparing, and in a blog article [Air rights].

Months later I happened to walk out of London’s Victoria Station and found myself staring at the instantly recognisable London sibling of the Pan-Am Building – Portland House, by Howard Fairbairn & Partners (1960-3), built on the site of Watney’s Stag Brewery.

Its height of 334 feet is far lower than the 808 feet of the New York building, yet it towers over the messy streetscape around Victoria.  It was conceived as part of a comprehensive post-war redevelopment that was itself compromised from the outset.

Its tapered footprint is an attempt to reduce its overbearing impact at ground level and give it a degree of elegance.

The website points out that it probably wouldn’t get planning permission now, yet it’s far too lucrative a concentration of floorspace to be in any danger of demolition.

In fact it’s been refurbished twice in recent decades, by the T P Bennet Partnership in 1993-5 and by EPR Architects in 2001-6.

I must have walked past it many times without noticing, despite its huge scale.  Now that I recognise it I rather like it, for its own leviathan elegance and for its connection with Manhattan and Milan.

Posted by: mike on Mar 15, 2012

Category:Transports of delightExploring New York

New York City Pan Am Building

New York City:  New York Central Building [now Helmsley Building] and Pan Am Building [now MetLife Building] (1981)

I recently came across Meredith L Clausen’s book The Pan Am Building and the shattering of the Modernist dream (Massachusetts Institute of Technology 2005).  It’s obvious from the title that she doesn’t much like the building.  She tells in great detail the story of a Manhattan building that symbolises the over-ambition of financiers seeking to make money out of transport.

This huge Modernist block sits astride the railroad tracks that lie in tunnel beneath Park Avenue, separating Grand Central Terminal (Reed & Stem, Warren & Wetmore 1903-27) from the former New York Central Building, now the Helmsley Building (Warren & Wetmore 1929).

Emery Roth’s original design, which would not have interrupted the Park Avenue vista, was altered, enlarged and turned 90° by Pietro Belluschi and Walter Gropius, who proposed, unsuccessfully, to demolish the New York Central Building to create a public park.

The development was commissioned by the New York Central Railroad in a desperate attempt to shore up their finances as traffic leached from rail to air.  The building reeks with irony, a hubristic symbol of the age of air-travel, no longer owned by the luckless company that built it.

Completed in 1963, it became the Pan Am Building because it was tenanted by Pan American World Airways, the last company to claim the right to have their logo on the outside of a New York skyscraper.  Initially the airline occupied fifteen floors of offices and ran a booking hall at street level.

The roof of the Pan Am Building was designed as a helicopter landing-pad offering rapid transfer from mid-town to JFK Airport for up to eight passengers at a time.  This grandiose scheme was unpopular from the start for obvious reasons of noise and danger.  Eventually, a fatal accident on May 16th 1977 put a stop to it:

The design is apparently derived from an unbuilt Le Corbusier design and the Pirelli Tower, Milan (Gio Ponti & Pier Lugig Nervi 1959) [].  Its distinctive footprint is repeated in Britain in the 331ft Portland House, Westminster (Howard Fairbairn & Partners 1960-3) [], and echoed by the 253ft Taberner House, Croydon (H Thornley 1964-7 – due for demolition in 2013) [] and the 656ft Alpha Tower, Birmingham (Richard Seifert & Partners 1969-73) [].

Pan American Airways came to grief, driven to bankruptcy in the face of the 1973 oil crisis, the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, the destruction of Flight 103 over Lockerbie in December 1988 and the effect on oil prices of the First Gulf War of 1991.

In 1990, Pan Am gave up their remaining four floors of the building and shortly afterwards the owner, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company changed the name to the MetLife Building and replaced the Pan Am name and logos with their own.

Though the airline ceased to exist in 1991, the Pan Am brand still functions.  It now belongs to a railroad company:

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture 'The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City', please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jan 17, 2012

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesExploring New York

New York City Empire State Building

The Empire State Building, described when it opened in 1931 as “the eighth wonder of the world”, epitomises Manhattan. Perhaps the most elegant of all the New York skyscrapers, faced in Indiana limestone and granite, with stainless steel mullions running from the six-storey base to the Art Deco pinnacle, its setbacks make light of its vast bulk.

Nowadays it wouldn’t get built, because it occupies the site of the original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel: This grand Victorian pile, originally two hotels of 1893 and 1897, was pulled down in 1930 and the business transferred to its current address at 301 Park Avenue.

