When you think of landmarks, you probably think of some of New York City’s oldest buildings, or its stunning skyscrapers. But the breadth of landmarking has increased since the New York City law was passed just over 50 years ago and amidst the over 1600 landmarks in New York City are a fair share of quirky ones, including trees, amusement rides, a ruin, a fence, historic clocks, and more.
1. The Landmarked Tree: The Magnolia Grandiflora in Bed-Stuy
Photo via Wikimedia Commons by Jim Henderson
A Magnolia tree on Lafayette Avenue, between Marcy and Tompkins Avenues in Bedford-Stuyvesant is one of only two trees that have been designated as New York City landmarks – and this doesn’t include what is believed to be the oldest and tallest tree in New York City, located in Alley Pond Park, Queens. This tree, of the species Magnolia grandiflora, was planted in 1885 by a William Lemken from a seedling brought back from North Carolina. Placed in front of his townhouse, the evergreen tree releases white lemon-scented flowers which are the state flowers of Mississippi and Louisiana. The Magnolia grandiflora hails from North Carolina, and was one of the first exotic trees to be exported to Europe. It can grow up to 70 feet, but rarely survives north of Philadelphia.
It was designated a New York City landmark on February 3, 1970 by a unanimous vote. In a public hearing however, opinions were more mixed – 9 spoke in favor, 8 were opposed. Regardless, the Landmarks Preservation Commission clearly felt passionate about the tree, writing in the designation report, “It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that the seedling which Mr. William Lemken sent up from North Carolina some 85 years ago…should have survived so long. It is thus for its inherent beauty as well as for its rare hardiness that this particular Magnolia grandiflora has become a neighborhood symbol and a focus of community pride.”
In fact, a local resident, Hattie Carthan, was responsible for preserving the tree in the 1950s and raising funds for it in the face of oncoming development – a parking lot and housing projects were planned next to it.
Unlike other landmark designation reports, the Magnolia grandiflora report contained very specific instructions due to the unique nature of the landmark. These specifications included how buildings on the block were to be demolished to make way for the housing project (in order to protect the tree), what thermostat settings needed to be on new basement rooms to be built, and how to care for the ground around the tree. “The Commission, no more than any of the ardent proponents of this designation, wishes to see a dead tree as a Landmark,” they wrote.
Sadly, scaffolding has been up on the brownstone at 679 Lafayette Avenue since 2011 but the Magnolia tree is still standing tall.
2. The Landmarked Ruin: The Roosevelt Island Smallpox Hospital
Before the end of the 19th century, it was common to isolate patients suffering from diseases like smallpox in hospitals on New York City’s other islands. North Brother Island was home to a typhoid sanatorium, Hoffman and Swinburne Islands off Staten Island were completely manmade quarantine stations, and a mob of arsonists burned down the Marine Quarantine Hospital on Staten Island.
Closer to Manhattan was Roosevelt Island, up until more recent history a place to locate those in society that didn’t quite fit: prisoners, lunatics and smallpox victims. The location of the Renwick Smallpox Hospital on Roosevelt Island was strategically chosen so patients would be far away from the healthy population on Manhattan. The hospital, completed in 1856 in a Gothic-revival style, was designed by James Renwick Jr., who is known for designing St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue.
For the 19 years the hospital operated (until 1875), approximately 7,000 patients were treated here. In 1875, the hospital relocated to North Brother Island because Blackwell’s Island had become too populated and the building was converted into a nurses dormitory. By the 1950s, the original smallpox hospital was abandoned.
In 1975, the Landmarks Preservation Committee declared the structure a city landmark, the only landmarked ruin in New York City. They reinforced the structure to prevent it from toppling to the ground, while the Four Freedoms Park had done some additional reinforcement hoping to turn it into a visitors center, a project that has since stalled.
3. LGBTQ Landmark: Stonewall Inn
The Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village was landmarked in June 2015, a clear gesture to landmark the history behind the building – going beyond aesthetic or architectural significance. The Stonewall Inn, the designation report states, is “one of the most important sites associated with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender history in New York City and the nation.” It was here that the clients of the bar and neighborhood residents stood together to protest a police crackdown on the Stonewall Inn, after a standard raid typical on gay clubs in New York City.
The Stonewall Rebellion, or uprising, as it is termed, served as a catalyst for the creation of more activist organizations here in New York City, across the United States and around the world. LGBTQ Pride Month, which takes place in June every year, evolved from the Christopher Street Liberation Day parade in 1970 that commemorated the one year anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion.
Michael Kimmelman wrote recently in The New York Times that the designation of Stonewall was a “no-brainer and declaration of civic pride,” but notes its place in the evolution of landmarking in New York City. The designation, “also showed how, absent additional regulations, the city’s landmark law had become a catchall. As a safeguard of architecture of aesthetic significance, it clearly wasn’t intended to enshrine what looks like the current Home Depot picture window or brick veneer on the inn’s facade. The law doesn’t prevent the nail salon next to Stonewall from expanding into the inn. It doesn’t dictate use.”
4. Landmarked Dry Dock #1 at Brooklyn Navy Yard
The Brooklyn Navy Yard, as a whole, is a National Landmark, but one of the individual New York City landmarks within it is Dry Dock #1, landmarked in 1975 as “was one of the great feats of American engineering in the first half of the 19th century.” Built between 1840 and 1851, the dry dock is a below-water level chamber that can be drained to allow boats to be repaired. Dry Dock #1 was the first permanent dry dock in the New York City area. Dry Dock #1 is also a popular spot for film locations on television shows like Gotham and Jessica Jones.
