42nd Street in Midtown Manhattan is home to some of New York’s best known buildings. Anita and I recently spent three hours exploring the street from east to west with Context Travel. We saw the UN Headquarters Building–an internationalist outpost at the time it was built–and the 2007 Bank of America building at the western end, and many sights in between. Our guide was architect and lifelong Manhattanite Michelle Cianfaglione. Her local knowledge really brought the city’s history to life for us.
Across Midtown on 42nd Street
In three-plus hours with Michelle, we learned the architectural importance of the buildings. Especially relevant was the city’s “zoning envelope”, introduced in the at the beginning of the 20th century. Zoning ensured that buildings here would be “stepped”, allowing light to reach the street throughout the day, unlike the canyons at the lower end of Manhattan.
Everything along the way had a fascinating back-story. However, three buildings from the early 1900s were my favorites: The (Daily) News Building, the Chrysler Building, and Grand Central Terminal (station). Each had a unique architectural style, and broke technical and architectural ground. For me, seeing Mid-Town “ïn context” highlighted not only the development of skyscrapers, but pulled together the background—financial and historical—that makes 42nd Street so significant in the growth of Manhattan over the 20th century.
Daily news for the working class
The Art Deco Daily News Building was completed in 1930. The city’s first tabloid was the model for the fictional Daily Planet, where Superman worked as journalist Clark Kent.
Its 42nd Street lobby has patterned marble walls and opulent natural stone. On the exterior facade, bas-relief figures illustrate the city’s workers. The phrase carved into the exterior is said to be part of a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “God must love the common people; he made so many of them.”
Cool fact: The Daily News once had the largest circulation of any newspaper in America. Its small size and extensive use of photography made the paper popular with subway commuters.
Corporate HQ, showcasing the automobile
The Chrysler Building can be seen from all over New York City. When Walter Chrysler decided to build the tallest building in the world, he hired William Van Alen, ”the Ziegfeld of his profession,” to carry out his extravagent design ideas. The building’s ornamentation pays homage to the automobile. Inside, the lobby has marble walls and floors, murals and and fixtures of chrome steel. Outside, sculptures mimic radiator caps and hood ornaments.
Cool fact: Upper floors of the Chrysler Building facade feature the first-ever use of polished aluminum for a building facade.
Want to know more? Here are a few things you may not know about this iconic structure.
A busy transit hub
The Grand Central Terminal opened in 1913. It replaced the 19th-century depot of Cornelius Vanderbilt, which had brought trains into the city to meet the horse-pulled trains operating below 42nd Street. The city grew by almost half a million people in the first decade of the 20th century, and Grand Central was designed to provide efficient transportation for both people and freight.
Visionary railroad engineer William Wilgus introduced electrified trains and a new bi-level terminal surrounded by elevated railways. The building, with its Beaux Arts stairways and ornamentation from architect Whitney Warren, was designated as a historic American landmark in the 1960s, thanks in large part to efforts spearheaded by former First Lady Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis.
Cool fact: More than a century after its opening, Grand Central Terminal has still not reached capacity!
Want to know more? Historian John Stern has this to say about an iconic masterpiece of science and art. And, from the Village Voice: 100 Facts for Grand Central Station’s 100th Birthday in 2013.
If you go
New York is a high-energy destination that can overwhelm a visitor. Our tour offered us a chance to hear NYC stories while enjoying great conversation with a local. Take the tour!
- These were my personal favorites of the buildings we visited on our walk with Michele. For a look at some of the other sights along 42nd Street, take a look at my Steller story.
- Do as we did, and consider the architecture walk with Context Travel as a starter kit. The company offers more than 30 walks in New York City.
- For something to eat after the tour: Grab take-out and join locals in Bryant Park, behind the New York Public Library; head back to Grand Central’s Oyster Bar or new-and-very upscale Agern; or do as our guide suggested, and wander over to nearby Hell’s Kitchen for some excellent, mostly budget, food.
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Thank you Michele for a marvelous tour, and thanks to Context Travel for giving us a close look at one of our favorite cities.