The Empire State Building was extended during construction from its planned 86 storeys to 102 storeys to be sure of the accolade of the World’s Tallest Building. It was completed in advance of schedule and below budget, yet initial rentals were so few that it was dubbed the “Empty State Building”. Once again the tallest building in New York City after the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, its height to the top of the TV mast is 1,454 feet.

There are comfortable open promenades as well as a glass-enclosed viewing-area at the 86th floor. The view from the 102nd-floor observatory stretches up to eighty miles, reaching into the states of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

The mast was originally intended as a mooring for dirigibles, but only one landing was ever attempted. This hair-raising procedure failed because it was impossible to stabilise the end of the airship that wasn’t anchored to the tower.

In 1946 a B-25 bomber collided with the 79th floor in thick fog, killing fourteen and causing only localised damage.

The Empire State lives in New York legend. It starred notably in the film King Kong (1933) where the giant gorilla ends its life clinging to the top of the building.

When the film director Peter Jackson consulted primatologists while planning his 2005 version of King Kong, he was told that a real giant ape would fling excreta at the attacking aircraft, and offer what was discreetly described as a “display-challenge” [John Harlow, ‘Hollywood agenda,’ The Sunday Times, November 2nd 2003].

The Empire State Building is open to the public until midnight, which makes it an admirable and popular place from which to watch the city lights, carpeting the view in all directions.

The official website is, and the smart tourist information is at

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture 'The Big Apple: the architecture of New York City', please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jan 15, 2012

Category:Exploring New York

New York City Chrysler Building

Woody Allen’s movie Manhattan (1979) first inspired me to visit New York.  Freddie Laker’s Skytrain made it possible, in the summer of 1981.  My former school-friend, Malcolm, at that time lived on E41St, so when I came out of his apartment each morning, the first building I saw was the Chrysler Building, the epitome of Jazz Age New York.

The Chrysler was built, not by the Chrysler Corporation, but by Walter P Chrysler on his own account.  Its architect, William Van Alen, engaged in a race with his former professional partner, H Craig Severance, to build the tallest building in the world.

The story is repeatedly told of how Van Alen waited until Severance’s 40 Wall Street was topped out before launching the 27-ton, 125-foot steel spire, which had been secretly delivered to the site in pieces, through the roof in ninety minutes flat on the night of Friday September 27th 1929, giving a final height of 1,046 feet 4¾ inches.  Van Alen remarked afterwards that “it was necessary to resort to the unusual”.

This procedure is explained in ‘How engineers crowned world’s tallest building’, Popular Science, August 1930, p 52 at in the section ‘Chrysler Building’s secret spire’.

Black Thursday, the beginning of the Wall Street Crash, came less than a month later, on October 24th 1929, and the Chrysler has always had a fin-d'époque air.  It was the tallest building in the world for all of eleven months, until the rival Empire State Building was in turn topped out.

The building is known for its embellishments, the genuine Chrysler hubcaps fixed to the brickwork around the 30th floor, the corner features at the 31st floor based on Chrysler radiator caps and the eagle-gargoyles on the 61st floor, modelled on the hood (boot) handles of the 1929 Plymouth.  Its diamond-honed Enduro KA-2 stainless steel cladding by the German manufacturer Krupp has needed neither cleaning nor replacement since it was installed.  Lewis Mumford dismissed it as “advertising architecture”.

The red African marble lobby with its ceiling mural by the English artist, Frank Brangwyn, carefully restored by the current owners, is accessible to the general public, though if you try to take a photograph the security guards become agitated.  I’ve never dared outface them to enter one of the elevators, which are also apparently still in original condition.

When the Chrysler opened, the 66th-68th floors were given over to the Cloud Club, the most blatant speakeasy in Prohibition New York.  Long before the police stepped out of the elevator the members’ liquor could be stowed in individual lockers, personalised by indecipherable hieroglyphics.  Its decoration included a Georgian lobby, a Tudor lounge, a Bavarian bar and a dining room with faceted blue marble columns and white-ice sconces and a vaulted ceiling painted with clouds.  All this survived a couple of decades after the club finally closed in 1979, only to be ripped out and dumped at the end of the 1990s.  Randy Juster's images of the club area are at

Above the Cloud Club, on the 71st floor, was a public observatory giving views into neighbouring states across fifty miles in each direction [].  This closed after the Second World War and is now the offices of an architectural practice:  [].

Though the Chrysler Building nominally has 77 floors, in fact there are more levels, each tapering within the spire, lit oddly by the shark’s tooth windows.  The 74th floor contains a derelict radio station.  Above the 75th floor the windows have never been glazed, so it’s exceptionally draughty, even on hot days.

