In between the two world wars, as New York’s middle class population was burgeoning and the city was developing at a rapid pace, a new brand of architecture known today as Art Deco came into existence. Characterized by all things bold, angular, striking, and theatrical, Art Deco was the bridge between classical intricacy and modern minimalism, but it has a unique style all its own.
New York City is the worldwide capital of Art Deco. Countless skyscrapers and luxury hotels, as well as diners, theaters, and public spaces are marked by its singular aesthetic. Art Deco became popular during the Jazz Age, when radio, pop culture, improved communication, and the onset of modernity were inspiring the city’s populace to push the limits of what lifestyle could be. Anything was possible at this time in New York—and the city’s architecture reflected this spirit. Even as the Depression set in, Art Deco buildings kept rising up.
Some of New York’s Art Deco buildings have become undeniably iconic and world famous, like the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building. Others are lesser-known, but all are emblems of a unique time in American history, when jazz was taking the city by storm and new levels of freedom were suddenly attainable for more people than ever before.
Read on to discover 10 of the most beautiful, lesser-known Art Deco buildings, from subway stations to garden gates, bathhouses to luxury apartments and more.
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10. The Madison-Belmont Building
Edgar Brandt designed the entranceway for this building in collaboration with Cheney Brothers, a prominent silk mill company back when the Madison Avenue area was known as the Silk District. Brandt designed the entrance and exhibition hall of Cheney Brothers’ Madison Avenue headquarters in September of 1924. Although its design was primarily traditional, the Madison-Belmont was one of the first buildings in New York to incorporate Art Deco motifs.
Located on, the building is characterized by the looming iron and bronze framework that Brandt designed to surround its entrance. Innovative for the time, the web of interlaced domes, colored black and gold and strewn with curlicues and chunky floral carvings, would soon be imitated all over the city.
9. 70 Pine Street
At 952 feet, 70 Pine was the tallest building in downtown Manhattan from 1932 until the completion of the World Trade Towers. It was one of the last Art Deco skyscrapers completed, for World War II began soon after it was built and another skyscraper didn’t rise up downtown for another 30 years. 70 Pine was originally called the Cities Service Building (after the company that built it in 1932) and the AIG Building (who bought it in 1976 and were forced to sell it during the Great Recession). Today it is the eighth tallest building in the city.
With its rooftop glass observatory and limestone walls designed to resemble a mountain, 70 Pine is one of New York’s most recognizable skyscrapers. It has a lot to offer on the inside, too—there are two wraparound terraces near the top, and its Art Deco-style lobby is now a shopping center open to visitors.
8. The American Radiator Building, now the Bryant Park Hotel
With its lavender-tinted windows, towering gold-crowned facade, and domed entranceway, the Bryant Park Hotel (originally the American Radiator Building) looks like it might belong in a fairytale or a nightmare. It was designed by architect Raymond Hood (who was also involved in Rockefeller Center and the New York Daily News building) in 1924, it contains some elements of the neo-Gothic tradition, lined with leering gargoyles and twisted spires. Its vertical windows are distinctly modern, and its dark black facade interrupted by brilliant gold trimming lodges it firmly in the Art Deco world. It was actually designed to represent the product that it was created to house—the radiator—and has been compared to a glowing coal, especially when illuminated by floodlights at night. It was New York’s first building with such extravagant exterior lighting.
It originally served as a large public showroom for radiators, boilers, and other new inventions at the time. Its black brickwork gives it an imposing, looming presence that makes it seem larger than life. Golden carvings of dragons, dolphins, and other creatures add to its otherworldly aura. Today it serves as a luxury hotel, and hosts a bar and a movie theatre in its basement.
7. General Electric’s RCA Building
The RCA Building’s most recognizable feature is its extravagant, imposing rooftop, with its blue and white spires shooting up to the sky like icicles or stalactites. The building was designed by the firm Cross & Cross for the company General Electric, and was completed in 1920. It was designed to emulate electricity and radio waves, hence the spires shooting off in all directions. Radios were taking off at the time, due to the incentive World War I had provided for improvements to radio technology and the increased popularity of commercial radio shows.
The building was intended to embody the radio waves that were only just beginning to link the country and the world together. Its red brick and marble facade boasts silver lighting-bolts and iron clocks bordered by elegant brick fans, and its insides are just as grand as its outsides, with vaulted ceilings, aluminum plating, aquamarine-colored glass chandeliers, and light pink marble walls creating an atmosphere of opulence and evoking a visceral conversation between static and stone.
Located at 570 Lexington Avenue, the building is commands a striking presence even when compared to the more modern skyscrapers that have risen up around it. At night, lit up by fluorescents, it almost seems to be a mass of blue fire, rising above the city and proclaiming the all-consuming nature of technology, a phenomenon that continues to define the modern world.
6. Brill Building
The Brill Building, located at 1616 Broadway on 49th Street, is relatively small when compared to the others on this list (though it was originally intended to be the world’s tallest building), but its architecture makes a big impact. Its golden entranceway was designed by A. E. Lefcourt, who modeled the bust in its center after his son, Alan, who died young while the building was under construction. Other Art Deco design shows up in its floral designs atop windows and in the terra-cotta reliefs.
