‘Neo-Antique’ New York: In New Book, Macaulay-Lewis Reveals the Ancient Influences Behind the City’s Structures — Including the Lost Façade of That CVS Across the Street

Across the street from The Graduate Center stood the once-magnificent Knickerbocker Trust Company Building. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis)

Professor Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis’ (Liberal Studies, Middle Eastern Studies) just published book is the first in-depth study of New York’s City’s “neo-antique” architecture — a mashup of Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and ancient Near Eastern influences, often filtered through an Art Deco or even more modern sensibility. An archaeologist, architectural historian, and New York enthusiast who is also the executive officer of the M.A. Program in Liberal Studies (MALS), she has been cited in The New York Times Streetscapes series and also has a podcast related to her 2018 book, Classical New York.

Macaulay-Lewis chose some of her favorite photos from her new book, Antiquity in Gotham: The Ancient Architecture of New York City, and explained the little-known histories of these sites — including several that can be fully explored outdoors:

Knickerbacher Trust
Knickerbocker Trust Company Building

The CVS (until recently a Duane Reade) at 34th Street and Fifth Avenue, right across the street from The Graduate Center, is the site of this once-magnificent building. Designed by Stanford White and based on the Maison Carrée in France, one of the most famous surviving temples of the Roman world, this was completed in 1904 to be the home of the Knickerbocker Trust, just a few years ahead of the bank’s failure, which led to the Panic of 1907. Ten stories were added in 1921, and its façade was redesigned in 1958, obliterating its character. “Like everything in New York, it gets turned into something else,” Macaulay-Lewis says. “It encapsulates the story of the city’s architecture, in a sad way.”

Federal Hall
Federal Hall

You can still see Federal Hall, originally the Customs House, at 26 Wall Street. Built like a Greek temple, with many references to the Parthenon, it was a testament to the city’s economic power. By the mid-19th century, when it was completed, the vast majority of the federal government’s money came from tariffs, and close to 75% of tariffs were paid in New York. “The message from the city was: We’re here to stay,” Macaulay-Lewis says. Once it reopens, you can go inside to see the stone marking the site where George Washington was inaugurated.

Bankers Trust. Co Building New York
Bankers Trust

Just down the block from Federal Hall is the Bankers Trust building, a 29-story neoclassical skyscraper completed in 1912. The building was sold in the 1980s and is now called by its address: 14 Wall Street. It is best known for the seven-story pyramid that sits plopped on its great height, the architectural equivalent of putting a hat on a hat. The pyramid is based on descriptions of the tomb of King Mausolus, also known as the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, built in the fourth century BCE in what is now Turkey and destroyed in medieval times (some of its excavated sculptures are in the British Museum). This is one of many city skyscrapers topped by reconstructions of this legendary tomb. “People have an idea of the Mausoleum as a tall ancient building, and modified it for the modern world,” Macaulay-Lewis says.

Fred F. French Building
Fred F. French Building

This 1920s building at Fifth Avenue and 45th Street is “neo-antique”: combining ancient forms together in an original way. By this time, zoning laws prevented the use of sculptures projecting from buildings, so the architects flattened ancient Near Eastern forms for decoration. Walking by its entrance you’ll see, in shimmering, Art Deco gold and bronze, winged genies and bulls, Mercury-like figures, and bees: a symbol of industriousness that appealed to French, a self-made developer, responsible for Tudor City and Knickerbocker Village. What you might not see, unless you’re in a nearby skyscraper, are the terracotta details at the top of the building. “It makes me think of the second city in the sky,” Macaulay-Lewis says. “This building is having a conversation with people on the street — Look at me! Don’t you want office space here? — and in the sky, it’s in conversation with the neighboring buildings.”

Gould Memorial Library, Bronx Community College
Gould Memorial Library, Bronx Community College

Designed by Stanford White and named in honor of Jay Gould, this building was originally part of New York University (as its engraved name shows) during a time when the chancellor wanted to move the university from Washington Square to the idyllic, undeveloped Bronx. “Columbia was [moving far uptown] at same time, and later so was City College, moving from where Baruch is now to City’s current campus,” Macaulay-Lewis says. “In the late 19th century, there was a belief that cities were distracting, and students should be focusing on studies, not taverns.” Like many other buildings, it is in part modeled on the Pantheon; its interior includes green marble from Ireland and a gilded dome. When NYU went nearly bankrupt in the early 1970s, it sold its uptown campus to CUNY, which made it the foundation of Bronx Community College.

Woodlawn Cemetery, Woolworth’s Tomb
Woodlawn Cemetery, Woolworth’s Tomb

Several miles north in the Bronx, you can tour the 400 acres of Woodlawn Cemetery, a national landmark that is home to more than 300,000 graves, including the tomb of F.W. Woolworth, modeled on Egypt’s Temple of Dendur. You’ll also find the graves of investigative reporter Nellie Bly; musicians Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and Irving Berlin; writers Herman Melville and Dorothy Parker; and many other city notables, along with enormous monuments to some of its wealthiest residents. “It’s one of my favorite places to go, because the tombs are spectacular,” Macaulay-Lewis says. “And it’s like a walk through New York history.”

Seagram Building
Seagram Building

This sleek Park Avenue office building, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and completed in 1958, might seem to have nothing in common with the others. “This is very modern, but it embraces the proportions and core principles of ancient architecture, with proportion-based, clean lines,” Macaulay-Lewis says. The lobby uses the same three-to-five ratio seen in ancient temples, and it is set back from the street — exactly 100 feet, in this case — like a temple would be, with four pillars also creating the feeling of a classical edifice. “You enter the building in the center, like you would a monumental space,” she says. “It doesn’t look ancient, but it’s influenced by the core ideas of ancient art and architecture.”

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Submitted on: MAY 7, 2021

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