The Skyscraper Museum (39 Battery Place, near the corner of First Place) is opening its doors on Sunday (January 14) to invite residents of Lower Manhattan to view, free of charge, its current exhibit, “Millennium: Lower Manhattan in the 1990s.”
Today, the southern tip of Manhattan is one of the fastest growing, and most economically vibrant urban districts in the nation. But it wasn’t always so. Almost the opposite, in fact: Major new construction projects south of Canal Street effectively stopped with the onset of the Great Depression, and remained frozen during World War Two. More ominously, during the boom years of the 1950s and 60s, almost nothing was built and almost nobody chose to reside here.
The handful of exceptions were projects by corporate statesmen (like David Rockefeller, who persuaded the bank he would eventually helm, Chase Manhattan, to build its new headquarters across the street from the Federal Reserve) and government agencies. The latter category included projects that aimed to spur office development (like the World Trade Center) and residential enclaves (such as Southbridge Towers) designed to lure apartment dwellers to a district where no more than a few hundred people had lived since the 1800s.
This circumstance spurred generations of business leaders, real estate developers, and politicians to a quixotic series of schemes intended to reinvigorate a corner of the City that was widely perceived to be in decline. Many fretted that Downtown was, in a word, done.
But then, the tide began to turn. Battery Park City, founded in the 1970s by Charles Urstadt — the State official appointed by then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller to create 92 acres of new land on the Hudson River waterfront, adjacent to the World Trade Center — started to achieve critical mass in the 1980s. Another Rockefeller protege, Robert Douglass, helped to found the Downtown Alliance, in the mid-1990s.
While it has become a truism that Lower Manhattan didn’t begin to take its current shape until the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the foundation for the renaissance that would flourish in the first decade of the 21st Century, and continues today, had already been laid before the towers fell.
This is the story told by the Skyscraper Museum’s exhibit, “Millennium: Lower Manhattan in the 1990s,” which opened on November 8 and runs through April. The show vividly recaptures this strange and formative time in the history of Lower Manhattan, through a striking combination of architectural drawings and models, archival and contemporary photographs, original posters, maps, sketches, renderings, and other documents of the era. Together these disparate elements coalesce into a portrait of a time and place that, though recent in historic terms, seems oddly remote.
Focusing on the years immediately before 2001, the exhibition tells a fascinating, sometimes-poignant story of decline and rebirth. It also recounts another side to the narrative, presenting a variety of intriguing, often-provocative projects — large and small, built and unbuilt — promoted by architects, planners, developers, and civic-minded activists. In the awareness that both the century and millennium were drawing to a close, while a new era beckoned, these projects began to reimagine Downtown Manhattan and plant the seeds for its resurgence. Among these are the stillborn Giuliani-era proposal for a new Guggenheim Museum on the East River, alongside the Brooklyn Bridge. No less intriguing are the series of smaller projects that sought to radically re conceive existing Downtown spaces — from Battery Park City, to Zuccotti Park, to the trading floor of the Stock Exchange.
An encouraging subtext within the exhibit is a series of good ideas that were replaced by better ideas, such as Museum of Women that Governor George Pataki planned for Battery Park City, which was replaced by a new public school, P.S./I.S. 276.
“Millennium: Lower Manhattan in the 1990s,” will be on view at the Skyscraper Museum’s main gallery through April.
But this Sunday (January 13), residents of Lower Manhattan will be admitted free of charge. Open to all residents of Community Board 1! No charge just mention “C.B.1 Open House” at the admissions desk