You’ve probably driven through it on your way to Ground Zero; skimmed the surface of it while making your way on to the Brooklyn Bridge walkway, or then rushed past it in your hurry to snag a good deal at J&R. Bounded by Broadway on its west, Park Row and Centre Street on its east, Chinatown to its north and the Financial District to its south, lies a compact, often overlooked, and highly underrated section of Lower Manhattan – Civic Center!
A good place to start your walk around Civic Center is City Hall Park, and probably the best time of day to do so is the crack of dawn…
Situated just west of the park, is the iconic Woolworth Building, without doubt the centrepiece of the area. One of the few buildings in the Civic Center not considered “civic”, this Gothic Revival masterpiece by Cass Gilbert, completed a century on the 24th of April. When built in 1913, it was considered the tallest building in the world, a distinction it held till 1930. Even today, it remains amongst the top twenty tallest buildings in NYC!
Diagonally across from it, on the east side of the park along Centre St., lies a magnificent portal of governance, the hard-to-miss Manhattan Municipal Building. Designed by the famous architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White, it predates the Woolworth by a year, and is still considered to be one of the largest government buildings in the world!
When viewed from street level, a central arch (inspired by the Roman Arch of Constantine) flanked by a tall colonnade, defines its western facade, while a graceful arcade decked out in Guastavino tiles makes up its south facing end. Within the arcade is a beautiful old entrance to Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall station – the building being the first to incorporate a subway station in its base.
The Manhattan Municipal Building marks the east end of Chambers St., an important cross-town artery in Lower Manhattan. Along this street lie 3 Beaux Arts beauties, foremost amongst them the Surrogate’s Courthouse or Hall of Records. Intended to be the custodian of the city’s archives, it was designed to be fireproof! Completed in 1907, the Corinthian columns and mansard roof of this handsome courthouse contrast well with the distinct Renaissance styling of the Municipal Building.
The Civic Center, as the name would suggest, contains a variety of city, state and federal buildings, housing everything from the City’s Health Department to the FBI! It also has its fair share of courts. If you continue north along Centre St., just a few feet past the Municipal Building, you will be looking up the stairway that leads to the imposing Thurgood Marshall US Courthouse. A 30’s-era courthouse, built in the Classical Revival style, this is another gem from Cass Gilbert. A massive renovation to the building, which commenced 7 years ago, was completed only recently, bringing it back to its original grandeur.
Across from the courthouse is Foley Square, a small triangular park that spawns Lafayette St. on its west. North of the park, along Worth St., lie a row of wonderful Art Deco buildings – possibly one of the largest concentration of the same, outside of Rockefeller Center. Built between the late 20s and early 30s, they embody all the elements one associates with the movement – brass grillwork, detailed flourishes, clean lines, and plenty of copper. And yet, they are some of the most understated buildings of the Civic Center, better known for hosting the offices of the District Attorney, County Clerk and the Sanitation Department, among others!
Walking west along Worth St. brings you to Broadway, and if you follow the thoroughfare south, you circle back to where we started – the southern tip of City Hall Park. From here, one can observe a constantly evolving neighbourhood, and if you cared enough, study its contrasts.
Looking east is a striking terra-cota clad, red brick building; one that people often rush towards – if only to use the restroom at the Starbucks located below – without so much as a glance skywards. This is the late 19th-century Potter Building, designed in the Queen Anne and Neo-Grec style. Soaring behind it is a Frank Gehry creation, marketed these days as “New York by Gehry“, a building as bold in its design, as, one could question, its very location…
Looking southwest of the park is the soon-to-be-completed 1 World Trade Center or “Freedom Tower”, a project 7 years in the making. Observe it from any angle you like, it still completely dwarfs its neighbouring property, Saint Paul’s Chapel! A chapel that dates to 1764, and one that has borne testament to all that’s gone down in Lower Manhattan…
Evidently, there’s plenty to see and do in this amazingly diverse and architecturally rich neighbourhood, steeped in history. You can easily spend a full morning walking around and exploring the Civic Center, but in order to do so, an early start is essential 😉
If You Go: Other buildings and sights not to be missed are City Hall itself, Tweed Courthouse, Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank Building, Broadway Chambers Building, African Burial Ground, Sugar House Prison Window, Church of Saint Andrew, New York State Supreme Court Building, St.Peter’s Church, and “Walking Men 99“, an art installation. For breakfast or brunch in the area, consider Kitchenette (156 Chambers St.) or Bubby’s (120 Hudson St.).
A full set of pics can be seen here.