Yachting Around Manhattan with the AIA


I LEARNED MANY NEW THINGS on Classic Harbor Line‘s architecture-focused “Around Manhattan Now” cruise last Friday, and was reminded of others I once knew but had forgotten. For example: the Statue of Liberty never gets old.


She just doesn’t. Every time you see her, no matter how frequently, your heart leaps a little. Especially from the deck of a mahogany-trimmed 1920s-style yacht, with a mimosa in hand.

A seafarer I am not, but the trip was smooth, exhilarating, and overall a class act. It didn’t hurt that the day was perfection, the skyline crowned blue with cartoon clouds. We embarked on the luxury yacht Manhattan at Chelsea Piers on West 22nd Street, and for the next three hours, American Institute of Architects docent Arthur Platt provided non-stop narration, emphasizing what’s new — and there is plenty — on the waterfronts of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, New Jersey, Governor’s and Roosevelt Islands.



The Manhattan is one of five boats, all replicas of vintage vessels, including two schooners — the Adirondack, above, and the America — and two smaller, more intimate motorized yachts, the Beacon and the Kingston. There’s a full slate of cruises, some narrated, some not — including a specialized infrastructure tour just for bridge nerds- – 7 swing bridges! 3 lift bridges! 4 arch bridges! — and the boats are available for private charters as well. Lest you think I’m shilling for Classic Harbor Lines because my daughter works for them as a crew member on several of their vessels, know that my enthusiasm is shared by many others.

I began in the cabin of the Manhattan, lured indoors by the plush atmosphere and air conditioning, and took my first photo through a window, below, of the Empire State Building, Jean Nouvel’s modernistic 100 Eleventh Avenue, and the mesh screen of the Chelsea Piers golf driving range, as we pulled away from the dock. Then I ran out to the deck and stayed there for the remainder of the cruise, trying to follow the rapid-fire narration as Arthur pointed out buildings of interest on all shores. The boat moved fast, and it was hard to take in all the images and information as we steamed along (though we did linger pleasantly for a while at Liberty Island, and again in the Harlem River, waiting for the Spuyten Duyvil Bridge to open and allow us back into the Hudson).



Soon we were out in mid-river, above, gazing back upon the city, and being struck once more by its monumentality.


The Chelsea High Line — a mile-long public garden planted atop a once-derelict stretch of elevated railway — and the related explosion of new construction around it, streamed past on the West Side, above.


Above, Richard Meier’s Perry Street towers were among the first modern buildings in the West Village, and remain among the few.


Cruising past SoHo, Arthur treated us to the unsavory details of Donald Trump’s machinations to get the city to allow him to build an out-of-scale glass tower on Spring Street, above, claiming it would be a hotel, then selling the “suites” as apartments.


Goodbye to Midtown, above, as we headed south on the Hudson…


Hello to Downtown, above — Battery Park City, the curved facade of 200 West Street (Goldman Sacks) by Pei Cobb Freed Adamson, and the new Freedom Tower (now apparently called World Trade Center), helping make up for the loss of the Twin Towers and making lower Manhattan look almost normal again.


I marveled at how good Jersey City, above, is looking these days…


and wondered when Ellis Island, that great Victorian pile, and its immigration museum will reopen (it’s been closed since Sandy).

We sidled along Governor’s Island, but the piles of rubble along the waterfront were not picturesque enough for my camera (they are demolishing old Coast Guard barracks, and there are great plans for new landscaping in the works). We rounded Battery Park and entered the East River, below




appreciating the distinctive yellow William Beaver building by Tsao & McKown, above, like a splash of sunlight in the canyons of the Financial District.



I felt sad seeing the hulk of South Street Seaport, abandoned since Sandy. Supposedly it’s to be replaced with something altogether different and hopefully more successful, but that all seems uncertain and wasn’t it only about thirty years old anyway?


Frank Gehry’s 8 Spruce Street, with its innovative wavy facade, above, out-marvels the once-marvelous, century-old Woolworth Building, briefly the tallest in the world.



Above, another ageless icon that needs no naming…


and a close-up of Jane’s Carousel at Brooklyn Bridge Park, a restored vintage merry-go-round in its ultra-modern Jean Nouvel housing.


In short order, we’re passing under the Manhattan Bridge, above, and alongside the revitalized-at-lightning speed DUMBO neighborhood…


then looking back toward those two bridges, near-age siblings (1883 and 1903, respectively), as we steamed north.


Here comes the Williamsburg Bridge, above…


hard by the now-closed Domino Sugar factory, soon to be converted to glitzy residential units by SHoP Architects.


