By Brian J Pape, AIA, LEED-AP
Then: The Pier 54 gate header has the faint lettering CUNARD WHITE STAR, dating back to the pier’s heyday when this was part of a row of grand buildings embellished with pink granite facades that totally blocked the waterfront docks from the city. In testament to the prominence of the world’s busiest seaport, both freight and passengers moved through these gates. Pier 54 docked Cunard’s RMS Carpathia, which delivered the survivors of the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic in April of 1912, greeted by thousands who had been following the news reports of the disastrous loss of over 1,500 passengers and crew. In 1915, Pier 54 was the departure point for the RMS Lusitania’s voyage to Liverpool. 1,198 civilian passenger and crew lives were lost when the ship was sunk by German U-boat torpedoes near Ireland. The unprovoked attack contributed to the U.S. entry into World War l. Pier 54 was also used by U.S. troop ships during World War II. Credit: NYC Municipal Archives, undated (est. 1920s).
Now: The skeletal structure of the Pier 54 archway on the West Street side of Hudson River Park, near West 13th Street, now marks the entry to what has been reimagined as “Little Island,” Manhattan’s newest attraction.
As Barry Diller remarked, without a hint of rancor, when responding to questions about the delays, lawsuits, and cost over-runs, during a local TV interview on the May 21, 2021 grand opening day, “In New York, anything worth doing is going to get some resistance. It was worth it.” Starting with initial conversations between Diller and HRPT (Hudson River Park Trust) in 2013, an idea to save Pier 54 (since Pier 55 was already demolished) developed into the 2.4-acre square pier that is now supported by 132 pot-shaped concrete structures high enough above the water to avoid flooding.
In October, 2017 the CCNY (City Club of New York) agreed to cease litigation, and in a joint statement with Governor Cuomo and Diller, expressed that its priorities were always the completion of Hudson River Park and the environmental protection of the river. With the resistance quelled, construction was allowed to continue. Community members feared that this billionaire’s folly (privately-managed “public” space) would turn into a private party space, or that the HRPT couldn’t sustain the long-term maintenance, or that the Hudson River esplanade would be degraded by the tourist crowds. And what was the purpose of the new pier anyway?
Although Little Island is relatively small, it takes several visits on successive days to absorb the many nooks and crannies and features and vistas that this park offers, and one is hard-pressed to find fault now that it is open to all. Little Island is open daily from 6:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m., with timed free tickets after 12 noon.
A brief description of features can’t do Little Island justice; it is a visual delight, peaceful, diversely attractive, and affords a unique perspective of the Hudson River and its environment. The broad bridges that connect the esplanade with the island rise gently to reach the main plaza level where the central pavement is furnished with sunshades, picnic tables, and food vendors, and which may include tavern-type servings in the future.
There is no question that the landscaping is the dominant feature of Little Island, but the views at every step of the way are equally enticing. More than 66,000 bulbs and 114 trees have been planted, some of which will grow to 60 feet tall. Flowering vines climbing up the netting of the railings along the stairways will soon create a living screen of their own. Grassy hills meant to encourage visitors to walk on and play on rise up, enveloped by winding stairways and gently sloping pathways. Another set of ramps and stairs climb up to the top of the entry arch pods facing West Street.
Don’t miss the embedded music checkerboard just as you pass under the arching pods at the south, which sends delightful chime tones floating through the air. At the north bridge, there is a xylophone type musical instrument available for visitors to play. Along the paths are whirligigs that fascinate the eye as they rotate. The restrooms burrowed under the hillside feature a den-like cave of sprayed concrete ceilings. Little portholes in the hallway give a surprising view of the underside of the pods and the water below.
As we make the climb to one of the observatory peaks we pass the exposed small openings between the pods and can appreciate the detail of the gently curving pod edges, guarded by the unique steel rods that mimic the wood piling remnants of the abandoned piers. The heavy timber wooden benches even get special attention, as the planks are hand-carved and sculpted with softened edges. Beyond a ridge overlooking the wide Hudson River a 687-seat amphitheater is tucked into the slope.
Last but not least, of course, Little Island is a great people-watching spot, with people from around the world and around the city coming to take in this newest attraction or just to relax.
The majority of the 500 events planned for this year will be free ticketed events or low-cost, with performances and educational programming six days a week, offering music, dance, circus, or spoken word. No private parties or rentals for weddings, etc. will be allowed. Currently, there are four artists in residence who are the curators for programming: tap dancer and choreographer Ayodele Casel; playwright and award-winning director Tina Landau; actor, singer, and music director Michael McElroy; acting, storytelling, and musical group, the PigPen Theatre Co.
The Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation, founded by Barry Diller and his wife Diane von Furstenberg, committed to pay for the construction cost of $260 million, plus another $120 million over the next 10 years for maintenance and theatrical productions. The city contributed an additional $17 million for the esplanade and two access bridges, and the state contributed $4 million. Designed by Thomas Heatherwick’s London studio, teamed with NY landscape design firm MNLA, this is a gift that will keep on giving to the city and the world. “Every time I come to Little Island I’m struck by the same sense of wonder,” MNLA founding principal Signe Nielsen said.
Displays on the esplanade railings provide historic reminders of Pier 54’s past. I still think the “54” on the arch would be a nice commemorative finishing touch. Photo credit: Brian J Pape, AIA.
Brian J. Pape is a LEED-AP “green” architect consulting in private practice, serves on the Manhattan District 2 Community Board Landmarks Committee and Quality of Life Committee, is co-chair of the American Institute of Architects NY Design for Aging Committee, is a member of AIANY Historic Buildings Committee, and is a journalist specializing in architecture subjects.