New York’s urban landscape is an amalgam of innovative styles that span the gamut of American history, architectural and otherwise.

A backdrop used by Hollywood, television, photographers and artists, the New York skyline is recognizable around the globe as a symbol of American innovation. The following architectural jewels make this queen of American cities sparkle.

Brooklyn Bridge

A national landmark and one of the oldest suspension bridges of its kind in America.  When it was completed in 1883, it was a revolutionary symbol of newfound industriousness: at first people were so shocked that it actually held together they were too frightened to cross it.  The John Augustus Roebling Bridge is a symbol of the city, and a source of pride to Brooklyn residents. For a new perspective on Manhattan and its history be sure to complete its span all the way to Brooklyn by renting a bicycle or taking a leisurely walk across.

Cathedral of St. John the Divine, 1047 Amsterdam Ave.

Located on the west side in Morningside Heights, this impressive gothic cathedral, when finished, will be among the largest churches in the world. It is only 2/3 complete after 110 years.  St. John the Divine is the headquarters of the Episcopal Church, a member of the Anglican Communion. Architects who have worked on the church include Heins & La Farge; Cram and Ferguson, Carrere & Hastings, Thomas Nash and Henry Vaughn; and James Bambridge.

The church is 186 meters long and has a nave ceiling roughly 38 meters high, easily exceeding Westminster in London. Unlike other European structures St. John reflects multiple styles of church architecture: Roman arches and columns separate the high altar and ambulatory, the attached chapels are Gothic but take inspiration from British, French, and Spanish interpretations of that period, and its older portions derive their inspiration from Romanesque, Norman, and Byzantine structures in France, Britain, and Italy.  Tours include the tapestries and colorful stained glass; a vertical tour lets you climb to the roof and look out over Morningside Heights.

Chrysler Building, 405 Lexington Ave.

This is the building that Miss Hannigan wanted her beleaguered orphans to emulate in its shininess in the play Annie. The Chrysler Building was one of the first to use stainless steel over a large exposed building surface and soars 319 meters into the sky; at the time of construction it was the tallest in the world.   It is very geometric in its layout, typical of Art Deco, and design elements in cars built by Chrysler at that time are echoed in the radiator cap gargoyles near the top of the building.  The lobby is accessible to the public and is a gorgeous display in African marble inlaid with chrome. As the building gets taller, the dominant decorative theme switches with every setback (tall buildings of this time were typically designed like a wedding cake, where each new "layer" became smaller).  The Chrysler Building is topped by a signature starburst design of the topmost windows, reflecting the blue sky around it in good weather and complementing the shimmering crown.

Citigroup Center, 601 Lexington Ave.

The angled roof of this office tower is yet another well-known symbol of the Manhattan skyline. It was built in the 1970s and presented an unusual engineering problem: the site was occupied by a Lutheran church. The church agreed to move a block away if another small church could occupy a corner of the old space without any connections to the Citigroup building or columns going through it. The problem was solved by putting the entire structure on stilts: large structures at the bottom are masked in steel and bear the weight of the more than 50 stories above.

Eldridge Street Synagogue, 12 Eldridge St.

Eldridge Street Synagogue is one of the earliest surviving of its kind; it opened in 1886, when the Lower East Side had a decidedly heavier Yiddish accent.  Inside it has the traditional elements of Jewish worship (women and men sit separately). It is done in a Moorish Revival style with ornamental keyhole windows and decorative painted elements. The front contains a large rose window and side windows depict impressive detail.  It is still a functioning shul for Orthodox Jews and visitors are welcome to visit the small museum.

Empire State Building, 350 Fifth Ave.

This is the most famous architectural landmark in the city: whether you've watched “Sleepless in Seattle,” “An Affair to Remember,” or “King Kong,” this Art Deco building is the city's heart and soul. Its name is derived from New York State's nickname, the "Empire State" and its lofty motto is "Excelsior" (ever higher.)  Constructed in 1931 as part of the public works program under President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, this building is a testament to a city's ability to bounce back; it was built just two years after the Stock Market crash of 1929. Today it is lit up according to the season: red and green for Christmas, blue for Hannukah, red for Valentine's/Chinese New Year, and green for St. Patrick's Day.  The Empire State Building  was named by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.

Flatiron Building, 175 Fifth Ave.