Beyond the final floor, 77, a further seven levels accessible by ladder lead eventually to an area about a yard square, which gives access to a trapdoor through which, once a month, an engineer checks the base of the lightning conductor.

There is a detailed description of this by David Michaelis at

Another enjoyable essay on the building is by Claudia Roth Pierpont, ‘The Silver Spire:  how two men’s dreams changed the skyline of New York’, which appeared in The New Yorker, November 18th 2002, and can be found at

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture 'The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City', please click here.

Posted by: mike on Nov 27, 2011

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesExploring New York

New York City:  The Cloisters

Catch a Madison Avenue bus from lower Manhattan uptown.  As you pass through midtown, fashionable ladies with designer handbags and designer dogs trip on and off.  When you reach Harlem, more substantial ladies get on with bags of shopping.  Eventually, you reach a turning-circle, and the driver expects you to leave the vehicle.

You walk through an archway to a turnstile, and after the customary museum formalities you’re in The Cloisters, an American version of the Middle Ages – complete with Gregorian chant on the PA system.

At a time when European scholars lagged far behind their American counterparts in appreciating the value and significance of early medieval art, John D Rockefeller Jnr (1874-1960) and the sculptor George Grey Barnard (1863-1938) took the opportunity to dismantle and transport across the Atlantic a wealth of artefacts and works of art, including four complete cloisters which are reconstructed in Fort Tryon Park near the northern tip of Manhattan.

Somehow, this strange collection casts a spell over its visitors.  Put together in 1938 with a reproduction tower based on a twelfth-century French original, it is a most beguiling place.

As well as the four cloisters, the exhibits include the complete apse of the chapel of San Martin de Fuentiduevña from Segovia, the chapter house of the abbey at Pontaut in Gascony and a wealth of tapestries, manuscripts, reliquaries and glass.

The Cloisters is administered as a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  See

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture 'The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City', please click here.

Posted by: mike on Nov 25, 2011

Category:Victorian architectureExploring New York

New York City:  Woolworth Building

Cass Gilbert’s Woolworth Building (1913) in downtown New York, not far from Wall Street, is an unusual creation – a Gothic Revival skyscraper.

This cathedral of commerce was financed entirely by the proceeds of the original five-and-dime stores, its entire cost, $13 million, paid for in cash.

Frank W Woolworth’s design brief was for something like the Houses of Parliament but higher than the Metropolitan Life Tower, which is exactly what Cass Gilbert provided.

It reaches sixty storeys, 793 feet, and remained the world’s tallest building until the completion of the Chrysler Building in 1930.

It epitomises the technological advances of its period – curtain-wall construction on a load-bearing steel frame and an inevitable reliance on elevators for circulation.  Its three-storey lobby, of gold marble and glass mosaic, is breathtaking, and tinged with an endearing humour:  among the carvings can be found Cass Gilbert holding a model of the building and Frank Woolworth counting out the nickels and dimes that paid for it.

It was sold in 1998 for $126 million to the Witkoff Group:  its tenant is the New York University School of Continuing and Professional Studies.

There is a rich collection of illustrations and a brief description of the Woolworth Building at

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture 'The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City', please click here.

Posted by: mike on Nov 23, 2011

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesExploring New York

Cathedral of St John the Divine, New York City

The Cathedral of St John the Divine, New York City, is a game of two halves.  It was begun to the Romanesque/Byzantine style designs of Heins & LaFarge, in 1892, and grew so slowly that the rumour circulated it was being built by an old man and his son.  In fact it was nineteen years before the choir and crossing could be consecrated.

The problem of roofing the vault until the central tower could be built was resolved by inserting a Guastavino tile dome (similar to the Registry Building at Ellis Island and the concourse of Grand Central Terminal) at a cost of $8,500:  this temporary expedient, completed in only fifteen weeks, is still in place.  The Guastavino family were also responsible for the vaulting of the whole church, and of the crypt which supports the nave, crossing and choir floors.

Oddly, the Heins & LaFarge design was summarily abandoned in 1909 in favour of a longer French Gothic plan by Ralph Adams Cram, so that the nave and west front are being continued to the designs of his firm, Cram & Ferguson.  The junction between the two is abrupt, and can never be wholly successful.

By the autumn of 1941 the entire length of the nave was complete.  Construction was stopped when the United States entered World War II, and by the time work resumed in 1982 it proved necessary to import stonemasons from England to apprentice unemployed Harlem youths in the traditional skills.

When it’s finally completed, the Cathedral of St John the Divine, centre of the Episcopal archdiocese of New York, will be the largest (but not the longest) Gothic church in the world – 601 feet long, 320 feet wide across the transepts, with a nave vault 124 feet high.

