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The Great Indoors


New York City has some of the best – and worst –

public spaces in the world.


If, as the German poet Goethe proclaimed, architecture is frozen music, then New York City is the largest – a most discordant – collection of tunes this side of PDQ Bach. That becomes even clearer as cold weather forces New Yorkers indoors more and more – to the lobbies and atriums, train stations and malls that make up so much of the city. Indeed, from the grandeur of Grand Central Terminal to the horrors of Pennsylvania Station, it soon becomes clear that Manhattan has the most extensive collection of great and terrible indoor public spaces in the world.

Many say that public space is a public declaration. “In olden times, people used to go to a church – this incredible building that elevated their spirits out of their everyday environment. What modern architects try to do is elevate the human spirit in the same way,” said architect Gregory Stanford. “Architecture,” said architect Steve Papadatos, “is a reflection of society and the way society thinks.” 

If that s the case, what do some of the Big Apple’s indoor spaces say about New York? That it is eclectic, with a sometimes disdainful a sense of its own history and the importance of such spaces: Why else would it allow the original Penn Station bite the dust? But also that it is rich in beauty, diversity, and the unusual? Where else would you find beautiful spaces serving such diverse functions: Radio City Music Hall for concerts, the Morgan Library at 36th Street for reading, the New School lobby at 12th street for education?

"Good public space makes people feel welcome, secure, and helps them interact with other people,” said Tony Hiss, a longtime writer for the New Yorker and author of The Experience of Place. "They can also be places that are exciting to be in, stimulating, and nourishing to the eyes and ears and the other senses. They are places that speak to every one.’’

That said, what are the indoor public spaces that "speak" most favorably to New Yorkers? In an informal survey, architects, designers, and critics were asked to pick the best spaces, the worst spaces, and the spaces that no longer exist but are missed the most. The choices to top all three lists were train stations: Grand Central Terminal was cited as the best, Penn Station as the worst, and the old Penn Station as the most missed.

Everyone had eclectic choices. Architect Jonathan Friedman pointed to the subdeck of the aircraft carrier Intrepid, now part of a national museum at the west end of 42nd Street, as a "missed space," saying, "when it was part of a ship, it was a huge, enclosed open space, but now they've divided it into little rooms." Urban planner Tom Thomas fondly recalled McSorley’s Ale House – “before women were allowed in. The whole atmosphere has changed.”


Some cited subway cars as the worst spaces, with architect Joel Ergas remarking: "They are so functional they're dehumanizing, especially when compared to other cities. There isn't even a nice piece of advertising to look at. I don’t want to look at ads for torn earlobes.”

There were frequently mentioned spaces that didn't fit the criteria of "indoor," such as the now-closed observation deck at the GE Building. “In a way, it was the most exciting deck in the city,” Hiss said. “Unlike the Empire State Building, where you're peering into Olympian distances, here you're at eye level with the tops of skyscrapers. It made New York feel like an intimate living room.”

Many chose spaces that were not architecturally grand, but had a sense of people, such as the New York Stock Exchange (designer Tom Geismar called it "a great show, so big and so lively, with people running around, gesturing and paper strewn all over the place), or the old Thalia, long-gone from its spot on 95th Street and Broadway (Ergas called it as "funky and wonderfully inconvenient. I remember the floors were so filthy if you dropped something, you didn't dare pick it up.")

Others were bothered by current building spaces "What disturbs me the most is that so - much of the recent work has been mediocre, so off-the-rack and not built with New York in mind or its people in mind," Hiss said.

But all felt that there was a new sense about public space that offered hopeful signs for the future. "People are now more aware of the value of spaces and their uses," Hiss said, "and I think they realize they have to work to keep them there. If they simply leave it to the whims of developers, they may lose them. It goes beyond bricks – it's about what makes a city a desirable place to be in. The function of a city is that it helps you grow up."

"I hate multiplex theaters," Ergas said. "You're herded like cattle, faced with the smell of artificial popcorn butter, and they're not even interesting spaces to wait in. You may as well be walking into a factory."

"A great place should involve all your senses," observed urban planner Thomas. "A great space is not about just sitting and viewing. It is about moving, smelling, and hearing. It's about living."

Here are spaces that many experts loved, hated or missed.


Grand Central Terminal, 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue. Constructed between 1903 and1913, this Beaux Arts structure features a 12-story ceiling in the main concourse, three huge windows separated by majestic columns, and a Beaux Arts clock. "To walk into it is to feel the excitement of going away," said architect David Beer. It makes leaving on a trip an occasion."


Citicorp Center, 53rd Street and Lexington Avenue. The skyscraper's enclosed, three-level atrium, lined with restaurants, fast-food outlets and shops, was cited by architect Gregory Stanford because "it is a visually interactive space that is conducive to people. There is a lot happening there, but it keeps a human scale. The fact that they have a skylight gives you really terrific natural light-It is"like a wonderful indoor town square."

30 Rockefeller Plaza lobby, 49th·50th Street and Sixth Avenue. Still known to die-hard New Yorkers as the RCA Building, the 70-story GE Building houses NBC Television and is one of the finest examples of office space in the city. "Going to an office is not as much as an occasion as going for drinks at a restaurant or traveling to Montreal," Beer noted, "but it is an everyday event, so it's nice to go to a place that's uplifting." Architect James Nichols agreed: "Spaces like that are real temples to industry, and have the old-time graciousness of the workplace. The materials are fantastic; the elevators are phenomenal. That was an era when office buildings were· competitive and developers really tried to outdo each other with swankier lobbies."