This is one of the city's early skyscrapers, designed by Daniel Burnham. Its innovative (at the time) steel skeleton let it rise 285 feet. Constructed near Union Square in 1902 in Beaux Arts style, it has been used in the past 10 years as the exterior for the Daily Bugle for the Spiderman films. Mostly, this building is used for office space but its lowest floors contain retail space. The landmark triangular building is where a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. factory claimed the lives of many young women over a century ago. They were locked in the factory; their deaths led to workplace reforms.

Freedom Tower, 1 World Trade Center, Financial District.

On September 11th, 2001, two airplanes crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center destroying them and taking thousands of lives. For nearly a decade, the sad reminder of those who lost their lives was a charred, burned out pit in downtown Manhattan named Ground Zero.

However, New Yorkers are moving on and the pit is being transformed.  In 2003 architect Daniel Libeskind (who built Berlin's Jewish Museum) won the competition to become master architect for the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site including the brand new Freedom Tower.  The Freedom Tower, when complete in 2014, will be a state of the art building with cutting edge contemporary attributes. 

Including the planned antenna, it will be 1,776 feet  (541 m) high to commemorate July 4th, 1776 (America's official birthday.) The tower will rise from a 61 square meter base clad in more than 2,000 pieces of prismatic glass. The main themes running throughout will be a sense of movement and light: it is designed to give a subtle glow, echoing Lady Liberty in the harbor and like both Liberty and the Empire State Building, its top will be able to cast colored light. Certain security details are kept top secret, but blast resistant plastics are included in the window casings.  At the top, a restaurant and observation deck will again offer commanding views of New York Harbor.

A "green" building inside and out, The Freedom Tower will overlook a large park dedicated to the victims of the 2001 terrorist attack.  Cooling systems will use recycled rainwater and grey water will be recycled for toilet use. Fuel cell technology and wind energy will electrify the building.

George Washington Bridge  

The George Washington Bridge stands not far from where Washington made his historic escape from British and Hessian troops in November, 1776. Portions of the battlements of Fort Lee, New Jersey are still visible from the bridge, perched high on a natural granite cliff called the Palisades. (The fort is maintained as a National Historic Site and is one of a handful of colonial structures still standing within the city limits of New York.) It carries more traffic than the M1 into London; in the middle of building, engineers had to add a second deck.

 Originally the George Washington was to be encased in heavy concrete; however after the fact it was decided to keep it in its current skeletal form as a nod to modern art.

Grand Central Terminal,  42nd Street at Park Avenue.

This beautiful, large Beaux Arts building was almost destroyed, like its sister, the original Pennsylvania Station. In 1968, Marcel Breuer unveiled plans to replace the Beaux-Arts station with a large tower and office space.  Citizens, (led by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, widow of US President John F. Kennedy) were outraged and New York City filed suit to stop the construction. A restoration project took 30 years to complete.

Grand Central has a large mural of the Western zodiac on its ceiling done in gold leaf set on a blue green legend: it took nearly a decade to restore this to its original glory. (A small portion of the mural in the corner has been left untouched so visitors can compare the difference.)  This mural is best viewed at night when it is properly lit.  The main windows have been restored to their original purpose to shed great amounts of light on the marble floors and ceilings, a nod to Beaux Arts' neoclassical roots (it resembles the effect of a Roman oculus when the weather is good.)  Along the corridors on the top level are lots of little nooks for shops of all kinds and below level are a lot of places for a reasonably priced lunch or snack: Grand Central is fairly old, but uses its spaces well blending old with new. At Christmas, the place is dressed up in holly and pine; a laser light show is put on at night and artisans sell gifts like hand knit sweaters or funky glass ornaments.

Metropolitan Museum of Art (“The Met”), 1000 5th Avenue at 82nd Street

The  Neoclassical Metropolitan Museum, a National Historic Landmark, was built in 1880 by Calvert Vaux  (one of Central Park’s designers) and Jacob Wrey Mould. McKim, Mead & White designed the 1911 north and south wings, and Roche Dinkeloo designed six additional wings. The 2-million-square-foot building contains vast collections of arms and armor, Asian art, costumes, European sculpture and decorative arts, medieval and Renaissance art, photography, and modern and contemporary art. Check out the original Victorian staircases, with decorative ironwork, when you visit the European Paintings and Medieval Art galleries and see the south facade of  the classical 1888 addition inside the enclosed Carroll and Milton Petrie European Sculpture Court.

Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) 11 West 53rd St.

MoMA contains one of the world’s richest collections of contemporary art, newly renovated by architect Yoshio Taniguchi. This building has a distinctive Asian feel to it. The Japanese minimalism enhances the very broad collection of art from portraits by Lucian Freud to Basquiat to Van Gogh's Starry Night. Be sure to visit the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden, designed by architect Philip Johnson, who also designed the 1951 building annex. The Museum's first permanent home, designed by Philip L. Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone in International Style, no longer stands

New York Public Library, 5th Avenue and 42nd Street

Completed in 1911, this architectural masterpiece houses one of the country’s major research libraries. The library is the main branch of one of the largest library systems in America.

The Carrere & Hastings building is a National Historic Landmark, made mostly out of white marble quarried in Massachusetts and New York.  The main portico contains hand carved Beaux Arts decorative pieces and the staircases are as grand and elegant as they are very large. In its study rooms, it has sweeping murals painted on 16 m high ceilings and these are set in painstakingly carved wooden scrollwork typical of the late 19th and early 20th century. Some rooms on the top floor contain priceless pieces of art by early American painters like Gilbert Stuart and also others by American Impressionist John Singer Sargent (the Library rotates the artwork patrons have donated.) 

The main study rooms have antique bookcases made from American red oak and contain thousands of reference books. The walls are carefully lit to enhance the photographs by Ansel Adams. Outside the main entrance, marble lions nicknamed "Patience" and "Fortitude" stand guard.

Plaza Hotel, 768 5th Ave.

The grand dame of New York hotels, once home to the fictional Eloise, closed in the spring of 2005. While the upper floors are renovated into residential condos, the ground floor has remained largely unscathed. Hand carved paneling and elaborate cornices hark back to the late 19th and early 20th century. Inspect the Oak Room if you can: you might catch a glimpse of the well-heeled doing business. The 1907 French Renaissance château-style hotel, designed by Henry Janeway Hardenbergh, is a National Historic Landmark.

Radio City Music Hall, 1260 6th Ave.

Part of the Rockefeller Center complex, this theatre deserves its own separate mention.  Its name comes from a time period when radio was the primary source for entertainment and news; acts like Fanny Brice, Frank Sinatra, and Burns and Allen got their start here. The Art Deco elegance extends to the women’s restroom. Each toilet, lounge, or [former] smoking room has an overlaying theme with a unique mural dedicated to man's progress in art, science and industry. Donald Deskey designed the landmarked interior; Edward Durell Stone the exterior.

Radio City Music Hall is one of the largest (and last) of its kind:  during the Depression and on through to the Second World War (1929-1945), movie palaces were built on a grand scale, a form of escape into a much more glamorous lifestyle. The giant movie screen attracts movie premieres: since 1933, over 700 of these have taken place. The Rockettes annually present the Radio City Christmas Spectacular here. And with modern audio and lighting equipment enhancing its perfect acoustics, it often hosts the MTV Video Music Awards and rock concerts.

Rockefeller Center, between 47th and 51st streets from 5th to 7th avenues.  Like the nearby Empire State building, Rockefeller Center was built by New Yorkers, for New Yorkers. The original plaza comprised about 14 buildings and was constructed from 1930-1940, another public works program of the New Deal era; to this day it is one of the largest projects New York City has ever undertaken in Manhattan.  Many large companies make their headquarters here, including General Electric (located in the building behind the large Prometheus statue) and NBC, one of the four major American television broadcasters. (One of their studios is visible from the plaza through plate glass.)  Every winter the main courtyard becomes an ice skating rink, overlooked by a giant Christmas tree.

St Brigid's Roman Catholic Church, Avenue B and East 8th Street 

This little church dedicated to Brigid of Kildare is loaded with history.  Patrick Keely (1816-1896) was the Irish born immigrant responsible for its construction, he built countless other churches dotting the East Coast. Its style is Carpenter's Gothic, with a second-story seating gallery fronted by elaborate wainscoting, and a beautiful vaulted ceiling. The windows are believed to be imported from Bavaria and the Stations of the Cross and hand carved altar are from Caen in France.

