New York is one of the nation’s most recognizable cities. Yet despite a landscape filled with historic buildings, New York is a city that is always changing . Thanks to the New York City Municipal Archives, we can take a look back to the late 1930s and see what some of the Big Apple’s iconic buildings looked like then and how the New York we know now compares.
The area now known as Times Square started off as the manor house and country estate of a Revolutionary War general. In the early 19th century, it became the property of real estate magnate John Jacob Astor and turned into the center of New York’s carriage industry. Back then, city officials called it Longacre Square. It wasn’t until 1904, when The New York Times moved there, that this stretch of city was renamed Times Square. Today, it’s the world’s most visited tourist attraction and the brightly illuminated home of Broadway theaters, restaurants, shops, and other entertainment. And of course, it hosts an annual New Year’s Eve celebration watched the world over.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is the largest art museum in the United States, with more than 2 million works of art spanning 5,000 years of world culture. The museum first opened its doors in 1882. Today, it measures a quarter-mile long with more than 2 million square feet of floor space — more than 20 times the size of the original museum.
Grand Central Terminal (aka Grand Central Station)
When Grand Central Terminal opened in 1871, its 42nd Street location was considered a remote, barely developed outpost far north of the heart of Manhattan. But by 1900, the station was right in the middle of the action and was reconfigured to handle the growing throngs of train travelers. In 1913, Grand Central was remodeled to be the Beaux Arts beauty we know today. After World War II and through the early 1970s, crime and budget cuts took their toll on the building and there were calls to tear it down. Luckily, it was declared a national landmark in 1978 — albeit one in great need of restoration. The facelift was finally finished in 1998, when Grand Central was finally back to its former glory. Today, Grand Central Terminal is the world’s largest train station, seeing 82 million passengers a year.
Built in 1901, the Flatiron Building was the world’s tallest building for 10 years. It earned its nickname because locals thought its wedge shape resembled a clothes iron. While it started as an office building and still serves as one today, the Flatiron Building influenced skyscraper design in the early 20th century. The Flatiron was designated a national landmark in 1989 and continues to be one of the city’s most recognizable — and most photographed — buildings.
Financier and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. used his own money to build the collection of buildings now known as Rockefeller Center. Construction on the 14 Art Deco buildings started in 1930 and finished in 1939. The landmark totals more than 8 million square feet on 22 acres and is home to Radio City Music Hall, GE (as 30 Rock fans already know), and the Today Show‘s studio. Though the ice skating rink may be the center’s most well-known feature, it was actually an accident. Originally called the Sunken Plaza, it was a shopping and dining area until 1936, when management built a temporary rink to attract Christmas visitors. Its popularity led to it becoming a permanent fixture.
New York Public Library
The New York Public Library is the second-largest public library in the United States — and the third-largest in the world. Former governor Samuel J. Tilden left $2.4 million to the city upon his death in 1886 to “establish and maintain a free library and reading room in the city of New York.” That’s about $62 million in today’s money. In addition to millions of books, the library also holds valuable historical items like Columbus’s 1493 letter announcing his discovery of the New World and George Washington’s original farewell address.
American Museum of Natural History
Across the street from Central Park, this museum consists of 27 connected buildings with 45 exhibition halls, a planetarium, and a library. The museum was founded in 1869 by Theodore Roosevelt Sr., J.P. Morgan, congressman Moses Grinnell, and other prominent citizens. The museum owns more than 32 million specimens — so many they can’t all be displayed at the same time.
The Plaza Hotel is one of only two New York City hotels to be designated a national historic landmark. (The Waldorf Astoria is the other.) This 20-story luxury hotel opened in 1907 and has hosted celebrity guests and political dignitaries ever since.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral
After work was halted due to the Civil War, construction started on this Gothic Revival cathedral again in 1878 and finished in 1879. The prominent spires that once towered over anything else in the neighborhood were added in 1888. St. Patrick’s is the seat of the archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York and stands across the street from Rockefeller Center. In 1976, the cathedral was declared a national landmark.
Mark Twain House, 21 5th Avenue
A brick Romanesque Revival home was designed in 1851 by Grace Church’s architect, James Renwick Jr., for his parents. In 1906, Mark Twain lived at the home, where he began dictating his autobiography to collaborator Albert Bigelow Paine. Unfortunately, the building was razed in the early 1950s and a 14-story apartment called the Brevoort building took its place.
O. Henry House, 55 Irving Place
Renowned short story writer William Sydney Porter (known as O. Henry) lived in this humble residence from 1903 to 1907. It’s believed he wrote “The Gift of the Magi” a half block away at Pete’s Tavern and that the tale of a couple living in a modest apartment mirrored his own time living at Irving Place. Who knows? Maybe one of the current residents of 55 Irving Place will be inspired to write a classic.
Rikers Island is a complex consisting of 10 jails. Though it’s famous to most people because of its frequent mentions on Law & Order episodes, Rikers started out in 1861 as a Civil War training ground. In 1884, the city bought the island to use as a location for a workhouse. It didn’t begin its current incarnation as a jail until 1932. In 1965, Salvador Dali gave Rikers a drawing as an apology for being unable to come and talk to the prisoners about art. The drawing was stolen in 2003 and replaced with a fake. While three corrections officers pleaded guilty to stealing it, the drawing has never been recovered.