By Brian J. Pape, AIA, LEED-AP
THEN:: #1: Robert Moses’ Westside (aka Lincoln) Highway construction was built from 1929-1937, when the Hudson River docks were bustling with maritime and commercial activity. Prior to the elevated expressway, this stretch was known as “Death Avenue” for the many injuries caused by the trains and trucks on the streets. According to Police Commissioner Enright, who first proposed the highway, “During business hours, West Street [was] the most congested thoroughfare in the city.” Civic groups opposed the highway’s construction, supposedly because it would add ugliness to the waterfront. (Really?) On-off ramps were initially designed at 14th Street, but had to be relocated to 23rd Street due to the Gansevoort markets’ congestion.
This late 1930s photo looking north from the Manhattan Refrigeration Company loft building (ca. 1897-1935) roof at Gansevoort and West Streets, shows a hint of the intense vehicular chaos at street level, with the Gansevoort Market being supplied with merchandise and produce from the rail lines and ship wharves on the left, under the new highway.
The NY Central Railroad’s viaduct, just beyond the photo’s right edge, was built from 1929-1936 (another Robert Moses plan) to transport rail freight from the market and the manufacturing buildings to retail businesses downtown and uptown.
#2: The old New York Biscuit Company (changed to National, then Nabisco) building stands massively tall in the right background, where the NY Central spur ran right into the building, for loading railcars protected from the elements.
#3: In the middle-right foreground, meatpacking buildings with their functional sidewalk canopies can be seen shading the trucks pulled up to the loading docks. The John Jacob Astor estate controlled up to ½ of all properties in the area until the 1920’s.
#4: On the left, the highway bends around a solid line of wharf fronts proceeding north from the Gansevoort peninsula off to the left. Smokestacks of huge ocean liners and cargo ships protrude above the roofs in the background.
#5: A small 3-story hotel sits at 51 Tenth Avenue and the Lincoln Highway.
#6: After a century of landfilling along its shoreline, the city had reversed that pattern by excavating riverfronts between Gansevoort and West 23rd Streets (ca. 1902-1910), for Chelsea Piers. This is where the Titanic would have docked.
#7: The Carpathian rescue ship for the Titanic survivors disembarked at Pier 54.
The virtually continuous façade of wharves was the western terminus of city streets from the Battery all the way to the Upper West Side.
Citizens did not want to experience being close to the putrid polluted Hudson River waters in those industrial days except out of sheer necessity. The only desirable residential areas were as far from the waterfronts as possible.
NOW: The roof terrace of the new Whitney Museum presents this view north in the historic “Meat Packing District”. The Gansevoort Market area has been transformed into a retail and office center while repurposing some of the historic building stock, although nothing west of the Highline Park is protected by the 2007 Historic District.
During the post-WWII years, prosperity brought drastic changes to America, and to NYC in particular, as the world’s busiest seaport saw changes to sea freight, local transportation options, and the desire to “clean up the slums.” New container ships needed sprawling open dock areas for mobile cranes to unload and stack huge cargo containers from ever larger ships, so new ports were built on other harbor shores. New tunnels (the Holland in 1927, the Lincoln in 1937) and bridges were providing the connection for trucks to transport most goods on city streets. Slowly, the abandoned wharves rotted into the harbor, coinciding with the growing rot of a nearly bankrupt city whose societal ills seemed almost too big to resolve.
But the citizens of NYC did not give up. They attacked the problems in any way they could find. Some neighborhoods were bulldozed, clearing the “slums” for new public housing projects along the city’s undesirable waterfronts. Heroic efforts to clean up the contaminated Hudson River began to have limited success.
#1: The Westside Highway, abandoned in 1973 and demolished in 1989, was replaced by a landscaped boulevard. (Briefly in the 1980’s, the Highline viaduct was proposed as a truck viaduct).
#2: The Nabisco bakery buildings, just barely visible to the left of the Standard Hotel straddling the Highline Park, are now office buildings incorporated into a shopping district around the Chelsea Market mall.
#3: A few old structures from the market past are used for bars, restaurants, and shops. The Standard Hotel replaced many old buildings.
#4: The waterfront area was subject to many proposals to revitalize that defining “front door” feature of this city of islands.
Since 1995, the Hudson River Park Trust has been developing the waterfront into a linear park, free for all to use and to enjoy our waterfront views once again. The Gansevoort Peninsula, off to the left, will become a park, add access to the water, and include a large playing field so desperately needed by the neighborhood. The existing Marine Fire Station on Pier 53 will remain at the NW corner of the peninsula, while a new David Hammons sculpture is being built to re-imagine the historic outline of the old Pier 52 Wharf building on the south shore.
Long-gone 13th Avenue will be memorialized as a pedestrian esplanade along the western shore of the peninsula.
#5: The old triangular building at 51 Tenth Avenue is now the Liberty Inn.
#6: The pier house facades are mostly gone except for a few examples seen here from upper left to lower left: the Chelsea Piers, and Pier 57, are repurposed as recreation and shopping piers.
#7: the iron frame of the old Cunard Pier 54 will soon serve as an entry to Diller’s “Little Island,” at Pier 55, providing recreation and performance spaces.
#8: The railroad tracks no longer penetrate the interiors of the loft buildings, but the Highline urban park highlights this unique viaduct, threading its way through the neighborhood up to Hudson Yards.
#9: Among all the new and repurposed buildings, this one-story meat distributing building adjacent to the Whitney Museum has protective covenants by the city, hanging on to a past soon gone.
If anyone has a map of the historic street layout with 13th Avenue prior to 1900, I would appreciate getting a copy.
Brian J. Pape is a LEED-AP “green” architect consulting in private practice, serves on the Manhattan District 2 Community Board, is co-chair of the American Institute of Architects NY Design for Aging Committee, and is a journalist who writes about architecture.