Remember how we were going to keep some lists? We had our oldest churches in New York, and we had our skyscrapers. I’m thinking now that the best way to approach the churches will be to go by denomination, or rather to write on a different denomination each week. That seems to be the surest way to learn something (eg: what are Methodists, as opposed to Lutherans?). And learning something is what it’s all about right? Of course it is! It fills the time at least, you know? Just try to pass it in whatever fashion makes you happiest. And be smart enough to recognize the relationship between present happiness and future happiness, that certain balance played. Like – thinking about the future makes me happy in the present, just like thinking about the past will make me happy in the future. But wait, wait, where am I right now? Hmmm, I think the Calvinists were all about this kind of thing. Or maybe I’m thinking of Pentecostalism. I’ll get back to you on that one.
Cause shit, we’re talking about skyscrapers today anyway. Now, we know about the Woolworth Building already, the tallest in the world from 1913 to 1930. We know that it replaced the Metropolitan Life Tower, on Madison Square Park, which had itself replaced the now demolished Singer Building downtown. Before the Singer Building it was Philadelphia’s City Hall that held that title. But what the hell? We’re not interested in Philadelphia are we? (I mean besides the fact that we’re interested in absolutely everything). We want to know about New York. What came before the Singer Building? What came before it in those early days of skyscrapers, before they had completely changed the landscape of this city?
Well, the answer is: the Park Row Building, and I hope that doesn’t disappoint you. It isn’t too impressive I’ll admit, doesn’t really catch the eye, the way the Woolworth does across the street say. Or maybe it catches the eye for being unattractive. That seemed to be the feeling when it was completed in 1899, standing 29 stories tall, a good fifteen or twenty stories over its neighbors. One reviewer wrote, “New York is the only city in which such a monster would be allowed to rear itself.” Huh, I don’t think this gentleman quite realized what lay ahead. The recent advance of steel-frame construction had just made it possible to build about as high as anyone wanted to. Prior to steel, any structure taller than eight or so stories, except let’s say a church steeple, would have had to have incredibly thick walls at its base to support the weight. Steel-frames would change all that. And not to everybody’s liking. In 1896 the New York Chamber of Commerce officially announced its opposition to skyscrapers, saying that they were unsafe, blocked the light, and defaced the city.
Well that didn’t stop the Park Row Building from going up, backed by its financiers under the leadership of August Belmont. Belmont would go on to found the Interborough Rapid Transit Company in 1902, the group that brought the first subway lines to Manhattan. The Park Row Building would be their initial headquarters during their fledgling years. Belmont bought the pre-existing Manhattan Railway in 1903, operators of the four elevated railway lines in Manhattan (with one extending up into the Bronx). When his IRT subway lines opened in 1904 the company had a monopoly on rapid transit in New York. They would eventually face some competition from the Brooklyn based, Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation as well as the city-owned Independent Subway System. That would last until 1940, the year the city forced the take-over of both the IRT and BMT. The IRT’s lines would become the A Division of the subway, and encompass all services designated by a number. The BMT and the Independent’s lines would become the B division – all services designated by a letter.
The Park Row Building sits across from City Hall Park, the downtown hub for the first subway opened, an event that caused real estate prices to jump at the time. The back of the Park Row Building runs along Theatre Alley, between Ann and Beekman Street. Theatre Alley takes its name from the Park Theatre, which opened in 1798, on roughly the spot where the Park Row Building stands today. The alley served as a road for carriages bringing patrons to the theatre. But all the congestion caused by carriages pulling up from either end caused New York to take the radical step of making Theatre Alley a one way street, the first ever in the city. So here we go, both back and front touching upon some type of transportation history, from one way streets to subways. But what the hell? Do I sound like some sort of Park Row enthusiast? All dressed up like the building. Like I should work at the museum? I mean, I would work at the museum. I mean I basically work at it already, for free. Because it makes me happy.
(Originally posted June 26th, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)