But it can never be an entirely Gothic church without destroying and rebuilding the whole of the east end.

The Cathedral of St John the Divine website is at

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture 'The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City', please click here.

Posted by: mike on Sep 11, 2011

Category:Exploring New York

New York City:  World Trade Center (1981)

Anyone who was sentient at the time recalls where they were on September 11th 2001.  I was taking a class of sixteen-year-olds through the text of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and we were discussing – in relation to the three Witches – whether there could be an independent force of evil, or whether it existed only in the hearts and minds of human beings.  We only realised later that during that time the planes were slamming into the World Trade Center.

The so-called “twin towers”, which were not actually identical, were developed in the late 1960s to revitalise the southern tip of Manhattan.  Their genesis was controversial, because they belonged to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey which was independent of city and state planning jurisdiction.

Designed by Minoru Yamasaki & Associates in conjunction with Emery Roth & Sons, they were not universally liked.  These elegant modernist towers, clad in aluminium alloy, were dismissed by one writer as “filing cabinets”.

Inevitably, they grew to be an immediately recognised part of the cityscape.  Ed Vulliamy, in an Observer article [August 21st 2011] describes how they told the passing of each day:  “...deep gold at the eastern edge in the early morning, becoming paler towards midday and deepening again to a tangerine glow at dusk”.

They also contributed to New York legend.  Philippe Petit, a French tightrope walker, walked from one tower to the other in 1974 and was, for his pains, arrested for trespassing.  Three years later George Willig climbed the outside of the south tower using suction-pads.

And they were celebrated by tourists.  Express lifts carried the public in slightly under a minute past ten million square feet of office space to the indoor observation deck on the 107th floor, from which escalators gave access to a surprisingly unvertiginous roof-deck.  Bizarre effects were experienced at this height, including upwardly mobile rain. 

The towers attracted the attention of terrorists because of their particular design and their proximity.  A bomb which exploded in the basement on February 23rd 1993, destroying five floors, killing six and wounding at least a thousand, was apparently intended to tip one tower over to demolish the other.

The final atrocity, which killed over 2,752 people in the buildings, on the planes and in the frantic rescue operation, was no random attempt to create a terrorist “spectacular”.

The people who perpetrated this massacre knew perfectly well that flying a plane into, say, the Hancock or the Sears Towers in Chicago would do great damage but might not engineer a collapse.

The World Trade Center towers were constructed with external load-bearing walls to provide open-plan office space.  Though they had been designed to withstand an accidental collision, the airliners’ wingspan of 156ft ripped through buildings only 209ft wide.

The height of the impacts was far beyond the range of ground or airborne firefighters, and the amount of kerosene on board aircraft at the start of transcontinental flights created enough heat to weaken the steel structure, causing the floors to implode with terrifying speed.

Among the 9/11 terrorists were individuals with civil engineering expertise, trained to build things.  This wasn’t only a violent and a perverse act.  It was calculated evil.

Posted by: mike on Aug 5, 2011

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesExploring New York

St Patrick's Cathedral, New York City

When building began on the site of St Patrick's Cathedral in 1858, New York City's Catholics complained about how far out of town it was.  The cathedral fills the block between 50th and 51st Streets, Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue.

In mid-Victorian times the area was barely populated;  now it's in the midst of "the most expensive street in the world", directly opposite the Rockefeller Center, from where it's possible to gaze down on the 333-feet-high spires of James Renwick Jnr's very conventional English and French Gothic Revival church.

The church, built of brick faced with white marble, was dedicated in 1879, and the towers added in 1888;  Charles T Mathews designed the Lady Chapel addition which was finished in 1906.  It was eventually consecrated, having being declared free from debt, on October 5th 1911:  it had cost, up to that time, around $4 million.

The impact of twentieth-century development on its surroundings is stunning.  Yet, inside its dark portal, the seductive darkness of soaring Gothic arches provides a dramatic sense of entering a different world with different priorities to the world outside.

Over the years it has been the centre of solemn events not only for New York's Catholics but for its wider population:  here in June 1968 Edward Kennedy eulogised his dead brother Robert, the New York Senator;  here also were ceremonies to remember the victims and heroes of 9/11.

Somehow, the thick walls and dark glass shut out the noise of Manhattan.  Here is a haunting, dignified, echoing space in which to rest and be thankful.

I've visited New York City repeatedly, and even if I'm only there for a day or two I always try to visit St Patrick's.

The St Patrick's Cathedral website is at

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture 'The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City', please click here.

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