I’m skipping (for blog purposes) the dull visuals of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village on the East Side of Manhattan. Above, the ever-inspiring Chrysler Building and the 1950s UN Headquarters, sparkling and stunning after its recent refurbishment.


We pass under another of New York’s monumental bridgeworks — the Queensboro/59th Street Bridge, in whose shadow I spent my early childhood (though you can’t see my old Long Island City neighborhood from here because of subsequent massive building on Roosevelt Island, below).


Happily, the Pepsi sign is landmarked…



Plenty of new apartments to go around on Roosevelt Island, above, it would seem. There’s also the husk of a Victorian hospital, below, which I explored with two college friends in the late 1960s, finding unspeakable things in jars. Why it has not been demolished, I can’t tell you. [NOTE: These photos are a little out of order]


We’re now in the upper East River, heading toward the Bronx. Below, part of the Upper East Side of Manhattan…


and the Triborough Bridge, below, evocatively named for its construction linking the Bronx, Queens, and Manhattan (but recently and pointlessly renamed the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, which pisses me off).


Now we’re in the narrower Harlem River, below, between upper Manhattan and the Bronx, passing such landmarks as Yankee Stadium and the Tuckitaway Storage company, which Arthur mentions (twice) as an example of how businesses and people were forced out of Manhattan and into the Bronx when parts of the former were reassigned to the later — and how they resented it.


The turret, below, belongs to the Third Avenue rotation bridge, one of 13 (!) bridges linking Manhattan and the Bronx. I love the old curlicued cast iron light post, and the fact that it remains.


Below, the Peter J. Sharp Boathouse by Robert A.M. Stern…


And the embankment, below, where Columbia University graduates should feel a swell of pride.



Above, a surprisingly natural marshy cove in the Inwood section of upper Manhattan,  with a recently installed floating art piece made of discarded umbrellas…


and Washington Bridge, another of the of 13 mostly walkable bridges across the Harlem River.


Finally we reach the Spuyten Duyvil (“spouting devil” in Dutch, as this is where the waters of the Hudson and Harlem Rivers meet, their different tides and compositions creating a treacherous whirlpool). The captain of the Manhattan called for the bridge to be manually opened for us, giving us time to catch our breaths before…


entering the wide waters of the Hudson River.


The change of direction got people up into the bow with their cameras as the George Washington Bridge approached…


its little red lighthouse still standing proud, saved when threatened with demolition in the 1930s by its children’s book fame.


We cruised past Grant’s Tomb, Riverside Church, and the classic, elegant apartment buildings of the old Upper West Side, above


which transitioned rapidly to the glassy towers of the new West Side, south of 72nd Street.


Above, a place I’d like to go for lunch one summer day, whose name I didn’t catch…


and the fabulous, shiplike Starrett-Lehigh Building on West 26th Street, an Art Deco monument that now houses Martha Stewart Omnimedia and other design-oriented companies.

Shortly thereafter, we disembarked at Chelsea Piers, exhausted from the sun and the wind and just being out on the water. Though I hadn’t actually done anything but run from one side of the boat to the other, snapping unsteady pictures of just a few of the 156 sites on the map we were given, I slept very well that night.

Since then, I’ve realized anew that New York is more than merely a city. It’s a civilization.

Brooklyn Heights, How Well I Know Ye


Hilly, cobbled Joralemon Street, with vividly painted c.1830s row houses

THE YOUNGSTERS on Brownstoner like to make fun of Brooklyn Heights. They think it’s stodgy and dull and full of old people. Yeah, OK, it may not be the hippest nabe in the borough, but damn, its architecture holds up well.

New York City’s first Historic District (designated in 1969) looks exactly the same as it did when I lived there in the late ’70s and mid ’80s — in fact, it’s looked the same since the 19th century. There’s a famous photo of the brownstones of Henry Street in the great blizzard of 1888, which could easily be mistaken for the great blizzards of 2010-11.



On Sunday, a friend and I had lunch at the welcoming Iris Cafe on Columbia Place, my new go-to spot for curried chickpea soup and avocado sandwiches. Then we trekked out to see Pier 1 at Brooklyn Bridge Park, above, created on landfill near the base of the Brooklyn Bridge. On a windy, overcast day in March, the park was not at its most inspiring, still raw with new plantings — but just wait a few months (years, decades).


Mid-19th century industrial building on Furman Street, seen from Pier 1


Two funky little houses near the base of the Brooklyn Bridge — one is or was owned by actor Tim Robbins

We walked back along Cranberry and Hicks Streets, admiring some of Brooklyn’s oldest row houses and marveling at the variety of architectural detail. It wasn’t new to me — I have walked those streets innumerable times, often pushing a stroller — but it was wonderful to see it all again, reassuringly unchanged.