St. Brigid's Church is an important connection to New York's past and present as an immigrant landmark: its first parishioners were men and women who fled the Irish Potato Famine, survivors of coffin ships. (Those who were not so lucky had their names inscribed on the windows.) Over time it has also served as a place for Slavs, Germans, and Puerto Ricans to worship and send their children to school. When the neighborhood was seized by poverty and through the worst of the AIDS and crack epidemic in the 1980s, the pastor assisted by offering food or temporary shelter in the shanty towns that occupied nearby Tompkins Square Park.  In October, 2008, the decrepit building was saved by the anonymous donation of $20 million and full restoration is underway.

St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery ,131 East 10th Street at Second Avenue

 This church is one of the oldest places of worship in Manhattan. The land was part of the Dutch plantation, or bouwerie, bought in 1651 by the first colonial governor of New York, Peter Stuyvesant.  He built a family chapel in 1660 and his body was interred there in 1672.

In 1793, Peter's great-grandson, Petrus, donated the land to the Episcopal Church, and building began in 1795.  The church is made of granite quarried from New York and Massachusetts. A National Historic Landmark, the 1799 building was largely rebuilt after a 1978 fire.

While it is still a functioning church, St. Mark's is also a community arts center where Martha Graham and Isadora Duncan danced. It is home to both Danspace Project and The Poetry Project.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Fifth Avenue between 50th and 51st streets

Opened in 1878, this Midtown cathedral is headquarters for the Archdiocese of New York.  Built in American Gothic Revival style by architect James Renwick, the church has unusually large windows that allow it to be filled with natural light.

Unlike other Roman Catholic churches it has two separate altars within the Sanctuary; in the 1980s, John Cardinal O’Connor wanted to be closer to the pews and more connected to worshipers so he had the altar moved. Be sure to examine the main bronze doors on Fifth Avenue. Saints depicted on the doors include a New Yorker, Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American-born Saint

The Seagram Building, 375 Park Ave., between 52nd and 53rd streets

The Mies van der Rohe International Style office building commands power with a sheer facade and tall tinted windows. It was the first skyscraper with floor-to-ceiling windows; between are vertical decorative bronze beams attached to the mullions. The 1960s building has an unusual setback, 100 feet from Park Avenue, turning its front into a public space.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 5th Ave.

This museum is the other great store of modern and contemporary visual culture. The Guggenheim Museum first opened in 1959, Frank Lloyd Wright last major work.  Wright proposed an uncharacteristically organic flow to the piece because to him "an ideal American architecture should develop in the image of trees." From a landscaping perspective it strongly contradicts the chessboard type structure typical of New York skyscrapers and (as intended) forms a dialectic rapport between form and function rather than the casual one that was popular among leaders of the Modern Movement in the late 1950's.

Inside, each level of the museum is subtly bridged so that each floor forms a spiral shape, like an apple peeled in a curled strip. The diameter of the spiral as it curves upwards is designed to allow light to enter at each level, in turn meant to inspire in the patron a sense of tranquility and brightness. The continual spiral movement implies a more natural adhesion between the creator and the piece of art on the path. The top is crowned with a large skylight that stretches out over the whole main building adding warmth to the great amounts of white space inside.

United Nations Headquarters, 1st Avenue between 42nd and 48th streets

This site is actually an architectural complex rather than a single building, set on seventeen acres of land donated by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Overlooking the East River, the complex was overseen by a committee of 11 architects, some (like Corbusier and Cormier) were the best and brightest of their generation. The main public lobby houses a large stained glass window by artist Marc Chagall in 1964; it represents a wish for peace and harmony in the world.

Woolworth Building, 233 Broadway

Cass Gilbert incorporated gothic elements into this ornately-designed skyscraper, a technological innovation at its time. The 1911 Neo-Gothic building was the tallest in the world for its first 17 years; now it is among the top 50 in the United States.

If you are interested in learning more about New York City architecture, the AIA Guide to New York City and the Blue Guide New York are useful references. 

In addition, architecture and urban planning fans will love a stop at the Municipal Arts Society.  This fabulous organization offers exhibits, tours, and classes, and is one of the premier societies responsible for the preservation and promulgation of great architecture in NYC. The incredible bookstore is tiny but jam-packed with thousands of great books, gifts, cards, even professional test preparation materials, for the architecture lover in your life.