Edifice Complex: A Crash Course in NYC Architecture

Author: Will Jones
Publisher: Rizzoli
Publication Date: Feb. 2012

“How to Read New York,” design and architecture writer Will Jones’ latest book, has nothing to do with the city’s literary tradition and everything to do with its rich architectural history. With illustrative photographs and wire frame drawings that resemble blueprints, his book gives you X-ray vision into the details of some of New York’s most iconic, and most overlooked buildings.

“In this book we encourage visitors and residents alike to slow down and appreciate the details, not just of the standout landmark buildings, but of the wealth of other architectural treasures that the city has to show,” Jones writes in his introduction.

But his light-fingered tour of New York’s architectural history is only loosely chronological; apparently periodizing buildings is an imprecise art. Buildings are grouped together by their stylistic elements. For example, the new Yankee Stadium, completed in 2008, and the Brooklyn Bridge, built in 1883, both exemplify the Decorative style of architecture popularized during the first decades of the 20th century.

But Jones points out that New York’s built landscape isn’t all about landmarks like the Empire State Building — there are also hidden treasures as well as beauty to appreciate in utilitarian structures like the TWA Flight Center at JFK International Airport and the Coney Island Subway Terminal.

In many examples, architectural elements blend together and overlap, but then again, that diversity and layer cake of history is what makes New York special. Here is a brief recap of New York’s architectural epochs, according to Will Jones:

Classical and Colonial

The Conference House in Staten Island was built by a British naval officer in 1675. Because of the cost and expertise needed to build them, residences with stone walls were only affordable for the upper crust of colonial New York. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Time period: Late 17th through the mid-20th centuries.

In a New York minute: Classical buildings dominated by strong forms like domes and columns that were common in Roman and Greek structures of antiquity. Unadorned homes built in the European tradition are good examples of Colonial architecture that exist in New York today.

Best examples: Jones points to the The Statue of Liberty as an example of Classical architecture, but also to lesser-known monuments like the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument in Fort Greene Park, a Doric column dedicated in 1908 to those who died on British prison ships docked in New York harbor during the American Revolution.

Other examples include a series of five buildings in the Sailors’ Snug Harbor complex on Staten Island, a retirement home for sailers built in 1883. With columned facades and sloped roofs, the buildings are reminiscent of ancient Greek temples.

The Conference House in Tottenville, Staten Island, built in 1675 by a British Royal Navy captain to house his family, made history over 100 years later in 1776: American forefathers Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Edward Rutledge met there with British Admiral Lord Richard Howe in an unsuccessful attempt to end the revolution. The house was later confiscated by the state of New York. This home, constructed out of stone, could just as easily appear in the English countryside and is an example of Colonial architecture.


New York's City Hall, above, was built in 1812 and is an example of overlapping architectural styles. According to Jones, the "...large keystones at the head of the round arches are typical of Romanesque architecture. However, the style of the stairway is more American in inspiration." Photo courtesy of Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; illustration by Coral Mula.

Time period: Late 19th through early 20th centuries.

In a New York minute: According to Jones, “Renaissance architects studied Classical architecture but didn’t attempt to replicate it, instead borrowing aspects, such as the Roman arch, the vault and the gable, and incorporating them into a style more suited to the buildings of [their] time.” This style is similar to, but slightly different from “true Classical architecture,” he writes.

Best examples: City Hall. Built in 1812, New York’s is the country’s oldest city hall and took nine years to build due to delays caused by an outbreak of yellow fever. Jones points out that the domed tower atop City Hall is a characteristic of the Renaissance style, while the columns and arches over the window frames show a Classical influence.


A preview for WNET’s “Treasures of New York” special on the Hearst Tower. Located on Eighth Avenue and 57th Street in Manhattan, the building is the world headquarters for the Hearst Corporation and was designed in 1913, although it wasn’t built until decades later. The full program airs on Thursday, March 8 at 8 p.m. on THIRTEEN.


A detail of the adornments on the spire of the Chrysler building. The geometric shapes are an example of Art Deco design. Illustration by Coral Mula.

Time period: Early 20th century.

In a New York minute: The first decades of the 20th century saw a renewed interest in the religious buildings of medieval Europe as well as the emergence of Art Deco, which minimalized some classical design elements and replaced them with new building materials.

Best examples: The stained-glass rose window and exterior buttresses of the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine are strong examples of Gothic architecture. Built in 1930, the Chrysler Building, is the epitome of Art Deco design with its geometric patterns and gargoyles crafted from metal, according to Jones.


Early Modernist

A cross-section of the Guggenheim Museum, completed in 1959. At the time, the Frank Lloyd Wright's design stretched the limitations of construction technology, according to Jones. Illustation by Coral Mula.

Time period: Mid-20th century.

In a New York minute: Early Modernist buildings emphasize utilitarianism in lieu of decoration. They are usually recognizable by their all-glass facades and took advantage of new building techniques that were developed after the second World War. Although Europeans rejected this style, the bustling modern city of New York embraced it.

Best examples: Jones writes that the Seagram Building on Park Avenue and 53rd Street sets the standard for Early Modernist architecture in New York with its glass facade interrupted by black fins. But another iconic Early Modernist building in New York is the Guggenheim Museum. “The reinforced-concrete spiral tilts outward externally and inward internally, pushing construction technology to its limit at the time of building,” Jones writes.

Modern and Postmodern

The New York Times building, completed in 2007, emphasizes function and decorative elements like ceramic shades on the exterior also serve a practical purpose of controlling temperature inside the building. Photo by Dirk Olbertz.

Time period: Mid-20th century to present.

In a New York minute: Like their Early Modernist counterparts, Modern and Postmodern buildings emphasize efficiency and functionality.

The decorative elements they do include are made possible by advances in digital design technologies.

Best examples: The New York Times building. Jones writes that rather attempt to build a monolith, architect Renzo Piano prioritized transparency and energy efficiency.

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