Based on the tchotchkes at most New York City souvenir shops, you’d think the only cool buildings in the five boroughs were the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building. Look in a guidebook, and you might learn about the Dakota and Grand Central Terminal and a few other celebrity structures. But the city’s streets are full of smaller, more understated architectural wonders about which even lifelong residents might know next to nothing–and that aren’t bombarded by tourists every day.
Architect Stephen Dargo teaches a class on these oft-overlooked architectural gems, called “Great New York City Buildings Few Guidebooks Will Mention,” at the Brooklyn Brainery. “It’s not just the Empire State Building and the Chrysler building that make the city’s architectural landscape great. There are buildings you might walk past and not think too much about as a tourist or city resident, but are great for their own reasons,” Dargo says. Here, Dargo highlights four buildings to which you should direct any visiting friends who want to avoid selfie-stick-wielding crowds.
Eagle Warehouse & Storage Company, Dumbo
Designed by architect Frank Freeman and completed in 1894, Dumbo’s Eagle Warehouse & Storage Company is “a masterpiece of Romanesque Revivalist architecture,” Dargo says. It was built on the former site of the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper, for which Walt Whitman was famously an editor before he was asked to leave because of his anti-slavery views.
Dargo’s favorite detail: a stone dragon carved into the building’s facade. “Iconographically, dragons are always used as symbols of defense. You put a dragon somewhere where you want to keep evil spirits out. Here you have a building that’s a fortress for your stuff, which is the big picture of the building as a whole, but that little dragon represents the overall concept.” In 1980, it was converted into apartments. The penthouse with the giant clock face as a window–situated over the building’s machicolations, AKA “murder holes”–is one of the city’s most coveted dwellings. Waiting in line for pizza at Patsy Grimaldi’s in DUMBO gives you a great view of the warehouse.
Coignet Stone Company Building, Gowanus
Built in 1873 by William Field and Son, the stately Coignet Stone Company Building was the first concrete edifice in the city. “In the midst of this emptiness, the Brooklyn Improvement Company, whatever that may be, occupies a classic stucco mansion, standing at the corner of Third Street and Third Avenue in ironic solitude – or should we say hopeful anticipation,” wrote architecture critic Lewis Mumford in 1952 of Coignet (the “emptiness” being Gowanus). Six decades later, a Whole Foods would crop up right next door, ending the hopeful anticipation. “It’s such a weird juxtaposition,” Dargo says. Abandoned Coignet’s insides would be left to crumble.
Bowery Savings Bank, Lower East Side
The Bowery, one of Manhattan’s oldest streets, was long “a place of congregation for many of the notorious habitues of the underworld,” as a 1905 postcard put it. The Bowery Savings Bank, built in 1895 by famed architect Sanford White, was meant to help fix the neighborhood’s reputation. The bank’s building committee instructed “that an edifice ought to be erected which should impress the beholder with its dignity and fortress-like strength on account of the neighborhood in which it is to be located.” This Romanesque “temple for banking,” as Dargo calls it, features Corinthian pilasters and a pediment bedecked with sculptures representing Time with an hour glass and scythe. Its style also reflects the Beautiful movement and the Beaux Arts style. It’s now home to Capitale NY, one of the city’s most coveted events spaces.
Starrett-Lehigh Building, Chelsea
This modernist fortress represented “a victory for engineering” when it was built in 1930 by Russell G. and Walter M. Cory Architects. “The contrast between the long, continuous red-brick bands and the green-framed windows, with sapphire reflections or depths, is as sound a use of color as one can see about the city,”Lewis Mumford wrote in The New Yorker in 1931. With mushroom-shaped columns, 1.8 million square feet of space, 110,000 panes of glass (all of which are slated to be replaced over the next few years), and 9 miles of strip windows, it now provides office space for the likes of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Club Monaco US of Ralph Lauren Corporation and Tommy Hilfiger USA.
Stephen Dargo will give an in-depth talk on these buildings and more at the Brooklyn Brainery on Thursday, September 24th at 8:30pm.