It is most well-known for its importance in music history, as it served as the headquarters for many popular music industry offices. Many famous musicians also wrote and worked in the building, including Elvis Presley, Carole King, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Liza Minelli, The Ronnettes, and more. It also housed some of music’s most prominent songwriting duos, often songwriter-producer duos who competed to churn out the next hit throughout the 20th century.
5. Eldorado Apartments
Eldorado, that mythical city of eternal opulence, may be lost to all but only the most intrepid explorers, but the New York apartment building that bears its name is available to anyone who can swing its price tag. Located on the edge of Central Park, at 300 Central Park West, overlooking the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, the Eldorado was constructed in 1929-31, with designs by Margon & Holder.
Its design was futuristic for its time, with its bold parallel towers each culminating in sharp spires that overlook the reservoir. It almost resembles an electric plug, reaching out of the trees, seeming ready to puncture the clouds. Its yellow cast stone and yellow terra-cotta facade evokes the city that inspired its name. Its three entryways are bordered by bronze frames and birds among gardens of Art Deco ornamentation. And its twin cupolas and spire are Art Deco to their core – scaled firsthand by our team.
4. Paul J. Rainey Memorial Gates at the Bronx Zoo
The northern entrance to the Bronx Zoo is defined by the stunning gates that present visitors’ portal into the animal kingdom. They were designed by the architect Paul Manship, a prominent classicist sculptor who collaborated on the gates with the architect Charles A. Platt.
The gates, completed in 1934, marked a pronounced departure from both artists’ relatively conservative backgrounds. Their intricate, lifelike depictions of zoo animals including leaping deer, lions, birds, and more were all designed with Art Deco’s signature sinewy, angular aesthetic in mind. The gates still stand today, a fanciful introduction to the zoo and a reminder of one of the Art Deco movement’s innovative achievements.
3. The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel
Its very name evokes a sense of wealth and luxury, and the Waldorf-Astoria has been a symbol of grandeur since its inception. It was the world’s tallest hotel when it opened, rising 625 feet into the air.
From the exterior, it is a relatively underwhelming mass of gray brick and stone, but you can see the Art Deco elements upon a closer look. The hotel’s entrance is covered with drapes emblazoned with sculpted women, and its foyer is embellished with mythological imagery.
The Waldorf-Astoria as it is today is the result of a collision of many different forces. In 1859, members of the Astor family built houses on Fifth Avenue that would eventually become the Victorian-style Hotel Waldorf, which was later joined to the neighboring seventeen-story Astoria. In 1929, the hotel moved to the more stylish Park Avenue, the original hotel site was turned into the Empire State Building, and plans for the new Waldorf-Astoria were set into motion. The new architects, Shultze & Weaver, were faced with the imperative to design a building that both appealed to modern sensibilities and maintained the extravagant Victorian beauty of its prior location. Thus, the Waldorf-Astoria came to embody both Greek classicism and Art Deco modernism. Its iconic Art Deco interiors were recently dedicated as a New York City interior landmark, a relief to preservationists while the building undergoes partial conversion into condos and the hotel is renovated by new owners.
2. Park Slope’s Fourth Avenue & Ninth Street Subway Station, Independent Line (IND)
Part of what made Art Deco so special and so successful was the fact that it was not only reserved for high society, but could be applicable in almost any setting. Many diners, neighborhood haunts, and public places could be just as Art Deco as your average skyscraper. One such public space, hiding in plain sight, that managed to lodge itself in the Art Deco tradition is Park Slope‘s Fourth Avenue & Ninth Street Subway Station.
The station is easily recognizable by its massive curved window. Rising like an ocean wave, the window lets light pour in to the station. Its neat geometric angles are classic Art Deco, as are the embellishments beneath its windows. The station opened in 1933, and has remained an under appreciated gem ever since.
1. Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza
Located right next to the entrance to Prospect Park, the Brooklyn Public Library is easily recognizable due to its massive and striking entranceway, with its fifty-foot columns embellished with luminescent light-gold figures.
The library was made mostly of unblemished limestone, a smooth light material broken only by its stunning entranceway. Above the entrance’s doors, the sculptor Thomas H. Jones designed fifteen squares, each bearing the insignia of a unique character from American literature. Edgar Allan Poe‘s Raven, Moby Dick, Tom Sawyer, and many other classic characters are featured.
Below Jones’ designs, C. Paul Jennewin also created fifteen squares that hold golden reliefs of important figures in the development of science and art. Its columns are also emblazoned with the golden silhouettes of famous mythological figures.
The library is a tribute to learning and literature, an inviting and imposing presence that touches on modern Art Deco elements while honoring the thinkers and icons of the past that made modernity into what it is today.
For more, check out this list of the top 10 postmodern buildings of the Bronx and this list of 14 beautiful vintage Art Deco mailboxes in NYC.
And don’t forget to experience New York’s Art Deco wonders in person by signing up for Untapped Cities’ Art Deco walking tour series with Anthony W. Robins, author of “New York Art Deco: A Guide to Gotham’s Jazz Age Architecture” and resident Art Deco expert.
More dates and itineraries available here.