A Building Boom to Last a Millennium

Posted January 11, 2018 9:01 p.m. EST

Let me tell you, teenage readers of The New York Times, a story you might not believe. Eighteen years ago, we olds thought the world was possibly on the cusp of collapse — not from war, not from ecological meltdown, but from a programming bug on our VCRs, our beepers and other gadgets you have never used. It is awkward to remember now, but in the months before Jan. 1, 2000, the United States spent $100 billion — really, $100 billion — guarding against a Y2K bug, which promised to bring the world’s electronic infrastructure to a halt. It looks, from this distance, like a metaphor for the whole decade of the 1990s, marching into the future, still scared of what the future might bring. The real catastrophe, in any case, would come two Septembers later.

Fearmongering covers of Time, Newsweek and other publications form the opening salvo of “Millennium: Lower Manhattan in the 1990s,” a portal to those days of decline and revival now on view at the plucky Skyscraper Museum in Battery Park City. New York in those days, under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, was a fraught but confident city, charging into the new century with a vigor unknown since the 1960s. It was the town of Twilo and Balthazar, Lauryn Hill and Hideki Irabu; even Monica Lewinsky showed up by the decade’s end, departing Washington to sell handbags at Henri Bendel. And it transformed downtown neighborhoods, including the Lower East Side, the meatpacking district and especially lower Manhattan, which was radically recast as a residential and cultural destination.

It had a long way to go to get there. New York’s oldest neighborhood was still a commercial center in the early 1990s, but Wall Street was nursing a hangover from the 1987 stock market crash and the savings and loan crisis. Midtown Manhattan had been drawing commercial clients away from Wall Street and the Battery. By the 1990s, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan Chase and a still-solvent Bear Stearns had moved uptown, while New Jersey began to host back-office operations for many of the larger financial services groups. In the early 1990s, we learn in this exhibition, 28 percent of office space in lower Manhattan was unoccupied, a vacancy level not seen since the Depression. (Among the few beneficiaries of this real estate lag was Carol Willis, the pioneering architectural historian who founded the Skyscraper Museum as a pop-up in 1997. It bopped between vacant office spaces and storefronts until moving to its permanent home in 2004.)

And in 1993, it’s too often forgotten, the World Trade Center was bombed, killing six people and injuring more than 1,000. A case here contains the front page of The New York Daily News on Feb. 27, its headline screaming, “New York’s Day of Terror.” It was nothing less, no matter how much worse the subsequent attack, and the cleanup took more than a year.

Reviving downtown would mean looking past financial services. Many older skyscrapers along Wall Street and lower Broadway, unappealing to commercial tenants, were rezoned as residential towers, their conversion accelerated by some sweet tax abatements engineered by Giuliani and the New York Senate. New York Magazine trumpeted a “Wall Street Wonderland,” and cooed that stodgy Wall Street would soon have blazing web speeds of 128 kilobits per second, accessible somewhere called a “cyber cafe.” Lagging construction on the landfill of Battery Park City, first planned by the architects Alexander Cooper and Stanton Eckstut as a tree-lined antithesis to the World Trade Center superblock, started to accelerate. The arrival of Stuyvesant High School in 1992 preceded the erection of more than 12 condominium buildings on the far side of the West Side Highway; a 3-D model of the island’s southern tip lets you follow their construction.

Lower Manhattan also began to embrace its own heritage, as landlords who once valued only commercial viability now saw the buildings’ residential and touristic appeal. No fewer than 20 towers were declared landmarks in the neighborhood in the latter half of the 1990s, among them the opulent Standard Oil building at 26 Broadway, the Art Deco Downtown Athletic Club at 20 West St. and the home of Delmonico’s steakhouse at 56 Beaver St. Stanchions erected along Broadway and other thoroughfares plotted a new sequence of Heritage Trails, which were proposed by the architect Richard D. Kaplan, and presented the area’s Dutch and British colonial history and legacy of commercial construction. If you want to see the true ethos of 1990s Manhattan, though, the unrealized projects in “Millennium” speak loudest. Along with Kaplan, architect James Sanders proposed a retrofitting of Liberty Plaza Park (now Zuccotti Park, the site of the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011) that aimed to flush financial data out of the skyscrapers and onto the streets. An axonometric rendering here shows massive, Tokyo-style LED screens promoting GeoCities, Lycos and other children of the dot-com bubble, as well as a live broadcast from the stock exchange floor by a young Maria Bartiromo. Though never built, the Liberty Plaza project encapsulated a newly digitized, 24-hour economy; the architects even imagined that passers-by could buy and sell stock on their newfangled flip phones.

Changes in financial technology also weighed upon the New York Stock Exchange, which made efforts to move from its colonnaded pile on Wall Street to a new tower to the south. The project, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, would have necessitated the demolition of a clutch of historic buildings, and was canceled after the recession of 2001. A $125 million Museum of Women, intended for Battery Park and greenlit by George E. Pataki, the former New York governor, was scrapped too.

The wildest and, from this distance, most ridiculous project of those heady days was a new Guggenheim Museum, a tangle of suspended metal ribbons designed by Frank Gehry in the delirious days after his Bilbao institution opened. The museum would have occupied three piers south of the Brooklyn Bridge. “He has raised the horizon of the water, in waves that lap against the base of the cliffs,” wrote Herbert Muschamp, who was then an architecture critic at The Times; others effused that Gehry’s titanium nimbus, four times the size of Frank Lloyd Wright’s uptown spiral, would rival the Statue of Liberty as a New York landmark. It now looks more like an unbuilt monument to the ego of Thomas Krens, the Guggenheim’s former director; it was shelved on New Year’s Eve 2002.

Bracketing all the projects in this exhibition, it goes without saying, is the disaster that took place just a few blocks north of the Skyscraper Museum, and that transformed lower Manhattan in an entirely different way. It was the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that truly announced the start of a new millennium, and more than 16 years later, construction at the World Trade Center is unfinished. What has arisen ranges from the sublime (Fumihiko Maki’s stark 4 World Trade Center) to the scandalous (Santiago Calatrava’s chunky, billions-over-budget transit hub), and a boom in residential real estate has been accompanied by the arrival of the same generic shops found everywhere, from Harlem to Hell’s Kitchen.

To look at the first blush of reconstruction down here in the 1990s is to grow nostalgic for a New York that moved at a different tempo. One of the first New Yorkers to move into the old commercial towers of 1990s Wall Street was my father, and when I was a teenager, I used to thrill to the hush of nighttime lower Manhattan, its unlit canyons of steel not yet conquered by touch screens and organic grain bowls. I would look up at the Woolworth Building, at Trinity Church or at the two tallest buildings of all, Minoru Yamasaki’s unloved behemoths of aluminum and steel. There was a future dawning, but it had not arrived yet — and in those silent ‘90s nights, I imagined a far more vigorous one than this.

— Event information:

“Millennium: Lower Manhattan in the 1990s”

Through April at the Skyscraper Museum, Manhattan; 212-945-6324, skyscraper.org.