Never Built New York, a new exhibit on view at the Queens Museum in New York City, looks back at some of the absurd (and sometimes ingenious) ways that the Big Apple could have turned out if things had gone differently. From bridges that double as skyscrapers to an actual glass dome over Midtown Manhattan, the history of what could have been is just as fascinating as what came to be.
The exhibit’s curators, Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell, shared with BuzzFeed News a selection of some of the most bizarre designs in the show. Here’s what New York City would have looked like if things had gone just a little bit differently.
The Key Plan for Ellis Island, 1959
Originally conceived by Frank Lloyd Wright, the concept called for a “city within a city” to replace Ellis Island after it was decommissioned. Living spaces were placed in the center, with endless program fanning out along the edges, atop stepped, circular plazas. While the Damon Doudt Corporation, which hired Wright, had the highest bid, no team won the competition, and eventually Ellis Island became a national historic landmark.
Gilbert’s Elevated Railway, 1870
In 1870, Rufus Henry Gilbert received a patent for his “pneumatic railway.” Riders would waft around town propelled by compressed air moving through a double-row of what Gilbert called “atmospheric tubes.” The elevated tubes were suspended from 24-foot high wrought-iron Gothic arches, held aloft on slender, fluted Corinthian columns. In 1872, the state legislature gave Gilbert a charter to build his elevated pneumatic railway, but a year later Wall Street collapsed in the Panic of 1873.
Obelisk at Battery Park, 1929
Eric Gugler, who was an important figure in the city’s Regional Planning Association, proposed that an obelisk be planted on 16 acres of landfill at Battery Park as a World War I memorial. At 800 feet tall, it would have been nearly 250 feet taller than the Washington Monument — with a visitors gallery and beacon roughly 600 feet above sea level. The obelisk would have been visible not only from the harbor, but along Broadway through all of lower Manhattan and beyond.
The idea was eventually killed by Robert Moses, who was feuding with the Regional Planning Association over his proposed Brooklyn-Battery Bridge, which RPA had denounced as an “unjustifiable defacement” of the Battery. Moses never got his bridge, but Gugler never got his obelisk, either.
Skyscraper Bridges, 1925
Raymond Hood’s plan for skyscraper bridges called for apartment-lined bridges stretching up and down the East and Hudson Rivers. This idea never got very far. He published his plan in the New York Times Magazine, but never attracted the attention of a client.
This project was one of dozens of proposals to solve the city’s horrible congestion problems in the first part of the 20th century. Our conception of density in New York would have been completely changed if these had been built. Perhaps we would have seen more adventurous uses of infrastructure and unused space, from multilevel roadways to more buildings on landfill.
The Dome Over Manhattan, 1961
In 1961, Buckminster Fuller expanded his idea of building a geodesic dome over a small town to building a 2-mile diameter dome over mid-Manhattan. Centered on 42nd Street, spanning river to river, from 29th Street to 62nd Street, the dome would be three times the height of the Empire State Building. Like all Fuller’s geodesic domes, only bigger, this one was strung together with thousands of aluminum struts, skinned in wire-reinforced, one-way, shatterproof glass. Electrical wires embedded in the skin of the dome would melt any snow or ice. The concept was to create a climate-controlled space, providing huge energy savings to the city.
Never more than a concept, the dome remained a paper proposition. The closest the notion came to being realized was when the developer William Zeckendorf asked Fuller to design one for his Yonkers Raceway. That fizzled.
The ABC Office Building, 1963
Bertrand Goldberg’s 1963 ABC-TV tower was meant as a riposte to Eero Saarinen’s boxy CBS “Black Rock” Building. The Chicago architect designed a squiggly waveform office tower, dressed in white, standing beside a black antenna tower nearly three times as high. The soaring antenna mast consisted of two attenuated cones mated at the middle. A 47-foot round enclosed observation room, in the shape of a spinning top, sat 1,323 feet above the street. ABC’s executives balked at the radical idea — especially Goldberg’s placement of secretaries in office spaces with views just as good as their bosses’ — and cried poverty.
