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Christopher Gray and Streetscapes, an essential column about New York City architecture

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A primer featuring some of the writer’s insightful columns about the city’s architectural history

The Dakota Flats in New York City
Library of Congress

The passing earlier this week of Christopher Gray, architectural historian and writer of the New York Times’s Streetscapes column, robs the city, and world, of one of its foremost sages of the city street. His insightful and engaging Sunday column, which he wrote nearly 1,500 installments of between 1987 and 2014, dispensed architecture history with wit and style, a never-to-be-finished serial about the changing city as well as its many characters. As he once wrote: “to riff on Mae West, 'Honey, architecture has nothing to do with it.'”

Unlike many architecture and real estate writers who spend most of their time examining important buildings during their pristine, stage-managed opening, or tragic demolition and destruction, Gray focused on the times in-between, when buildings become more than plans or symbols but living parts of the city, as well as odd, eccentric, and everyday structures with hidden stories. A column about his first apartment opens with a paragraph straight out of a novel:

“I was lucky in 1970, when I backed into my first apartment, a $45-a-month railroad flat built in 1887 at 1422 Third Avenue, south of 81st Street. It was with apartment 2C I learned how to circumvent the rent laws and that when it comes to housing in New York, even a friend will stab you in the back.”

Christopher Gray
Office of Metropolitan History

Gray also worked as a writer and as the proprietor of the Office for Metropolitan History, a research firm that examined buildings of common interest and nationwide significance. In 2001, the New York City Department of Design and Construction called him to locate drawings for buildings damaged by the World Trade Center attack and collapse, to help free those trapped inside. OMH located original drawings for seven structures within 36 hours.

In short, Gray was a storehouse of knowledge, who freely shared stories and insights for decades. It would be impossible to pick favorite pieces, with such a varied and excellent body of work, so here are links to columns covering some of the topics he repeatedly explored.

Skyscrapers

1931 photo of City Bank Farmers Trust Company Building by Cross & Cross architects.
Library of Congress

An Early Tower That Aspired to Greatness

The tale of the City Bank-Farmers Trust Building, an early Financial District skyscraper with all the exuberance of a structure designed for bankers in 1929.

Not Just a Perch for King Kong

The questionable explanation behind the airship mast on the Empire State Building, a structure which just happened to help it secure the title of tallest building in the world.

Refined in an Era of Superlatives: An Early New York City Skyscraper Remembered

“In the history of the skyscraper, the Mail & Express Building, built in 1892 at Broadway and Fulton Street, gets short shrift. It was not the tallest or the biggest or the first, but it was certainly the lightest, the most refined — which didn’t save it when demolition came in 1920.”

Two Also-Rans of the Great Skyscraper Race

The story of John Larkin, an aspirational architect who failed to build the world’s tallest building—twice.

Once the Tallest Building, but Since 1967 a Ghost

The tale of the Singer Building, the tallest building to ever be demolished in New York City.

Landmarks and Demolition

The Brokaw House on Fifth Avenue in 1915
Library of Congress

The Wrecking Ball’s Last, Uninhibited Dance

“Call it Little Penn Station. Not many people remember the Brokaw mansions, a charming four-house clump at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 79th Street. But at a time when proposed landmarks legislation was going nowhere, it is likely that the surprise weekend demolition of three of the houses in February 1965 finally put the law over the hump.”

A Brick Beauty Bites the Dust

The 1884 New York Produce Exchange, located opposite Bowling Green, was a relic of an earlier economic era and one of the most regrettable demolitions before Penn Station.

Belles of the Wrecking Ball

An exploration of some of the greatest preservation losses in the history of New York architecture.

Oddities of New York

Coney Island Parachute Jump
Library of Congress

The Coney Island Parachute Jump; For the Boardwalk's 'Eiffel Tower,' Restoration or Regulating a Ruin?

The Parachute Jump, appropriately sponsored at the World's Fair by Lifesavers, was built for $750,000 and rides went for 40 cents apiece. The drop, abrupt at first, slowed as the parachute quickly filled.

Seaman-Drake Arch; Encrusted Relic of a Mid-19th-Century Inwood Estate

An arch in Upper Manhattan, hidden in plain sight.

When New York City’s Buildings Lit Out for the Territories

Why western names held mystique for turn-of-the-century New York developers.

Kodak's Colorama; The End of the Line for Grand Central's Big Picture

A obituary for a massive, colorful camera company ad, considered the world’s largest transparency.

Transportation

Platform and Gustavino Vaults for the City Hall Station
Library of Congress

New York's Subway: That Engineering Marvel Also Had Architects

How George L. Heins and Christopher Grant LaFarge became the original architects of the city’s underground stations.

A History of New York Traffic Lights

Tired of cars — and bikes — running red lights? How about no lights at all? That’s the kind of traffic system New York had until 1920, when a series of tall bare-bones towers went up down the middle of Fifth Avenue, flashing red and green lights to the growing onslaught of automobiles. A History of New York Traffic Lights

Where Ghost Passengers Await Very Late Trains

The strange fate of architect Cass Gilbert’s Bronx Train Stations.

Parks

Prospect Park in Brooklyn
Library of Congress

The Fate of Prospect Park’s Five Arches

Why architects Olmsted & Vaux’s designed five unique arches for Brooklyn’s biggest park.

Whinny if You Miss Central Park’s Horses

The equestrian history of the country’s most famous park.

The Central Park Loch; Taming a Wilderness to Hew to Olmsted's Concept

An “untamed” part of the park that was a “miniature Yosemite.”

Terms & Glossaries

Useful Vocabulary for Building Watchers

In addition to answering letters from readers, Gray would occasionally dispense definitions and terminology, to help you “impress your dinner partner.”

A Glossary for Architectural Rubberneckers

STEPPED GABLE: There is just something so huggable about Dutch or stepped gables, which is strange because my mother’s side is Dutch and there’s not a huggable one in the bunch.