New York Public Library Exhibition Hall, 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. This was a "lost" space restored in the past decade. The Great Exhibition Hall in the main library had been chopped up into offices with dropped ceilings, but has been returned to its full grandeur. "It is stunning," Hiss said. "There are richly beautiful wood columns and paneling, wonderful light coming into it and it is so, so elegant. You feel like you're in a private club for everybody, and what it says is there's nothing more important you could be doing than reading a book."

IBM Garden Plaza, 56th Street and Madison Avenue. Growing out of the lower floors of the green-granite IBM Building, this garden features grown bamboo trees, flowers, comfortable chairs and marble tables. "You're part of New York in this wonderful glass atrium," architect Papadatos said. "You're in the middle of Midtown and in a park. You can sit there and forget the hustle and bustle of city."


Pennsylvania Station, 34th Street and Eighth Avenue. New York's other main train station is loathed by all, for itself and for what it replaced: a grander, demolished station. "This place is a disaster," Ergas said. "It's the railroad entry into New York and it could be Podunk for all the feeling it has of New York." Beer called it an "extension of the subway" while Thomas said that it is "short, squat, and totally unattractive for every use. It's a place you want to get through quick, whereas in the old one, you could turn around 360 degrees, looking at it and stand in awe for an hour."

AT&T Building pedestrian plaza, 55th Street and Madison Avenue. Called the first post-modern skyscraper, this Philip Johnson-designed building has a darkly forbidding, wind-swept plaza. "It is cold and dark, too high and too cold," said Stanford. "There is a lot of granite. Johnson wanted to create a monument to AT&T. It is a monument. It is incredibly grand, but it doesn’t relate to human scale." Partly in response to complaints such as this, Sony Corp. of America, which has taken over the lease on the building, plans to renovate the plaza.

World Trade Center lobbies, 1 and 2, World Trade Center, Church Street. A 16-acre complex, with New York's two tallest buildings, the center also has what some call the city's ugliest lobbies. "Something like that is very bad because it is very impersonal, and very, very high," Papadatos noted. "It makes you feel like you're nobody."


Seventh Avenue IRT subway elevator, 191st Street stop. The lowest point in the subway system, under the bedrock of Washington Heights, this station requires an elevator to exit. As a public space visited by thousands every day, the elevator offers, in Hiss' words, "the most endless feeling and the most dispiriting ride anywhere. It's not that you feel unsafe, it's just what you imagine the elevator that takes you to Purgatory would be like."

Trump Tower, 56th Street at Fifth Avenue. The 68-story glass building with apartments and shops features a six-story atrium paneled in pinkish orange marble and trimmed with high-gloss brass. Most agreed it is a spectacular ode to tackiness. "I think it's pretty horrible," Stanford said. "It's very glitzy and people either love it or hate it." "Some malls are fine in themselves," Beer said, "but vitality of the streets."


Pennsylvania Station, 34th Street and Eighth Avenue. Demolished in 1963, the old Penn Station is cited by Hiss "as three of the greatest places in New York. There was the Great Concourse, a huge room modeled on the baths of the Roman emperor Caligula. There was a vaulted stone space behind it, an equally remarkable stone shed of arched steel and glass. And then the Savarin restaurant, even more extraordinary. The loss of all that had a lot to do with the blighting of that area."

Chrysler Building restaurant, 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue. Stanford called this Art Deco space, a restaurant in the 1940s, "one of the greatest places in the city. The detail, the beauty - it was remarkable."

CIty Hall subway station, Lexington Avenue IRT. To Hiss, this station, at the end of the Lexington Avenue line and closed years ago, was "the greatest of all subway stations, with great tiling, beautiful paneling." Trains still rumble through it, since it is used as a loop to turn downtown trains uptown, but only motormen get to see this beauty.


Fast food at Horn & Hardart. Horn & Hardart Automats, throughout the city.  A chain of self-service restaurants featuring marble counters and Art Deco ornamentation, the Horn & Hardart automats were seen in Woody Allen's movie "Radio Days," and are fondly recalled by Ergas. "They were beautiful, interesting and exciting. They had marble and brass and beautiful metals, and were efficient in a more human way than the fast-food restaurants of today."

Biltmore Hotel lobby, 43rd Street and Madison Avenue. Torn down and replaced by the Bank of America, the Biltmore had an elegant, posh lobby, which featured a large clock that, Thomas said, "you always met your date under. It was a classy old New York hotel, with a lot of wood."

And Elsewhere

HERE ARE MEMORABLE indoor spaces outside of Manhattan, too. Among them: the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City,which architect Jonathan Friedman called "nicely flowing, very memorable"; the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens greenhouses; and the indoor food market on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. "That's one of the liveliest food places I've seen in the world," Tom Thomas said. "It's memorable for the smells, sounds, activity. It's like a European indoor market."

On Long Island, architects praise the EAB Plaza office complex in Uniondale for its indoor garden, atrium and skating rink, which they say encourage people to mingle. Among the places most missed: the Loews King Theater in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and the retail spaces under the Queensborough Bridge –"They're sort of Romanesque in form," Thomas said. "They're glassed in now and the glass is dirty, but if you see them, they're fantastic. Someone should do something with them."

NEWSDAY, January 16, 1993/By TOM SOTER