The Diagonal Plan, 1904
Cutting a new street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, from Penn Station to 53rd Street, was one of many proposals for additional avenues and diagonals, all designed to relieve traffic congestion in Manhattan. The general idea was to stretch a cat’s cradle of diagonals — along with streets like 5th and one-half Avenue — across the grid.
Despite the backing of mayors, architects, and civic leaders, none of the new streets, diagonal or straight, were built because entrenched real estate interests were not going to sell their invaluable holdings. Even if they were, the costs were outlandish, so huge that the city would have had to vastly increase its tax rate which, then, as now, was grounds for rebellion.
The Galaxon Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair, 1964
Paul Rudolph’s Galaxon, for the Portland Cement Company, was proposed as the centerpiece of the 1964 New York World’s Fair. It was a satellite-dish-shaped star observation tower. The directors of the fair chose the globe-shaped Unisphere instead, viewing it as a symbol of international cooperation.
Had this been built, the Flushing Meadow Corona Park would have had a much larger centerpiece and perhaps attracted more attention after the World’s Fair. While the World’s Fair indeed focused on futurism and space-age achievements, this monument would have pushed the event even more emphatically toward the galaxies.
Th National American Indian Memorial, 1909
The memorial was the brainchild of Rodman Wanamaker. While dining out one night in 1909 with Buffalo Bill, he hit upon the idea of building a huge monument for New York Harbor, which he dubbed “The Great Bronze Column of Staten Island.” The concept morphed, and a few years later Wanamaker’s monument took the form of the New York Public Library, flanked by buffalo and topped by the enormous effigy of an Indian chief. By 1913, Wanamaker had lost interest in his own creation.
As for the architectural legacy and impact, one Staten Island resident summed it up perfectly: “Had one man’s grandiose vision been realized, the first sight to greet immigrants arriving in the New World after 1913 would not have been Bartholdi’s graceful, torch-bearing Goddess of Liberty, but something more nearly resembling the world’s largest cigar-store Indian.”
The Central Park Gates, 1860–1863
In 1863, Richard Morris Hunt — who would become one of the city’s most influential architects — convinced the city’s park commissioners to adopt his plan to build a series of monumental entrances to the pastoral Central Park. Morris wanted to “secure the grand effect” so that the entrances to the park would not be overwhelmed by the architecture of the city growing up around it. The park’s entrances would be foreground, not background.
Calvert Vaux, who with Frederick Law Olmsted designed the new park, angrily protested Hunt’s gates, calling them, “Napoleon III in disguise all over.” The park symbolized democracy, the gates empire. Vaux’s view carried the day.
The Met Life North Annex, 1929
Harvey Wiley Corbett and Dan Everett Waid were to build the tallest skyscraper in the world for the Metropolitan Life Corporation, just north of the Met Life building. Its Art Deco style echoed Corbett’s work at Rockefeller Center. This plan was proposed in 1929, but when the Great Depression hit, the plan was reduced from over 100 stories to 31 stories. The base, though, remained the same.
With this massive precedent, the Flatiron District, and Madison Square in particular, would probably have another midtown with super-tall skyscrapers extending in all directions.
The Coney Island Globe, 1906
Samuel Friede’s Coney Island Globe was to be a 700-foot-tall, cast-iron entertainment center for Coney Island, containing vaudeville theaters, circus rings, ballrooms, a roller-skating rink, and several other attractions. It also would have provided panoramic views of the area. Basically it contained the programs of Steeplechase Park, Luna Park, and Dreamland all in one building.
Friede never intended to build the scheme. He defrauded investors out of millions of dollars, and his company’s treasurer was arrested for embezzlement. Rem Koolhaas pointed to Friede’s Globe in his book Delirious New York, describing it as “a gigantic steel planet that has crashed onto a replica of the Eiffel Tower.”
Manhattan Airport, 1945
Developer William Zeckendorf proposed an airport edging the Hudson River for more than 30 blocks. Robert Moses quickly shot down the idea, dismissing it as ridiculous. Had it been built, Manhattan residents would have a much shorter commute to get on an airplane. But they’d also have a lot more airplane noise and automobile traffic. Not to mention some scary approaches.