One of the early 19th c. wood frame houses on the “fruit streets”: Cranberry, Orange, and Pineapple


Unusual window lintels on Hicks Street


The ever-appealing Grace Court Alley


On Pierrepont Street, clearly pre-Landmarks. Someone had a Mediterranean fantasy. Out of context, but love that cheery yellow


Your classic Brooklyn Heights high-stoop brownstone. Give me a couple of those in another life.

My Byline Gets a Workout


The new Brooklyn Bridge Park, Garden Design Nov/Dec 2010. Photo: Julienne Schaer

NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT, writing for garden and interiors magazines. When I first started, in pre-computer days, I hated it; I suffered terrible anxiety and writer’s block, brought on by wanting so badly to be brilliant. Until I got an article written and delivered, I went entire weekends without leaving the house, or even changing out of my pajamas.


Date palm allee, Garden Design Nov/Dec 2010. Photo: Robin Hill

It’s a whole lot easier now that I’ve realized brilliance isn’t necessary — just good interviewing and reporting skills, a general understanding of the subject matter at hand, clarity and hopefully a bit of sparkle in the writing.

Below: Central Park West apartment by D’Aquino Monaco, New York Spaces Nov. 2010. Photo: Peter Murdock


This month, I have five articles in print: two in the new issue of Garden Design — “Down by the Riverside,” about the new Brooklyn Bridge Park, top, and the cover story, “Inspired Italy,” a South Florida garden by Sanchez & Maddux, influenced by classical European tradition; two in Hamptons Cottages & Gardens holiday issue, out Nov. 24; and one in New York Spaces, an over-the-top, avant garde interior by D’Aquino Monaco, above.

Alex Porter 2370

House in Amagansett by architect Alex Porter, Hamptons Cottages & Gardens, Holiday 2010. Photo: Tim Street-Porter

Burnin’ up the newsstands!

The Last Time I Saw Brooklyn


….was on Sunday, when I began my search for a pied-a-terre (I think I’ve already found something, but it’s not a done deal so I’m not going to jinx it by blabbing). It had been many months since I really looked and walked around the old nabe, and in my whirlwind half-day visit, I found that much has changed. Some things for the better. Some for the worse.

As I strolled around Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill, and Brooklyn Heights with my friend Nancy, I was reminded of how my daughter would return from summer camp and run around the house to make sure everything was as she remembered it and take note of anything new.

First, the bad news. On the corner of Smith and Pacific, there once was a funky restaurant that went through a rapid series of playful name and menu changes, including Trout Shack, Gravy, and many more. (Prior to all that, it was a produce market that sold gigantic, unfamiliar root vegetables.) Whatever the restaurant’s incarnation, there was always a lively bar and a cheering fireplace in winter. Now the original, diner-like structure has been torn down, and there’s an ugly brick shoebox on that corner, as if someone asked, What’s the cheapest thing we can possibly build here? It’s soon to become a chain store selling stationery, wrapping papers, and the like. Vital addition to the neighborhood NOT, especially since there’s at least one independently-owned such business nearby.


On the plus side, there’s the newly opened Pier 6 at Brooklyn Bridge Park. Finally, access to the waterfront, 20 years in the making. There are several acres of state-of-the-art playgrounds, above, billowing grasses, and happy children, where once all was bleak and industrial — a vast improvement over the days when you had to crawl through a hole in a chain-link fence if you wanted to get near the water. And Pier 1, near the Brooklyn Bridge, is now spectacular rolling lawn, though I didn’t make it that far on Sunday.


Instead, we walked along Columbia Place, which used to be isolated and deserted. Now — a direct result of the new park — there’s a cute cafe called Iris, above, packed with young people (to me, the whole world seems packed with young people these days).


I wanted to check out Willow Place and an extraordinary row of Greek Revival houses, above and top, joined by a colonnade of columns, unlike any in Brooklyn. The row had been dilapidated, but now all is uniformly spit and polish, with fresh paint on columns and porches, and gleaming front doors.


We stepped into a year-old shop called Holler & Squall on lower Atlantic, above, where taxidermied bulls’ heads, rusted metal objects, and trendily distressed wares of the early industrial age are artfully arrayed. It’s on the last block before the water, next to the famously old-school bar Montero’s, no doubt soon to be joined by other upscale shops as work on the park continues.

This part of Brooklyn thrived in the 19th century when there was a ferry landing at the foot of Atlantic Avenue, then sat moribund for decades, with many empty storefronts (blame it on Robert Moses, who cut off the waterfront in the 1950s with the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway). New signs of life are all to the good.