Oculus - Spring 2014 - (Page 41)
A 1964 civic center plan,
a product of ﬁerce debate, would have radically transformed New York's City Hall district
B Y J OH N MO RRIS DIXO N , FA IA
ver since the unification of the five boroughs in 1897, there
have been proposals to glorify New York City's municipal
government center with nobly-proportioned open spaces and
imposing new buildings. The City Hall completed in 1811
(Joseph F. Mangin and John McComb, Jr., architects) was
joined during the 1800s by related courthouses and jails, and in
1914 by the commanding 40-story Municipal Building (McKim
Mead & White). The only significant open space, however,
remained the appealing but unimposing City Hall Park.
In the 1920s, a variety of grand civic center schemes appeared. Planning recommendations from the AIA New York
Chapter were behind a 1928 proposal by architect Francis
Swales for a gargantuan structure, north of City Hall on its axis,
covering two city blocks and rising over 1,000 feet. From there,
an axial landscaped mall would have extended four blocks farther north. This scheme, and subsequent master plans, called for
razing the Tweed Courthouse, which still survives (Oculus, Fall
2013, pg. 49).
While the area was subject to planning studies and street
widenings in the late 1940s, it was decades before a comparably
ambitious civic center scheme was initiated. In 1962 the city
commissioned a proposal by architects Max Abramovitz, Simon
Breines, and Robert Cutler for the entire area from City Hall
Park north to Canal Street. Widely known as the "ABC plan" for
its authors' initials, this plan would have created a superblock,
with no through streets. A landscaped pedestrian mall extending
three blocks north from City Hall was to be set atop a 1,100-car
parking garage and a retail concourse. Terminating its uptown
end would have been a 40-story city government building.
Objections to the ABC plan quickly arose, issuing mainly
from the architectural community. The Action Group for Better
Architecture in New York (AGBANY) and the New Yorkers for a
Civic Center of Excellence (NYCCE), both led by AIA members, claimed the plan suffered from too many city-imposed
limitations. The AIANY Chapter was divided, some demanding a design competition to replace the plan, others opposed to
denouncing members' work. Pressing for an alternative proposal,
philanthropist J.M. Kaplan organized a group called Architecture
13, which included Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, I.M. Pei, and
Paul Rudolph, as well as the editors of Architectural Forum and
Progressive Architecture. Faced with such formidable challengers,
Mayor Robert Wagner commissioned the team of Edward Durell
Stone and Eggers & Higgins to draw up a revised plan, which
was released in 1964.
Their new plan called for razing more existing buildings than
the ABC plan, and withdrawing earlier proposals to build others. Municipal functions were now to be centralized in a single
Civic Spirit: Civic Visions
The 1964 New York Civic Center model, designed by Edward Durell Stone and
Eggers and Higgins.
54-story tower. The elevated mall of the earlier plan, which
would have obstructed the view of City Hall, was replaced with a
sunken plaza lined with shops and restaurants. From there, grids
of trees reached west to Broadway and east to Centre Street.
The Architectural 13 called the revised scheme a "considerable advance" over the previous version, but expressed reservations about its central tower. In June 1966 Mayor John Lindsay
approved the new plan, and the city acquired properties needed
to carry it out, but funds to execute it were never appropriated.
It became just another civic center pipe dream.
John Morris Dixon, FAIA, left the drafting board for journalism in
1960 and was editor of Progressive Architecture from 1972 to
1996. He continues to write for a number of publications, and
he received AIANY's 2011 Stephen A. Kliment Oculus Award
for Excellence in Journalism.
Spring 2014 Oculus
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Oculus - Spring 2014
Letter From the President
Letter From the Editor
Center for Architecture
Some Blocks Over
Opener: Open to the Public: Civic Space Now
The Search for the Soul of Cities
A Different Tale of Two Cities
Public Space Reasserts Its Political Role
Gatherings of One
Time to Welcome Woonerfs
Redesigning the Crossroads of the World
A Magical Place on the Water
How to Remember a Plague
Sustainable Models for a Just City
Index to Advertisers
Oculus - Spring 2014
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