5. Landmarked Colonial Manhattan Street Plan
1916 Redrawing of The Castello Plan, map of 1660 New Amsterdam via Wikimedia Commons.
While many of the buildings in downtown Manhattan are landmarked, you may be surprised to discover that the colonial street plan itself was landmarked in 1983. As the designation report states, “The street plan of lower Manhattan, south of Wall Street, within the confines of the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam, is a striking reminder of New York’s colonial past and provides virtually the only above-ground physical evidence in Manhattan of the Dutch presence in New York during the 17th century.” The Landmarks Preservation Commission also notes that the narrow winding streets have accommodated the growth of 360 years of New York City.
This colonial street grid is the subject of our upcoming walking tour “Remnants of Dutch New Amsterdam” which will delve into this landmarked grid, along with the above ground remnants that can still be visited today. Join us on this tour in March or April, led by Untapped New York’s’ tour guide Justin Rivers, a playwright specializing in New York City history:
6. Landmarked Fence: Bowling Green
The fence at Bowling Green has been an important observer of the upheaval prior and during the American Revolution. The fence was originally constructed to protect the statue of George III at Bowling Green, which was subsequently knocked down by a mob of soldiers and civilians in 1776. The statue itself was torn down and the ornaments on the fence were ripped off and melted down for ammunition. Nonetheless, the designation report states, the fence “fared better than the statue,” and was repaired in 1786.
From 1914 to 1919, the fence was relocated to Central Park to accommodate the construction of the first subway line but was later rediscovered and returned back to Bowling Green.
Join us on a tour of the remnants of Dutch New Amsterdam in March or April, led by Untapped New York’ tour guide Justin Rivers, a playwright specializing in New York City history:
7. Landmarked Sidewalk Clocks
There are seven sidewalk clocks designated as New York City landmarks. While sidewalk clocks were once a dominant form of street furniture in the late 19th century (and often used as advertising), many have been lost to automobile accidents and sidewalk ordinances. Four of New York City’s landmarked sidewalk clocks are in Manhattan – in front of Eataly (the former Toy Center), in front of the Sherry Netherland Hotel, at 1501 Third Avenue, and at 522 Fifth Avenue. There are two in Queens, one at 16-11 Jamaica Avenue, thought to have been installed by Busch’s Jewelers and a Wagners Jewelers Clock at 30-78 Steinway Street. There is also one in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the Bomelsteins Jewelers clock at 753 Manhattan Avenue.
8. Landmarked Viaducts
There are two viaducts that are landmarked in New York City – the Manhattan Valley Viaduct that runs from 122nd to 135th Streets and the Pershing Square Viaduct that runs on Park Avenue from Grand Central Terminal. The Manhattan Valley Viaduct was built for the IRT subway line and the Landmarks Preservation Commission reports that it “is the most imposing and visually impressive aboveground engineer ing structure of the IRT subway system” an an “excellent example of a double-hinged parabolic braced arch structure. Supporting both the tracks and the 125th Street station, the viaduct is a testament to the skill of the engineers and contractors who designed and built New York City’s first subway between 1900 and 1904.”
The metal and iron Pershing Square Viaduct was designed by the architects of Grand Central Terminal, Warren & Wetmore, included as part of the central circulation system of the terminal itself and made Park Avenue a complete north-south avenue.
9. Landmarked Public Housing Projects
First Houses (Astor Housing project), Alphabet City, Manhattan. Completed: 1936. Photographer unknown/Courtesy of La Guardia and Wagner Archives, La Guardia Community College/The City University of New York/New York City Housing Authority )
Public housing projects often get a bad rap today, but it’s important to remember that the architecture behind New York City’s affordable housing was often cutting edge. As the current exhibits Affordable Housing: A New York Legacy at the Museum of the City of New York and Affordable Housing in New York at Hunter East Harlem Gallery show, New York City was a pioneering force behind the housing movement. Given this context, it’s not surprising that several housing projects are also landmarks, including the York Avenue Estate, once the largest low-income housing project in the world and offered designs to allow more light than traditional tenements (though significant changes have been made to the facades).
The Harlem River Houses, also landmarked, were the first federally-funded, federally-built, and federally-owned housing project in New York City, commended for its physical planning and sense of community. First Houses in Alphabet City is also landmarked, the first New York City-sponsored housing project.
10. Landmarked Carousel: Forest Park
Not only is the carousel at Forest Park landmarked, but numerous accompanying structures are as well, including the ticket booth, band organ, and of course, the carved wood figures. The figures were made between 1903 and 1910 by D. C. Muller & Brother, a firm noted for their “expressive anatomical detail and unusual attention to military fittings,” contends the landmark designation report. This is not the original carousel in Forest Park, of which little is known, but the current carousel built by D.C. Muller was relocated here from Lakeview Park, Massachusetts.
11. Landmark Roads: Eastern Parkway and Ocean Parkway
Eastern Parkway is considered the “world’s first parkway,” and is both a New York City landmark and a National Landmark. Designed by Central Park and Prospect Park architects Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, Eastern Parkway was intended to emulate the boulevards of Europe, like the Champs-Élysées. Built in conjunction with Grand Army Plaza and Prospect Park, Eastern Parkway fittingly terminates at the grand Soldiers’ and Sailors’ arch, much like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, designed also by Olmstead and Vaux, is also a New York City landmark.
12. Landmarked Amusement Park Rides at Coney Island
Photo by Mike Scully
Next, check out these stunning interior landmarks in NYC.