The Surprising Stories behind New York’s Most Famous Buildings

The Surprising Stories behind New York’s Most Famous Buildings

The Surprising Stories behind New York’s Most Famous Buildings
5th May 2021

New York’s iconic skyline is known the world over, emblematic of cosmopolitanism and big business. But how much do you really know about the most famous buildings in New York? Join us as we explore the little known surprising stories behind some of the world’s best known city structures - perfect research before your next stay in a New York serviced apartment.

Empire State Building

Empire State building new york
The Empire State Building remains one of New York's most famous structures

The quintessential skyscraper, the Empire State Building was completed in 1931 following an economic boom and subsequent race to construct the world’s tallest building. Upon learning that the proposed Empire State Building would top 1,000 feet, Walter Chrysler demanded that a stainless steel spire be added to his tower to win the height contest. However, General Motors executive John J. Raskob responded in kind, adding an additional 250 feet to his plans for the Empire State Building, ensuring that upon completion it was indeed the world’s tallest building, and one of the most famous buildings in New York.

Amazing fact: The 200-foot tower at the building’s tip was imagined as a docking tower for dirigibles – with the prevailing belief being that airship travel would dominate the future. The hope was that airships would tether themselves to the tower’s mast and passengers would disembark and check in at a customs office within the building. Due to difficulties of blimp manoeuvrability, and the eventual demise of the airship, the plans never took hold. 

Flatiron Building

Flatiron building at night
Its peculiar but practical shape makes the Flatiron Building one of New York's most iconic at ground level

Built in 1902, the aptly named Flatiron Building is a distinctive wedge shaped, Beaux-Arts style building that captures the imagination of countless visitors to New York. Inheriting its name from the strip of land on which it was constructed, the Flatiron Building is a steel-framed skyscraper that many believed would collapse due to its triangular shape and height. Almost 120 years later, the building stands strong and is a prominent feature of New York iconography.

Amazing fact: Though today the Flatiron is one of the most loved and famous buildings in New York, it was originally described as a ‘monstrosity’ by The New York Times and a ‘stingy piece of pie’ by The New York Tribune.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

guggenheim museum new york's most famous buildings
Distinctly non-linear, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is as avant-garde as many of its collected artworks 

Often referred to simply as ‘The Guggenheim’, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum was completed in 1959 and designed by legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright famously dismissed the choice of city for the museum, saying “I can think of several more desirable places in the world to build his great museum”. Disdainful of the city’s overpopulated and ‘unimaginative’ buildings, Wright sought to produce a structure representing the antithesis of the bustling, towering streets of urban New York. With its organic, curved features contrasting against New York’s traditionally imposing, straight-edged architecture, The Guggenheim is indeed incongruous in its metropolitan setting.

Amazing fact: If Wright’s true vision had been realised, The Guggenheim would have had an even more startling appearance. The envisioned stone finish and red-coloured exterior was denied in favour of a cheaper concrete surface and inoffensively neutral overpaint.


Oculus building New York
The bird-like Oculus head house structure of World Trade Centre Station is a striking architectural statement

The redevelopment of the World Trade Centre invited many impressive architectural designs to redefine the landscape left in the absence of the Twin Towers. One such design is Santiago Calatrava’s head house structure of the World Trade Centre Transportation Hub, known as the Oculus. Opened in 2016 following twelve years of construction, the impressive building resembles giant open wings from the outside, while the capacious interior maximises the intake of natural light to create a breath-taking, illuminated vertiginous space. Along with One World Trade Centre, the building symbolises hope, unity and peace in memory of the fallen buildings of 2001 - making it one of the more modern famous buildings in New York to feature in our list. 

Amazing fact: The Oculus features a special design feature – a retractable skylight which allows light to flood the main hall. This mechanism is utilised each year for two hours to mark September the eleventh.

St. Patrick's Cathedral

St Patricks Cathedral New York's most famous building
St. Patrick's neo-gothic design is especially ornate against the modern skyscrapers of Manhattan

Constructed between 1858 and 1879, St. Patrick’s Cathedral is the oldest building on our list, but by no means the least impressive. The church was constructed to replace the still standing former St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Lower Manhattan, and as such is much grander in design. Perhaps the church’s most impressive feature – its 330 foot spires – were added in 1888. At the time of their completion the spires were the tallest structures in New York City and the second highest structures in the entire United States. (Today the tallest building in the city is the aforementioned One World Trade Centre, standing at a huge 1,776 feet!)

Amazing fact: The Cathedral’s main doors each weigh an incredible 4,200 kg, but due to their fine craftsmanship and balancing they can be opened by a single person.

In this blog we have only scratched the surface of New York’s incredible architectural history – continue your journey into New York’s past by reading about its impressive outdoor spaces, and prepare for your business trip to the city by considering some of the Big Apple’s finest restaurants and best serviced apartments.

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