Robert A.M. Stern: A historian's tour of the Big Apple's architectural core

Historians in the News

Manhattan gridlock got you down? It helps to take the long view. "There were traffic jams in the 1880s. You couldn't get from midtown or the fashionable area of Murray Hill to Wall Street in less than an hour," says architect and historian Robert A.M. Stern. "The richest people, the Rockefellers and Morgan, took the Elevated [train] down to Wall Street because there was no other way to do it."

Founder and senior partner of his own firm and dean of the Yale School of Architecture, Mr. Stern knows something about the long view. Since 1983, he has been writing a history of New York City's architecture and urban fabric. Four volumes have already appeared: "New York 1880" (covering 1865-90), "New York 1900" (1890-1915), "New York 1930" (the interwar years) and "New York 1960" (World War II to the bicentennial). They range in length from 500 to 1,400 pages, but the latest, "New York 2000" (Monacelli Press, $100), outdoes them all. Covering 1976 to 2000 and written, like the others, with the assistance of co-authors, it runs to 1,520 pages--and nearly 11 pounds. It landed in bookstores, dainty as a wrecking ball, earlier this month.

Interviewed in a sleek, minimalist aerie that serves as his "writing room" two floors above his architectural offices in the West 30s, Mr. Stern says that the terror attacks of 2001 and their aftermath might have made a more logical stopping point. But he opted for the millennium when he realized that the story of rebuilding Ground Zero was "a psychodrama that's going to go on forever."

Will there be a "New York 2030"? Maybe, although by then "I'll be 93 or something like that," he observes.

Building by building, street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood, borough by borough, Mr. Stern's five books trace New York's rise from prosperous but provincial city--limited to Manhattan island and largely bounded by 42nd Street and the waterfront--to the sprawling, five-borough world capital it is today. They paint a picture of a city in flux, an urban palimpsest undergoing a perpetual, 140-year makeover that shows no signs of stopping. The comment made by one observer in 1866 could almost be the city's motto: "A new town has been built on top of the old one, and another excavated under it."
One surprise is that the qualities we variously celebrate and rail against today aren't of recent vintage, but were in evidence within the first decades after the Civil War: the city's infectious energy; its magnet status to those in search of opportunity, be they immigrants or transplants from other parts of the country ("Why did John D. Rockefeller move from Cleveland?" asks Mr. Stern, rhetorically. "He knew he had to be in New York."); its role as a financial center; the congestion, the overbuilding and the middle-class flight; the insistent pressure to expand outward; and the primal need to conquer distance and height through unheard-of feats of engineering. "The story stays the same, but the characters are always new," notes the author.

A recurring theme throughout the series is New York as America's "representative city." That will be bitter gall to those in the hinterlands who already think New Yorkers are too full of themselves by half, but Mr. Stern briskly ticks off his arguments. "It is the financial capital of the country. It is the cultural capital. And now it's the media capital. It is also the part of the country that has the richest representation of the diversity of the country," he says. "And it has these amazing institutions which, though they are New York institutions, are really national," like the Metropolitan Museum and the New York Public Library.

Lastly, he says, New York has things that no other city in the U.S. has, at least not in the same way. "Frederick Law Olmstead built in many places," says Mr. Stern. "But Central Park is incomparable." Case closed....

comments powered by Disqus